There have been lean years for Baltimore sports fans, but 2023 was not one of those.
It was a great, memorable year stuffed with moments and snapshots we won’t forget. It’s worth memorializing 2023, which saw the Orioles rise to the top of baseball, the Ravens reassert their power and a number of local athletes on various podiums and big stages.
I’ve categorized honorees in awards I hope to give out every year, along with special categories that help flesh out the memories and figures that will linger.
The Ray Lewis “Let’s Put On A Show” Award
(for the most entertaining athlete)
How could you pick anyone besides Lamar Jackson? Although Ravens fans were biting their nails in March when news of a trade request leaked, the messy offseason has been largely forgotten after Jackson and the Ravens reached a then-record-setting deal. He’s lived up to the payday. Jackson has set career marks in passing yards and attempts while retaining the dynamic scrambling ability that freezes defenders in their tracks. After the Ravens trounced the 49ers in a matchup of the NFL’s best teams, Jackson appears set to win another NFL MVP. A 12-3 start to the season has Jackson’s stamp all over it — even without star tight end Mark Andrews and with injuries changing his cast from week to week, Jackson has found ways to win.
Runner-up: Gunnar Henderson’s stellar Rookie of the Year campaign for the Orioles.
The Cal Ripken Jr. “Only Way I Know” Award
(high work ethic/workmanlike performer)
Although there are many deserving performances, it feels appropriate to highlight the player who led the 101-win Orioles in games played and plate appearances – especially since he spent most of the year playing arguably the most physically demanding position. Since arriving in the big leagues, Adley Rutschman has symbolized the franchise’s resurgence and been a steadying force. Although his batting average dipped in June, his splits were remarkably consistent throughout the year as he established himself as one of baseball’s best catchers and appeared in his first All-Star Game. Rutschman was among the top 10 in games started at catcher (110) and developed his switch hitting to the point he was more effective as a right-handed hitter this year than a lefty. Also, how can we forget how he switched stances midway through the Home Run Derby while hitting dingers off his dad?
Runner-up: Roquan Smith, who has played 98% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps this season while serving as the vocal leader of the locker room.
The Michael Phelps “All I Do Is Win” Award
(for winning at the highest level)
Maybe this time next year we’ll be celebrating a trophy bonanza in Baltimore: A 2024 Super Bowl and World Series seem like possibilities. But, for 2023, this couldn’t go to anyone besides Angel Reese, the Baltimore Barbie, as she put it this month. The 21-year-old was the Most Outstanding Player of LSU’s run to the national championship in the spring, and off the court she scored huge endorsements and gave back through her foundation. The Tigers became the first defending national champions to play at an HBCU when they visited Coppin State on Dec. 20. The pathway Reese has set for athletes navigating the name, image, likeness market but also for would-be hoopers in Baltimore and beyond feels profound.
Runner-up: Khoi Young, the Bowie native who made a splash on the world gymnastics stage and is poised for more.
The Ozzie Newsome “Behind The Scenes” Award
(the top performers behind the athletes)
It’s worth giving recognition here to Orioles GM Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde, who put together a franchise rebuild that had painful losing seasons along the way. Hyde especially showed he was not just a rebuild frontman but a heck of a manger, making tons of moves down the stretch of the regular season to help the Orioles clinch the AL East. Enduring one of the most forgettable stretches in franchise history finally has a bright side, and it appears (as long as the team keeps both under contract) that Elias and Hyde have a lot of bright days ahead in orange and black.
Runner-up: Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who has devised game plans that have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.
The Brooks Robinson “Community Do-Gooder” Award
(for outstanding community service and influence)
There are a lot of local athletes who give back, including many of the ones listed above. Here, we simply recognize one of them who seems to have made a special effort. Kyle Gibson’s year in Baltimore might look unremarkable statistically, but besides being a mentor for the younger crowd on the pitching staff, he was also the Orioles’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. He helped raise money for the Maryland Food Bank, the House of Ruth and other causes while encouraging teammates to help as well. After signing with the Cardinals this offseason, he’ll be missed well beyond the clubhouse.
Some special shout-outs for local sports figures and stories that defined 2023:
The wildest roller-coaster journey: Gervonta Davis
The last time we saw the Baltimore-born boxer in the ring, he was a winner. Davis was far too good for Ryan Garcia on April 22, extending his record to 29-0. But life outside the ring was tumultuous, as he was sentenced to house arrest, then went to jail for violating the terms, then didn’t box again for the rest of the year, with no set plans to fight again in the near future despite still being in his prime at 29. Most recently, Davis announced he would help renovate homes in his old neighborhood and converted to Islam, seeming like a man trying to figure out himself more so than his next bout.
The biggest buzzkill: John Angelos
It’s a relief that the Orioles and Angelos finally got a lease deal done, but it was a heck of a ride getting to that point. The team’s chairman and CEO set the expectation that the deal could get done by All-Star break (it didn’t), said some disheartening things to The New York Times about the club’s future, was part of a dramatic scoreboard announcement with Gov. Wes Moore that ended up being a premature celebration, then didn’t attend the lease signing when a meaningful deal was finally reached. It seems crazy that, in a year the Orioles won 101 games, the team owner could still find ways to be a drag.
Highest on-field high: The Orioles clinch a playoff spot
The pure drama of the O’s needing 11 innings to top their division rival Tampa Bay is impossible to overstate. On a gray day, tens of thousands of fans remained riveted watching the drama play out as the Orioles, who were incredible in one-run games this season, finally got the walk-off with Cedric Mullins hitting a sacrifice fly to score Rutschman, leading to a dogpile and an outpouring of emotion that had built up for seven years. The Orioles would later have a champagne-soaked celebration for clinching the division, but frankly it didn’t compare to the raw, uncut joy of this initial milestone.
Lowest on-field low: The Baltimore Sports Weekend From Hell
I’m sorry to even revisit it, but in the interest of being thorough, it feels impossible to write a script with more deflating results than the Orioles’ two home playoff losses to the eventual champion Rangers and the Ravens’ road defeat in Pittsburgh. Both were filled with gaffes and underwhelming performances. Especially in Game 2, O’s pitchers were hammered; the Ravens receivers had a season high in dropped passes. It felt as though the sports-loving citizens of Baltimore were being personally kicked in the shins by the Sports Gods.
An underrated gem: Cedric Mullins hits for the cycle
It’s hard to come up with a better feel-good moment than watching one of the Orioles’ longest-tenured players achieve a career milestone during one of the most exciting seasons in memory. Mullins finished it with a right-field homer that sent off celebrations in the flag court. The next inning, as the Orioles took the field, his teammates let Mullins walk out to center all alone to get a personal moment with fans, doffing his cap and feeling showered in the uproar.
Top out-of-nowhere performer: Yennier Cano
From being blackballed from playing in his native Cuba, to being a throw-in on a 2022 trade, to suddenly starting 2023 as a knockout setup man? Even now, Cano’s sudden rise to one of the top weapons in the bullpen defies belief. But, for 17 straight appearances, Cano didn’t allow a run on just four hits, kick-starting a campaign that saw him become an All-Star for the first time. When Félix Bautista was healthy, he and Cano were a seemingly unshakable tandem that helped Baltimore pull out a number of close games.
“How did he do that?” moment: Tylan Wallace’s game-winning return
When was the last time we’ve seen the Ravens celebrate this hard in a regular-season game? Backup returner Tylan Wallace took an overtime punt 76 yards to the house to beat the Rams, breaking how many tackles (four? five?) to do it. It was all the more remarkable because Wallace had cost Baltimore points earlier in the game by lining up incorrectly on another punt. The redemption was remarkable for a longtime special teamer who is widely considered one of the good guys in the Ravens’ locker room.
Best seat in the house: The Orioles Bird Bath
Did you bring your floaties to an Orioles game this year? After the O’s opened the left field section with Mr. Splash, there wasn’t a more exciting place to sit at Camden Yards (if you were OK with getting a little wet). There were also guest Mr. Splashers, including Gov. Wes Moore and former Oriole Adam Jones. Between the Homer Hose and this special section, the H2O was flowing all around the park.
Best story of persistence: O.J. Brigance
Sixteen years after his ALS diagnosis, Brigance and his wife, Chanda, are treasuring every moment of life they have together and still paying it forward. Their charity celebrated 15 years of helping ALS patients and their families this fall, and it’s one of the best stories in Baltimore sports year after year.
Favorite weekend warriors: Tennis players at Druid Hill Park
This story by Jasmine Vaughn-Hall highlights a resilient group of Black tennis players who meet up at courts that were segregated 75 years ago. The games are casual, the players are not quite in their prime, but it’s a great reminder that sport, at its core, brings people together, no matter the level of competition.
Underdog squad worth rooting for: The Baltimore Banners hockey team
This monthslong project by Jessica Gallagher highlights a team that runs on heart. The Patterson Park-based program helps kids find their way on the ice and builds their character for off-rink challenges. The photos of their faces tell a story unto themselves.