When Gordon Huggins reported to Oriole Park on Sept. 30, he knew it might be his final time in the stadium. His fellow ushers knew it, too.
After 50 years as an Orioles usher, Huggins decided to retire at the end of this season. His 50-year recognition by the Orioles in May included an opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a home game, and he was also featured on a WBAL-TV segment.
But his co-workers and the season-ticket holders in his lower-deck sections weren't about to let the longtime Eldersburg resident leave without some additional fanfare.
They threw him a surprise party before the Sept. 30 game, the final home game of the regular season, a gesture that Huggins greatly appreciated. When he got home, his wife Carol had also planned a surprise party to honor a man who had seen every great Oriole moment since 1962.
But as it turned out, Sept. 30 wasn't Huggins' last day at the 21-year old ballpark.
Hours after the Orioles completed a three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox, Huggins' favorite team clinched its first postseason berth in 15 years when the Texas Rangers knocked the Los Angeles Angels from the playoffs.
Baltimore was in ... and that meant that Huggins was back at his post last Sunday and Monday for the first two games of the American League Division Series between the Orioles and New York Yankees.
With the Orioles perched to face the Yankees tonight (Friday, Oct. 12) in game five of the ALDS, Huggins may still have some games left this year at Camden Yards.
But even if he doesn't, the team's return to the playoffs has aleady been memorable.
"It's wonderful, almost a surreal experience," said Huggins after the Orioles and Yankees split the first two games of the five-game series. "Since the beginning of August, the fans at the ballpark have been really excited. They are certainly into it, and it's a more enthusiastic atmosphere than I've seen here in a long time."
Huggins has witnessed six World Series and countless other historic moments in his five decades at Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park. He compared this team with the 1989 Orioles, who rebounded from the worst season in team history a year earlier to finish 87-75 and nearly won the American League East pennant the following season.
"This season certainly ranks up there with the 1989 'Why Not?' campaign," Huggins said. "I've seen a lot of old 'Why Not?' T-shirts in the stands lately."
Before the start of the season, the Orioles were picked to finish last in the American League East by every major publication. When Huggins reported for Opening Day on April 6, he was hoping to see an improved Orioles' team. But he didn't expect to be working deep into October.
He began to believe that this season — his last — would be different on May 6, when the Orioles won a 17-inning marathon over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
"That was so unusual," he said. "Those were the kind of games that the Orioles lost before. I felt that it was a good omen when (Orioles' outfielder-designated hitter) Chris Davis pitched the final inning and got the win."
Huggins recalled two special September nights at Oriole Park that had a profound impact on the team's success. On Sept. 6, the statue of Cal Ripken, Jr. was unveiled, just before the Orioles hit seven home runs in a 10-6 defeat of the Yankees. While that was exciting for Huggins — who witnessed both of Ripken's MVP seasons and the record-breaking 2,131 game — a critical matchup against Tampa Bay on Sept. 12 brought another memorable moment.
"When we called up Manny Machado, that move greatly improved the defense and helped the pitching staff," Huggins recalled. "Late in that game, Machado caught a grounder and faked the throw to first base, then turned around and threw to J.J. Hardy at third. The Tampa Bay player went for the fake and overran the base, and eventually was tagged out. In all my years of watching Oriole games, I'd never seen that happen."
Huggins credits Oriole manager Buck Showalter for engineering the turnaround.
"Buck changed the whole atmosphere," Huggins said. "This team seemed to gel, and their success goes back to Buck's managing."
While giving Showalter his due, Huggins credits the players for responding to the manager's leadership.
"Adam Jones is at the top of the list," Huggins said, praising the club's recently-chosen Most Valuable Player. "Nick Markakis was doing so well until he broke his thumb. J.J. Hardy has been great all year defensively, and you have to remember Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds hitting all of those home runs."
But like most veteran baseball watchers, Huggins knows that good pitching was the key to winning.
"We had pitchers like Miguel Gonzalez, Steve Johnson, and Chris Tillman come through," Huggins said. "And you have to give credit to (catcher) Matt Wieters. The success of the pitching staff has to be placed on his shoulders."
Despite the Orioles' amazing comeback season and seemingly bright future, Huggins hasn't reconsidered his decision to make the 2012 season his last.
"It was a lot of fun, but I'm very set on retiring," he said. "I didn't get to personally meet Buck, but he was kind enough to autograph a baseball for me before the regular season ended."
And what did the Orioles' skipper write on Huggins' keepsake?
"He signed it, 'To Gordon, congratulations on No. 50'," Huggins said proudly.