Meanwhile, prospects have dimmed for many key players. Brian Matusz, the expected leader of a revamped pitching rotation, recorded the worst ERA in major league history for a pitcher with more than 10 starts. Leadoff hitter Brian Roberts missed most of the season, and lingering concussion symptoms have left his playing future uncertain. Right fielder Nick Markakis' production has regressed from age 24 to age 27, the period when most players peak. Guerrero plummeted from 29 homers in 2010 to 13 this year.

And it's not as if the team has a bevy of top prospects about to push their way into the big leagues. A farm system that was on the rise a few years ago is now thin, with the best players probably two years or more from helping out.

"Even if you walked in and put $30 million into that team, you would not turn them into a contender," said Keith Law, an ESPN analyst and former assistant general manager of theToronto Blue Jays.

Like many around the industry, Law thought the Orioles were on the right track two years ago. And like many, he's puzzled by the lack of progress, especially among the young pitchers who were expected to be the organization's strength.

"They're underperforming compared to industry expectations, and they're getting hurt," he said. "At this point, you have to look at it as an organizational problem and not just a run of bad luck. It's sort of destroyed everything else they've tried to do."

Diehard fans have already begun to build hopes for next year around Showalter and the idea of landing free-agent power hitter Prince Fielder. But those hopes are mingled with large doses of skepticism.

"I don't think there's any real optimism that they're going to get Fielder," said Haynie, the radio host. "And barring some dramatic moves in the offseason, there's going to be more apathy toward the team than we've seen in a long, long time."

Orioles owner Peter Angelos, the focus of much fan dissatisfaction, did not respond to an interview request. But club spokesman Greg Bader said stagnant attendance wasn't surprising given the continued losing.

"I wouldn't say [the fans are] exhausted, but I would say they're a bit more disappointed," Bader said. "We were all hopeful that the progress we've made would be more apparent in the win-loss column."

Bader acknowledged that losing has hurt the team's revenue somewhat but said the Orioles are focused on selling a ballpark experience that is fun, regardless of wins and losses. In that vein, marketing for next season will focus heavily on the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards.

"We're eternally optimistic," Bader said. "We believe we are on the right path."

Showalter hasn't looked too closely at the standings in recent months, because he can't be comfortable with anything less than playoff contention. But there are still things he likes about his team. He said players' efforts have rarely flagged, a notion supported by the September torments the Orioles have inflicted on the Red Sox and Rays. He also urged patience with the club's young pitchers, arguing that he will need three years to sort out the keepers from the pretenders.

Asked if he believes he has the talent on hand to make up the core of the next good Orioles team, Showalter said, "I do."

It's the lack of depth that worries him. "I want to have enough people that we can send down [to the minors] someone who's good enough to play for us," he said. "I want to send somebody out of here real mad, because he knows he's good enough but we don't have enough spots.

"We're going to get there," Showalter said after a moment.

For the orange-clad fans who showed up to the last series of the season, that sentiment continues to be a rallying cry. Jason Myers of Cockeysville has loved the team since he was a little boy, listening to games on the radio with his grandfather.

"Nothing can take that away," he said of his memories. "I just wish people would stop hating Angelos and focus on what's important, which is coming out here and enjoying the baseball."

Myers took solace in rooting for the Orioles to knock the Red Sox out of playoff contention. Indeed, the park crackled Monday with an intensity rare for Baltimore in September. Every time Red Sox fans tried to get a cheer going, the Orioles faithful rose to shout them down. When Robert Andino cracked an inside-the-park homer to provide the winning margin, the home folks roared as if their Birds were postseason bound.

It was an all-too-brief glimpse of how things could be — and why fans like Myers come back every season. "They've been a part of me since I was born," he said. "Nothing could make me give up on them."

childs.walker@baltsun.com