There was a time when the Orioles All-Star roster spot was handled a lot like jury duty. The home team's lone representative was chosen nearly at random from the citizenry. How else do you explain Ty "Who's Ty Wiggington" Wiggington or George "No, Seriously, George Sherrill" Sherrill making the Mid-Summer Classic?
This year, though, the Birds are flying with five representatives (the most since 1997), another pair in Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters that would be right at home representing the AL in New York, and three Orioles minor leaguers in the Futures Game. The O's closed out the symbolic midpoint of the season (they've actually played 96 of their 162 games) 10 games over .500, in third place in the stacked AL East, and deep in the hunt for a playoff spot. In other words, things are looking pretty darn good in Birdland. Here's five things we've learned so far about the Orioles.
1. What do the O's five All-Stars, Chris "Crush" Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Chris Tillman, and Manny Machado have in common? None of them would be wearing orange if it weren't for former O's helmsman Andy MacPhail. MacPhail left Baltimore ignominiously after four years of losing baseball, but he was key in turning around the Orioles' losing culture. Not only did he draft Machado and trade for the rest of Baltimore's 2013 All-Stars, he also brought in Buck Showalter. If the Orioles follow the lead of the Purple Birds of Baltimore and bring home a championship, Peter Angelos is going to have to spring for an extra World Series ring.
2. The Orioles can hit with any team in baseball, and their bullpen, despite some shaky stretches from closer Jim Johnson, remains a strength. The big question mark for the team is the starting rotation, and while this squad is never gonna make people forget about the '71 Orioles, they can get the job done. Chris Tillman is an All-Star and, with an 11-3 record at the break, he could be the first Oriole to win 20 since Mike Boddicker way back in 1984. Tillman is not your typical top-of-the-rotation guy, but he wins, and that's all that really matters in your ace. Miguel Gonzalez, 7-3 with a 3.48 ERA, makes a fine number-three starter, and Scott Feldman, acquired from the Cubs in a trade that also had the benefit of getting rid of fan least-favorite Pedro Strop, adds solidity to the middle of the rotation. The biggest reason for hope, however, is the return of Wei-Yin Chen. There isn't a club in baseball that wouldn't get better with the addition of Chen, a tenacious lefty with a 2.82 ERA. Expect him to have a big second half. The only real dark spot is last year's ace, Jason Hammel, who has been struggling mightily. If pitching coach Rick Adair can get Hammel sorted, or if Dan Duquette can pull off a trade to fill that spot, the Birds will be stacked.
3. With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, Chris Davis may be America's best hope for a space program. Davis will be leading the American League in the Home Run Derby, and with good reason. Davis's staggering total of 37 dingers at the break ties an Orioles record. The only other Bird to hit 37 at the break? Reggie Jackson. If Mr. October wasn't impressive-enough company, Davis is on pace to hit 62 home runs-that's one more than Roger Maris' pre-steroid record. Sure, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds have topped 61, but no human has done it; each of those guys was at least 60 percent bull testosterone at the time of their mammoth seasons. Crush is going to change that. Davis went into the break with homers in four straight games. August is when Camden Yards becomes a launching pad to rival Cape Canaveral. Davis will beat Maris' record and there will be much rejoicing. Then, in the off-season, he can swat satellites into orbit.
4. This may sound like sacrilege, but if Manny Machado keeps laying the leather like he has been, he could become the greatest third baseman in Orioles history. Sure, he'd have to do it for a bit longer to truly measure up to Brooks Robinson, but Machado is in a class of two with Roberto Alomar as the best fielding Bird since Brooksie. Machado just turned 21, he's just a kid still, but his instincts and understanding of the game are such that it's not an insult to Robinson to compare the two. And being a converted shortstop, his range might be superior, and his arm is actually better than that of the Human Vacuum Cleaner. Manny just made his first All-Star game. If he can just get to another 17, and add 16 Gold Gloves, all in an Orioles uniform, he might just earn that spot next to Brooks.
5. Perhaps the most important realization of the season so far is how much love this town has for its Birds. Orange is everywhere in Baltimore, but if you want scientifical evidence of Baltimore's reclaimed love of the Birds, look no further than the All-Star voting. Chris Davis got over 8 million votes, the most votes of any player. There is no doubt Davis deserves it, but a big part of that was hometown ballot-stuffing that got three starters on the club. Heck, Orioles fans generated over 3 million votes for Nate McLouth and nearly a million and a half for Nolan Reimold, who's hitting five points below the Mendoza Line. And this is where the observations turn to a request. If Baltimore is to truly show that Orioles Nation is alive and well, there's no better way than to put our holiest of holy men, Wild Bill Hagy, into the Baseball Hall of Fame. City Paper is still running our petition to get a statue of Wild Bill into the super-fan wing exhibit of the hall. Now that the All-Star game is over, we can turn our ballot-stuffing attention to Wild Bill online at citypaper.com/wildbill.