Banners wave from street posts across Baltimore proclaiming in that Spartan way that "This Is Birdland."
The allusion to the film where 300 Spartans hold off hordes of Persians is a weak one. The Persian-like teams in Boston, New York, and Toronto will steamroll these Orioles to the tune of a 90-loss season. The other team in the division may provide a little more help as they bludgeon them.
Prepare for a phrase that may have never been uttered. The Tampa Bay [Devil] Rays should be used as a model for success.
With the Rays in town for the opening series of the season, Baltimore has a first hand look at how a franchise can and should transform.
Whipping boy of the American League since 1998, the Tampa Bay Rays have only managed to escape the darkness of the cellar once, a 4th place finish in 2004. This year most pundits project the Rays to match their best season by again finishing 4th in their division, the AL East.
While failure is abundant in the Rays past and present, the future is as bright as the sound of their new moniker. Through a series of shrewd trades, a commitment to the draft, and tremendous player development, the Rays could soon be perched in the sunshine of first place.
The Orioles have followed a similar path as the Rays. Both franchises have tried to buy their way to the top of the division. Before the 2000 season, the then Devil Rays signed Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla to provide some power alongside Fred McGriff and the infamous Jose Canseco. Dubbed the "Hit Show," that group never provided much value on the dollar.
It wasn't until 2004 that Tampa Bay started making strides forward. Using homegrown talent, the Devil Rays grew stronger than most had anticipated. By trading Victor Zambrano to a desperate New York Mets team for now ace Scott Kazmir, their emphasis on acquiring youth and potential shown to people throughout the league.
The Devil Rays continue to invest in the draft and trade from their surpluses to acquire high-ceiling prospects or established talents like the one that sent outfielder Delmon Young to the Minnesota Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza.
They have also begun to show a willingness to open their wallet. Two veteran off-season signees, Cliff Floyd and Troy Percival, were acquired for their potential performance on the field and their veteran presence in the clubhouse. More recently, the Rays picked up All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford’s $8.25 million option for the 2009 season.
Although a few seasons behind Tampa Bay, the Orioles have started making a similar transition. Placing emphasis on investing in the draft and international scouting, the Orioles hope to build a Minor League system as strong as the Tampa Bay Rays’, widely regarded as the strongest in the game.
With a bit of luck, a contending team will be frantic enough to trade some blue chip prospects for veterans like Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora.
With the model for success in town, Orioles executives may slip into daydreams of withstanding their Persian-like intra-division foes. However, those days are seasons ahead.
Until then, the Orioles and their fans will be caught looking up from the bottom. Caution should lead this practice because who knows what is falling from the sky. After all, “This Is Birdland.”