The first day of a new era

Today is May 29, 2009, and on the calendar, it looks very much like any other day as an Oriole fan for the last 11 years or so.

But this isn’t an ordinary day.

Matt Wieters, the Orioles’ first pick in the 2007 draft, a catcher that scouts say looks like a switch-hitting Joe Mauer – with power, will make his major league debut tonight at Oriole Park against the Tigers.

It really is the best I’ve felt as an Oriole fan in quite some time.

I remember the last time the Orioles were any good. It was October 15, 1997.

I was working the grease pit at Ichabod’s in Shelby, N.C., during my junior year at Gardner-Webb University. The Orioles were hosting the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the ALCS.

Tony Fernandez, of all people, hit a home run off Armando Benitez in the top of the 11th and Jose Mesa came in and got the save in a 1-0 Tribe win.

Since then, to say the wheels have fallen off would be a massive understatement.

In the years since, the birds have been 4, 6, 14, 36, 28, 20, 6, 14, 22, 24 and 25 games under .500. There’s plenty of blame to go around. The owner, Peter Angelos, usually garners most of it.

You won’t find it in his Wikipedia entry, but the lawyer-turned-owner has guided the team to just three winning seasons since he purchased the team in 1993 – and the last one of those was the aforementioned ’97 squad.

While Angelos graces his fair share of dart boards in the hearts and minds of Oriole fans, some venom should be spared for the folks handling the draft.

Since 1993, Baltimore has had 26 selections, including supplementals, in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft. Now, the MLB Draft is an even bigger crap shoot than its NFL and NBA cousins, but of those 28 players, only two of those, Brian Roberts (1999, 50th pick) and Nick Markakis (2003, 7th pick) lived up to their lofty draft positions.

It really is an incredible list:

2008 – Brian Matusz
2007 – Matt Wieters
2006 – Billy Rowell
2006 – Pedro Beato
2005 – Brandon Snyder
2005 – Garrett Olson
2004 – Wade Townsend
2003 – Nick Markakis
2002 – Adam Loewen
2001 – Chris Smith
2001 – Mike Fontenot
2001 – Bryan Bass
2000 – Beau Hale
2000 – Nelson Johnson
1999 – Mike Paradis
1999 – Richard Stahl
1999 – Larry Bigbie
1999 – Keith Reed
1999 – Joshua Cenate
1999 – Scott Rice
1999 – Brian Roberts
1998 – Rick Elder
1997 – Jayson Werth
1997 – Darnell McDonald
1995 – Alvie Shepherd
1993 – Jay Powell

Not exactly a who’s who of major league talent.

Which brings me back to Wieters. In a year in which pitching prospects Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez have arrived at the big club and young outfielder Nolan Reimold has smacked five homers in his first 53 big league at-bats, the arrival of Wieters is just the latest member of what Oriole fans are calling “the calvary.”

First-round picks Matusz and Snyder will likely follow the Georgia Tech product in the coming months, but for now, it will be nice to relegate Gregg Zaun to backup catcher duty, where his .209 batting average won’t hurt quite so much.

His rise through the minors has been a rapid one. He combined for a .355 average, 27 homers and 91 RBI in 437 at-bats in A and AA ball last year and, after a minor hamstring injury slowed him down a bit early, he’s hit .305 with 5 home runs and 30 RBI in 141 AAA at-bats at Norfolk.

Hope they enjoyed the show down there, because it’s not likely he’s heading back there anytime soon.

“I’ve never been around a prospect with this much hype, and it’s something he’ll need to get used to,” David Stockstill, Baltimore’s director of player development, told MLB.com. “It’s something he’s already begun to deal with, but it’s magnified tremendously at the Major League level. That’s something he’s going to have to live with, and the better he does on the field, the more of it there will be. So hopefully, this is just the beginning.”

So, while a four-game winning streak still leaves my favorite club at 22-26 overall –  fifth place in the rough and tumble A.L. East. – today I have something that I haven’t had as an Oriole fan since that fateful night almost 12 years ago.

Hope.

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