"You've got to believe. You can't go into a season thinking you'll be in fourth place," said Jeff Conine, who signed with the Orioles in the offseason as a free agent. "I think everybody believes that we have the kind of talent that can really surprise some people. I don't think anybody picked this team to be in first place last year for two months of the season. I think we're improved from there."
Conine spoke for the group, echoing several comments from his younger teammates. The Orioles haven't had a winning record in eight straight seasons, so they understand why they're being taken lightly. That doesn't mean they have to like it, though.
"If you look on paper, we don't have the huge names and we don't have the track record," said Kris Benson, Baltimore's No. 3 starter. "From an odds standpoint, it's a safe bet. From our perspective, you don't really pay much attention to where people see you six months from now. There's a lot of baseball to be played between now and then."
"I don't care where they pick us," said Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo. "We've still got to play 162 ballgames, and so do the guys they pick to win it. I haven't even seen it quite honestly, but it doesn't bother me. I don't mind laying in the weeds and sneaking up on somebody. I don't particularly think it will be a sneak-up. They might."
Last year was definitely a sneak-up -- by any measurement. The Orioles burst out of the gates and were in first place from April 17-June 22, a run that surprised the entire baseball world. The hot streak eventually tapered off, though, and Baltimore finished the first half of the season with a 47-40 record.
The team was still in contention at that point, but a difficult and adversity-strewn second half saw that goal frittered away. The Orioles fired manager Lee Mazzilli and limped through the second half with a 27-48 record, a mark that clinched their seventh fourth-place finish in the last eight years. Still, the young O's learned a lot from their fleeting taste of success.
"It was the first time since I've been here that we had any signs of extended winning. And it felt good," said Jay Gibbons, Baltimore's right fielder. "I know it feels a lot better to win than to lose. Just getting a little bit of that feeling in you makes you want it even more. But you learn a lot from losing, too. You learn how tough it is.
"Sometimes, it almost becomes a job when you go out there in the last month of the season. You don't want that feeling, and hopefully we can learn from both of them."
The Orioles have brought in several veterans from winning environments in the last few seasons, from Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez in 2003 to Conine, Kevin Millar and Ramon Hernandez this winter. Those players have helped spread the message, letting the younger players know that they just have to worry about themselves -- not about their competition.
"We're just going to go out there thinking about winning -- not thinking about what other people are thinking about our team," said Lopez. "If you start worrying about the Yankees and Red Sox, you'll go nowhere. We have to make sure we're doing a good job against all the teams -- and not just the teams in our division, but the whole American League."
"Obviously, on paper, this is the toughest division in baseball right now," said Conine, who chose to place himself right in the thick of things. "You can't just throw in the towel going into the season, saying, 'Let's play for third place.' If you do, you're setting yourself up for failure.
"You hope that the team's a bunch of competitors that wants to prove them wrong. As far as we're concerned, we want to be the underdog. Then you can sneak up on people, if they underestimate you."
And that's the bottom line. The Orioles know what they have behind closed doors, and they want to prove it in public to the rest of the baseball world. This time, they want to do it for six months.
"I can understand where they're coming from. We have a tough division, like we always do," said Gibbons, speaking about the team's critics. "We played great for the first two and a half months last season. Everybody was on fire and everybody was having fun. Obviously, it drastically changed, and we just need more consistency.
"I don't think we're quite as good as we played for the first two and a half months last year, but we're not anywhere close to as bad as we were at the end. I think we're definitely somewhere in between."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less