May 31, 2023

BALTIMORE – In the back row of Section 86 in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Danny Hoff and AJ Uebel were dousing themselves (and occasionally some bystanders) with a water bottle as their beloved Baltimore Orioles gathered and then the Pittsburgh Pirates rolled 6-3 behind Cedric Mullins’ cycle.

The waterworks were fully encouraged when the Orioles inaugurated a new cheer section on Friday night. Dubbed the Bird Bath splash zone, the swath of low-back seats in left field offers fans the chance to be hosed down after extra-base hits and key moments, in celebratory solidarity with their young team’s water-themed traditions: the sprinkler for big hits and the “home run snake”.

Orioles officials said they sold 2,000 tickets in the section within 48 hours of announcing its existence. So Hoff and Uebel – aged 25 and 26 respectively – could barely get a seat in the designated area and were mostly out of Mr. Splash, the team-appointed character who wields the water.

Yet they were thoroughly drenched in the optimism bubbling through the ballpark.

At their age, they’ve never seen the Orioles win a World Series. They’ve never seen them win a game in the ALCS. Their fandom consisted of Buck Showalter’s three playoff teams scattered in the mid-2010s and sandwiched between two long stretches in an aimless baseball wilderness.

“Tickets were a lot cheaper back then,” Uebel said of the fallow years. “So that was nice. But other than that it was tough.”

The direction, if not the results, started to change a few years ago. The Orioles suffered through three 100-loss seasons between 2018 and 2021, as part of a major rebuild under former Houston Astros architect turned Orioles GM, Mike Elias. But when esteemed catcher Adley Rutschman arrived in 2022, the Orioles began showing flashes of brilliance almost immediately.

“My whole teenage years growing up, we sucked so it was hard to follow, but I played baseball so I wanted it,” Hoff said. “Now it gets more exciting.”

Much more exciting. At 25-13, the O’s are tied with the Atlanta Braves for the second-best record in MLB and have riveted the internet in ways Elias couldn’t have scouted or quantified.

“It seems invaluable to have a team with togetherness and character and a sort of entertaining, quality people on the team,” Elias told Yahoo Sports, crediting manager Brandon Hyde for the atmosphere in the clubhouse. “But we’re just really lucky to have just good people on this team. They are great guys and you can see them having fun with each other.

“I think it makes it easy for fans to fall in love with these guys.”

Hoff beamed as he discussed how the Orioles are suddenly a fun team to root for, a group of young, up-and-coming players — the most notable stars are about his age — connecting to the city via H20-infused hi-jinx and the social media allowing everyone to enjoy it.

The feeling, it turns out, is mutual.

How Orioles players took fans to the splash zone

The Orioles really want you to know that they’re not insinuating the “homer snake,” even though the internet was quick to call it the “dong bong” for the practice usually performed with beer, not water. Whatever the original intent, it indirectly led to the Bird Bath fan section.

James McCann, a veteran catcher who joined the Orioles this offseason in a trade from the New York Mets, doesn’t exactly remember how the talk got there, but the new ballpark feature came out amid clubhouse consternation over the possible misinterpretation.

And someone joked and said, ‘Don’t worry. There’s going to be a splash zone by the end of the season where fans are doing it with us,’ McCann said. ‘So I don’t know who said what, but it’s like — actually that’s a pretty good idea And I think some of the right people heard it, and it was brought to marketing, and here we are.

Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president of community development and communications, recalls that McCann and pitcher Cole Irvin brainstormed ways to engage the fans and eventually let the public relations team back it off. For now, Grondahl said, it will be Mr. Splash character in the section are stationed and fans spray when the Orioles on the field give the sprinkler signal or hit a home run. (The signal, as McCann showed in one of the season’s many viral moments, isn’t always a given.)

Now that there was more time to think about how to run the splash zone, she said they might add more to the experience later.

“It’s a different game – 10 years ago you couldn’t really interact with fans unless you put a signature on the stands. Now, I mean you can have social media, you can communicate effectively with anyone,” McCann said for the game on Friday.”So I think, you know, including the fans at a party like that and just the interaction of a player with the fan brings the game even closer to the fans.”

It took a while for the first participants, eager to participate, to get their first cue. The Orioles struggled early on against Pirates-starter Johan Oviedo in the series opener. But then Mullins, the center fielder turned All-Star, broke the dam by hitting a triple in the fifth inning.

By the end of the night, he had started a furious Orioles rally, capping it off with a three-run homer in the eighth that completed the cycle. Austin Hays, the left fielder and one of the longest running Orioles at age 27, heard the enthusiasm.

“Mr. Splash made it fly out there. I know the fans loved it. They were extra excited tonight,” Hays said. “Give that guy out there a raise. He was electric to the guys.

Whether they realize it or not, McCann said, the young Orioles feed on each other — and on the energy they generate in Camden Yards.

“It’s contagious,” he said. “Whether you won the night before or lost the night before, just being able to have fun and bounce back helps limit the rollercoaster downs.”

Can the sprinkler wash away years of loss?

In Section 86, the fans agreed on several things: Rutschman is an MVP candidate, the sprinkler celebration is fun, and they’d feel better about the Orioles’ chances of entering the stacked AL East if they got at least one high would acquire level , experienced pitcher.

A 43-year-old lifelong fan named Tim bought a pair of glasses just to cheer on the Bird Bath’s exciting players, but could only muster cautious optimism about the owner’s budgetary decisions.

“You’re going to have to upgrade the Premier League roster with some expense,” he said after recording his own reflections for the evening. He kept it “mellow” for this first visit to the splash zone by going with just the goggles and not adding a life jacket.

This, everyone seems to acknowledge, is probably just the beginning of an as yet undefined era in Baltimore.

“I think from the beginning, when Mike Elias was brought in and when John Angelos, our CEO, put the management team in place, we said we would try new things, be open to new ideas,” said Grondahl. “And I think this idea, this concept is kind of indicative of the symbiotic relationship between the clubhouse and the front office and all that positive culture that’s built up over several years.”

After the first hint of success last season, Elias sparked anger for hedging his bets and trading Jorge Lopez, who was then closer to the Minnesota Twins. He was promptly vindicated when Felix Bautista took over as an even more dominant closer. This season, the move looks even better, thanks to Yennier Cano, the Cuban setup guy who came in on the deal. Cano has pitched 18 2/3 innings, striking out 22 and giving up a hard to fault total of zero runs.

Less clear is how well-stocked the Orioles rotation is for a summer of contention with the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox. Baltimore’s pitching staff as a whole has been about average by the park-adjusted ERA-, but its starting rotation has taken its toll and ranks among the 10 worst in the game by the same yardstick. Many of its members — including elite prospect Grayson Rodriguez and Friday’s starter Kyle Bradish — work through the very early stages of what might be great careers, but a winter headlined by veteran mid-rotation starter Kyle Gibson didn’t inspire the same enthusiasm. as Mr. Splash.

But for now, the Orioles gain big by giving their fans a team to love, cling to, and dream about. Hoff said he looks forward to buying playoff tickets now that he can spend money on them. Drenched by the end of the evening, Uebel said he came to several games a season, sometimes a month, even in the dark times. At some point, he acknowledged, the upward trajectory will collide with the realities of the competition. And he’ll need the Orioles to keep winning.

“I live in Hoboken [in New Jersey], so some of my friends are Yankees fans,” he said. “And they usually have the upper hand, but now it’s our turn, so I’m ready. I’m ready to talk when I get back.