We love Opening Day. We love it because, even in bad-news Baltimore, it means we get to shake off the grimy, regrettable past and enjoy a moment of blissful optimism about what comes next.
Everyone gets to indulge the fanciful idea that their team — even those that finished at the bottom last season, like the Orioles — will line up for the national anthem with an equal chance of winning the World Series seven months from now.
That's the deal with baseball. There is always the possibility of earth-rocking surprise, always the hope that your team, your city, your region will again know the exhilarating madness of an October championship, that beyond-words high that comes with being on top of the world.
For Baltimore, it has been 35 years since the Orioles wore the golden crown, so fans here have learned to keep their expectations in check or risk a broken heart or, worse, the lousy feeling of having been conned.
It's as if the baseball gods declared those storied Orioles of the past — those gray-and-gone teams the organization keeps commemorating with contrived anniversary celebrations — to be the best Baltimore will ever get, and that we can't have nice things anymore.
I hear Orioles fans express gratitude that, after 14 losing seasons (1998-2011), we at least have had a team and a manager who, in three of the past six, made things interesting.
But we need better than that. We hope — and on Opening Day, must believe — that 2018 is the year the Orioles, patched together impressively during spring training, could bring a victory parade back to Pratt Street.
It would give Baltimore a huge lift, and not only because of that 35-year drought of championships but because of a three-year rain of bad news.
On April 29, 2015, the Orioles and the White Sox played an afternoon game at Camden Yards with no fans present because of civil unrest two days earlier, following the funeral of Freddie Gray in West Baltimore. "This isn't the way you want to make history," first baseman Chris Davis said that day.
The vandalism and fires marked the start of three years of almost unmitigated bad — a surge in shootings that made our city the deadliest, per capita, in the nation; police corruption, in nature and scale, equal to any of Hollywood's darkest imaginings; violent crimes in neighborhoods that rarely ever saw one; and, stirring our worst fears, more loss in population.
Because of all that — the way it burdens the spirit — it's hard to remember where we were in the year before Freddie Gray's death.
We savored a vision of the next Baltimore.
The population had seemed to stabilize and even grow again. We had a mayor who set growth as a goal and made a pitch to immigrant families, in particular, to give Baltimore a try. Harbor Point seemed to pop up overnight, a city within a city. The downtown population grew with the conversion of old office buildings to apartments. We had a new plan, and capital, to improve the public schools. There was hope — perhaps more hope than reality — that new investment, with incentives from the city, would spread to the areas that missed the first Baltimore renaissance along the waterfront. Meanwhile, housing vouchers made possible the movement of low-income families with children to better neighborhoods and the hope of better lives.
In 2014, the Orioles won the American League East and Buck Showalter was AL Manager of the Year.
But the disturbances six months later felt like a sudden and shocking stop. Though limited mostly to the west side, the fires, vandalism and looting affected the whole city and region — if not physically, certainly emotionally. The Orioles and White Sox playing in an empty stadium on a perfect spring day, with the smell of smoke and flowers in the air, marked the moment: A city of potential and promise suddenly considered so lawless and dysfunctional that even our great good place was presumed unsafe.
There have been awakenings (for those who needed them) to the hard realities of festering poverty and hopelessness, the toxic relations between police and people in neighborhoods far from the renaissance, the history of racism and segregation at the root of so many of our problems.
There have been strong efforts, led by the Johns Hopkins institutions, to help the "other Baltimore" at the edges of its reach. And the city is lucky to have so many nonprofits and volunteers working on its long-standing problems — drug addiction, homelessness, illiteracy, joblessness, kids at risk, health inequality — and most of those organizations have been doing quiet, steady good for years.
There have been other setbacks since April 2015 — not just the crime surge, but things within the control of people in power. The Red Line light rail project and the State Center redevelopment were two major endeavors that would have helped the city; killing the Red Line and canceling the State Center deal hurt the recovery immeasurably. Attrition in the police ranks, with resignations and accelerated retirements, complicated the efforts to get crime under control.
The past three years have taken a toll. When the latest population numbers were reported, showing another loss, the first thought was April 2015 and all that flowed from there — the crime, the civic turmoil. A Goucher Poll showed that two-thirds of Marylanders no longer consider the city to be the economic engine of the state, and that's in part a testimony to the perception that Baltimore is helpless.
Baltimore is not helpless, but it still needs help on a grand scale, the visionary kind that once made possible the stadiums in Camden Yards. Far more than any jurisdiction in the state, Our City of Perpetual Recovery is still affected by huge social and economic changes that go back 50 years, to April 1968, and the time of the riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is still affected by the riots of just three years ago.
But we are still here, most of us, looking for tickets to a kind of Opening Day for Baltimore and a new birth of faith in our city.
We haven't given up. We are artists and innovators, researchers and thinkers, preachers and gardeners, writers and printers, makers of great events and festivals, teachers and musicians, runners and bicyclists, attorneys and doctors, hotel staff and bus drivers, carpenters and roofers, pastry chefs and short-order cooks, bartenders and waiters, bankers and brokers, security guards and mechanics, cops and firefighters, social workers and nurses, and I could go on, but you get the idea.
There is no surviving, much less thriving, without the region's embrace of Baltimore. We need you. We need to be all-in.
So, those of you who come to Camden Yards for Opening Day 2018: Please take another look at this city where your grandparents lived, this city your kids find cool, this city of Baltimore-in-the-bones citizens and vigilant activists, this city of incubated startups and enduring businesses, of solid neighborhoods and neighborhoods yearning to be better, this city of old peculiarities and renewed aspirations, this city that has suffered, this city that has worn golden crowns, and will again.