"On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you going into the upcoming season?"
Chris Davis held court in the tiny corner of the media section, a dozen tape recorders in his face. I stood there in the gaggle, mostly hoping that I would not be jostled from behind and into a player next to whom I was wedged - especially not Davis, who'd already expressed that he could probably lift every one of us at the same time. I briefly envisioned myself being power-bombed through a cheap wooden table, with Spanish announcers being conjured from nowhere just for the occasion.
The regular reporters rolled their eyes at the question, and rolled them again as Davis responded that his confidence level was ten out of ten, and always is a ten. This is not an interesting question, nor is it an interesting answer. Major leaguers are nearly always confident.
This is why the spring training cliche about a player being in "the best shape of his life" is meaningless. Of course they're going to say that. What else is Davis going to say? "Well, I'm a little worried about lefties throwing me breaking pitches"? The guy just hit 33 home runs and slugged over .500.
They always ask the question just in case the rare answer showing cracks in the armor slips out. In the middle of the season, this might happen, especially with a player who knows he's about to be demoted, but in the offseason, it's not too likely.
Actually, at last year's Fanfest, very few players were asked about their confidence going into the season. They were asked if they saw an opportunity with the Orioles (Ryan Flaherty) or what they thought they needed to improve (Brian Matusz) or about their health (Jake Arrieta). Nobody was much interested in the confidence level of individual players on a team coming off a 69-win season. About the team's potential for success generally, no one was asked at all.
Saturday, on the other hand, virtually every returning player was asked the question about the Orioles' quiet offseason. Are they happy with that? The recently-extended manager and executive vice president certainly are, and the players followed that lead. Perhaps the players even believe it. Davis and many other players spoke of looking forward to having another season with the same great group of guys.
Dan Duquette likes to note that the O's had the best record from August 1 on, and key midseason call-up Manny Machado is aware of it: "We did what we did last year with the same guys." Matt Wieters was unconcerned, saying, "You don't want to add a guy just to add a guy." Several, including manager Buck Showalter, spoke of not wanting to mess up the clubhouse chemistry.
As an Orioles fan who watched the fourteen consecutive losing seasons, the idea of clubhouse chemistry mattering makes me want to roll my eyes. Those Orioles teams did not lose because they had bad clubhouse chemistry. They had bad clubhouse chemistry because they lost, and they lost because they didn't have good baseball players. And yet it seemed past front offices would always be chasing "chemistry guys", which led to Kevin Millar's tenure with the team, among others.
It's easy to discount that sort of thing as a factor for a team's success. There is not some Chemistry+ statistic where one can measure this against the average in the way you might look at OPS+ for hitters or ERA+ for pitchers. The very idea of someone trying to quantify it is ridiculous. That doesn't make the concept meaningless.
However it came into being, and whatever positive-reinforcing effect it may have had on last year's Orioles, it's clear the guys liked one another, gelled as a team in a way we hadn't seen in Baltimore. It's easy for everyone to get along when there's winning! Then you get shaving cream pies, and the bullpen putting their hands together and celebrating whenever someone scores a run, and Luis Ayala dashing to catch every O's home run that landed in the bullpen. You get Davis carrying Nate McLouth across the field, dogpiles at home plate, and did I mention the shaving cream pies?
The old Yogi Berra saying about this sort of thing goes, "Ninety percent of the game is half-mental." Does that mean 45% of baseball is mental? Of course not. It's just Yogi being Yogi. Whatever part really is mental, though, certainly can't be hurt over the long grind of a baseball season by having a team that has been through a successful year together, seems to like one another and believe in one another, and so on.
When Davis spoke, he echoed some of Orioles Magic: "There was a different hero every night." He's not wrong! Again, this sort of thing might matter. If players honestly believe they don't have to do it all themselves, isn't that a good thing? These Orioles all seem to believe it - though, I'll concede I have no way of knowing whether they do or not, or whether their belief is worth anything. At last year's Fanfest, Arrieta was very upbeat about the upcoming season, and I believed that meant something and talked about how he would at least have a decent year. We saw how much that was worth.
One other thing that most of the players were asked about is whether they were happy with what happened last season. A couple admitted to being happy to be there, but everyone agreed that they want to go farther. Davis said he couldn't even watch the ALCS. No one was satisfied with just making the ALDS. They want to win, and they have been through numerous tough games - playoff games - proving to themselves that they can do it. This is not a pipe dream or a delusion.
As Duquette is fond of saying: this is the core of a playoff team. Past Orioles executives have had to try to spin the sunny scenarios about ways the team could find a way to compete. Duquette's Orioles did compete, and they won, and they are almost all back.
Still, there is the rest of the league to consider. The Yankees could be better. The Red Sox might rebound. The Rays were not far away from contention. The Blue Jays, with all their big offseason moves, almost certainly will be better. All of these things could make a tougher road for the Orioles as they seek to go beyond where their last season ended.
For the Orioles, on the other hand, there are many questions. Can this player repeat last year's performance? Can that player? You can ask the question for most of the roster, and certainly the entire bullpen. Some of them will not, but we know that Duquette will set and shuffle the roster without any semblance of sentimentality. In any case, these questions beat the heck out of sitting around with all of our hopes pinned on "the cavalry" and wondering when they will ever start to be good.
And yet, with the possibility of a full season from Nick Markakis, a healthy Nolan Reimold, a starting rotation that won't just be a merry-go-round, Manny Machado on the team all year, there is one more question that is not insane to consider: what if the Orioles are even better?