‘It’s contagious’: Driven by young stars, the Orioles’ optimism is splashing into the stands in Baltimore

The O's debuted a new cheering section, dubbed the Bird Bath splash zone, during their win Friday

BALTIMORE — In the back row of Section 86 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Danny Hoff and A.J. Uebel were dousing themselves (and occasionally some bystanders) with a water bottle as their beloved Baltimore Orioles rallied and then rolled over the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-3 behind Cedric Mullinscycle.

The waterworks were fully encouraged as the Orioles inaugurated a new cheering section Friday night. Dubbed the Bird Bath splash zone, the sliver of low left-field seats 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 hose.”

Orioles officials said they sold 2,000 tickets in the section within 48 hours of announcing its existence. So Hoff and Uebel — 25 and 26 years old, respectively — only barely snagged seats in the designated area and were mostly outside the radius of Mr. Splash, the team-appointed character wielding the water.

Still, they were thoroughly soaking in the optimism bubbling through the ballpark.

At their age, they have never seen the Orioles win a World Series. They’ve never seen them win a game in the ALCS. Their fandom had 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, began to change a few years ago. The Orioles suffered through three 100-loss seasons between 2018 and 2021, part of a ground-up rebuild under former Houston Astros architect-turned-Orioles general manager Mike Elias. But when prized catcher Adley Rutschman arrived in 2022, the Orioles almost instantly began showing flashes of brilliance.

“My entire teen years growing up, we sucked, so it was hard to follow, but I played baseball, so I wanted to,” Hoff said. “Now it's getting 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 for or quantified.

“It seems invaluable to have a team with togetherness and character and sort of entertaining, quality humans on the team,” Elias told Yahoo Sports, giving manager Brandon Hyde credit for the clubhouse atmosphere. “But we're just really lucky that we have just good people on this team. They’re great guys, and you see them having fun with one another.

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

Hoff beamed while discussing how the Orioles are suddenly a fun team to root for, a group of young, ascendant players — the most notable stars are roughly his age — making a connection with the city through H20-infused hi-jinx and the social media that allows everyone to enjoy them.

The feeling, it turns out, is mutual.

How Orioles players brought fans into the splash zone

The Orioles really do want you to know they are not making any insinuations with the “homer hose,” even if the internet immediately dubbed it the “dong bong” for the practice typically executed with beer, not water. Whatever the original intent, though, it led indirectly 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 remember exactly how the conversation got there, but the new ballpark feature was hatched amid clubhouse consternation about the potential misinterpretation.

“And someone joked and said, 'Don't worry about it. By the end of the season, there'll be a splash zone where fans are doing it with us,'” McCann said. “So I don't know who said what, but it's like — actually, that's kind of a good idea. And I think some of the right people overheard, and it got taken to marketing, and here we are.”

Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president for community development and communications, recalls McCann and pitcher Cole Irvin brainstorming ways to engage the fans and eventually letting the public relations team take it away. For now, Grondahl said, the Mr. Splash character will be based in the section and spray fans whenever the Orioles on the field do the sprinkler signal or hit a home run. (The signal, as McCann showed in one of the season’s many viral moments already, is not always a given.)

Given more time to think about how to execute 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 it was to sign an autograph in the stands. Now, I mean, you can have social media, you can interact with effectively anyone,” McCann said before Friday’s game. “So I think, you know, including the fans in a celebration like that and just the interaction from a player to the fan kind of brings the game even closer to the fans.”

It took a little while for the first participants, eager to join in the fun, to get their first cue. The Orioles struggled early against Pirates starter Johan Oviedo in the series opener. But then Mullins, the center fielder who has blossomed into an All-Star, broke the dam by legging out a triple in the fifth inning.

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

“Mr. Splash was letting it fly out there. I know the fans were loving it. They were extra riled up tonight,” Hays said. “Give that guy a raise out there. He was electric for the boys.”

Whether they realize it or not, McCann said, the young Orioles are feeding off one another — and off the energy they’re inspiring in Camden Yards.

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

Can the sprinkler wash away years of losing?

Out in Section 86, the fans agreed on several things: Rutschman is an MVP candidate, the sprinkler celebration is fun and they would feel better about the Orioles’ chances of competing in the stacked AL East if they acquired at least one high-level, veteran pitcher.

A 43-year-old lifelong fan named Tim bought goggles just for the occasion of cheering on the thrilling players from the Bird Bath but could muster only cautious optimism about ownership’s budgetary decisions.

“You’re going to have to upgrade the major-league roster with some kind of spend,” he said after noting his own considerations for the evening. He kept it “mellow” for this first splash zone visit by going with just the goggles and not adding a life jacket.

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

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

After the first hint of success last season, Elias drew ire for hedging his bets and trading then-closer Jorge López to the Minnesota Twins. He was promptly vindicated when Félix Bautista took over as an even more dominant closer. This season, the move looks even better, thanks to Yennier Cano, the Cuban setup man who came over in the deal. Cano has thrown 18 2/3 innings, striking out 22 and allowing a difficult-to-critique total of zero runs.

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

For now, though, the Orioles are winning big by giving their fans a team to love, to latch onto, to dream about. Hoff said he looks forward to buying playoff tickets, now that he has money to spend on them. Uebel, drenched by night’s end, said he came to multiple games per season, sometimes per month, even in the dark times. At some point, he acknowledged, the upward trajectory will collide with the realities of competition. And he will need the Orioles to keep winning.

“I live in Hoboken [in New Jersey], so a bunch 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 for it. I'm ready to talk s*** when I get back.”