THe Orioles are back, hon. No, really. They are back.
As I sat down to write this column Wednesday morning, the Baltimore Orioles had already clinched a playoff spot, and were one game behind the New York Yankees in the American League East with one game to play.
Throughout this season, I have largely kept my thoughts to myself on the Orioles. Check that. I have largely kept my thoughts on the Orioles to myself in this column. To my friends and family, I have been a constant jittery mess of nerves and enthusiasm — excited over what my favorite team in all of sports was doing, but nervous over the prospect of them imploding into the oblivion once again.
The Orioles have not been in the playoffs since 1997. Think about that for a second. Over the past 15 years, they have not been able to build anything resembling a competitive team and, more times than not, were in a battle for the worst record in all of baseball.
The long explanation is that there has been a sorry history of paying too much money for washed-up former stars, a blatant disregard for scouting overseas talent, a minor league system that has produced less quality than NBC, a failure to secure any kind of front-line pitching ...
But I digress. This could go on for a while.
The shorter explanation is that the Orioles have quite possibly the worst owner in professional sports in Peter Angelos. Look at that above list, and then add in the fact that he drove away an impressive manager in Davey Johnson right after he was awarded Manager of the Year (who, if you’re keeping score at home, has led the Washington Nationals to this year’s playoffs).
Regardless, Angelos did do one thing right in recent years — hiring current manager Buck Showalter. The team has responded to Showalter and his deft management of their bullpen by going 29-9 in one-run games, winning 16 extra-inning games in a row and posting a record of 74-0 when leading after seven innings. They have played tough. They have avoided prolonged losing streaks, and they have not coughed up games that they had in the bag. It’s winning baseball, and it’s actually being played in Baltimore.
For the past 15 years, being an Orioles fan has been more than a little difficult. Jokes and barbs have been fired at me repeatedly by my friends who are Yankees or Boston Red Sox fans, and my attention would annually wander over to the Ravens as soon as their training camp started in the summer, because the Orioles were usually out of the running already.
I would rely on memories of glory years past to get through the season. I would smile at the mental image of Al Brumby chasing down a flyball in center, or old Memorial Stadium rocking with thunderous chants of “Ed-die” when Eddie Murray would come to the plate in a tense situation. Those nights, I’d turn on a game and see the Orioles losing 12-2, I would close my eyes and envision Jim Palmer whipping a fastball over the corner for a called third strike or Mark Belanger ranging deep in the hole to rob an opponent of a certain base hit.
Then I would open up my eyes again and see an Oriole have a ball roll between his legs and another flipping through travel brochures in the outfield.
This year has been a magical ride. Yes, I freely admit that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the Orioles to reclaim their spot amongst the league’s have-nots. I was skeptical early, anticipating another “June swoon.” I was interested in July, but still not sold, and I was firmly bracing myself for heartache in August. Once Sept. 1 came around and the Orioles were still winning, I believed.
And they have not disappointed.
What happens from this point on is a bonus. Would I love to see the Orioles win a World Series? Well, kind of. I’d obviously celebrate with all my other Orioles fans, but I’d also be a little wary that some offhand comment I might have made at some point was taken seriously, and my deal with the Devil was officially ratified. Eh, I’ll take my chances.