"The Orioles will finish fifth in the American League East. Only because they can't finish sixth."
— Grant Brisbee, baseball blogger, writing in SB Nation on April 5, 2012
Midafternoon on Thursday, Sept. 6, I got off the No. 11 bus near Light and Pratt streets, adjusted my orange and white cap, and followed a small but growing crowd to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. When I got there, the place was buzzing. Long lines of the faithful waited to get inside for the unveiling of a statue honoring one of their heroes, Cal Ripken Jr., 17 years to the day since he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played.
In true Baltimore style — and as almost always happens when I venture into Camden Yards — I quickly ran into someone I knew. Chris, a newsroom colleague, had seen the statues unveiled for all the other Orioles Hall of Famers this year, and he certainly wasn't going to miss Cal's.
We entered, and I was handed a box holding a replica Ripken statue. At the tribute, the obligatory, slightly over-the-top speeches were hard to hear, and the unveiling itself was impossible to see from my spot in the bullpen picnic area. But when it was all over, the assembled dignitaries walked right past where I was standing. There, a few feet away, was Earl Weaver, more diminutive than ever and as mischievous-looking as always. Here came Jim Palmer, not a hair out of place; and Eddie Murray, waving silently to the fans. They all hurried by except for the man of the hour, who couldn't help stopping to sign a few programs and baseballs thrust in his direction. That's just Cal.
An hour later, Mr. Ripken was standing on the field in front of a capacity crowd, talking about the "Oriole Way" that he came to exemplify for a generation of fans during his 20-year career in Baltimore. He mentioned the importance of fundamentals, professionalism, hard work. But he also noted that another hallmark of the Oriole Way was "playing meaningful games in September."
It's been a long time since those words have had resonance for Baltimore baseball fans. A lot of Septembers.
Soon after Cal's remarks, my wife joined me in our seats near the left field foul pole, Jason Hammel threw a pitch to Derek Jeter, and the 137th game of the 2012 season was under way.
It's a game I'll always remember, the best moment in a season so full of improbable highlights, it would take far more than the space available here to list them all. My friend Jen calls Sept. 6 one of the two best games she's seen in Baltimore (the other one being the team's playoff win on Oct. 8) — and as a native, she's been to way more than I have.
Truth is, my claim to be a "long-suffering" Orioles fan is dubious. I've only lived here for eight years, but the team won my heart almost instantly. A New Yorker who left home for good at 17, I lost interest in the Mets a long time ago. And a decade in Southern California didn't make me fall in love with either the Dodgers or the Angels.
But the Orioles are different. Maybe it's because my wife grew up attending O's games, her family driving up from the D.C. suburbs to cheer on Palmer and Bumbry and DeCinces at the old Memorial Stadium in the late 1970s. Maybe it was stepping into Camden Yards for the first time one evening in July 2004 and getting mesmerized by the nostalgic beauty of the place.
For whatever reason, I was hooked on the Orioles, those lovable losers of the mid-2000s who teased us by hanging around the top of the standings for a couple months, only to run out of steam as the season wore on, injuries set in, veterans showed their age and one wunderkind after another failed to live up to his potential. Still, every year, I clung to hope and the fact that, as radio broadcaster Joe Angel likes to say, "You just never know."
Maybe it was what Cal said about meaningful games that got everyone fired up, players and fans alike, but the energy and intensity that Thursday night in September were like nothing I'd seen at Camden Yards. In the first inning, Matt Wieters surely brought a big grin to the Earl of Baltimore's face when he smashed a three-run homer that landed a few yards away from me. Pandemonium set in, and it never really died down for the next 31/2 hours. The O's crushed homer after homer — a total of six in all, including two from Mark Reynolds. The friendly, drunken guy two rows behind us screamed at the top of his lungs, "I HATE YOU!!!!" whenever Nick Swisher came to the plate; I have no idea why, but I'll never think of Nick Swisher the same way. The Yankees caught up in the seventh, tying the score, 6-6, which made it all the sweeter when the home team exploded with three home runs the next inning to retake the lead, this time for good. They won the game and, for a short but glorious interval, were tied with the Yankees for first place in the American League East.
First place. In September. Not fifth place — first. (Take that, Grant Brisbee, whoever you are.)
All season, it seemed like we'd been waiting for this miraculous bubble to burst, and it finally did on Oct. 12 when the Orioles, out of gas and out of time, dropped Game 5 of the American League Division Series to the Yankees.
But not before flipping from a 93-loss season in 2011 to a 93-win season this year. Not before handily dispatching the defending American League champion Texas Rangers in a high-stakes, one-game wild card playoff. Not before making the overpriced, overhyped Yankees sweat bullets in their pinstripes. And not before turning my 15-year-old son into a real baseball fan for the first time in his life — and turning Baltimore into a community of believers once again.
Yeah, I know. Baseball is entertainment. It's not life or death but a bunch of guys playing a kids' game for way too much money. No argument here.
But baseball — Oriole baseball — is something else, too. A tradition, an institution. A dream. This city, which gave the sports world the names Ruth, Robinson and Ripken, has baseball in its bloodstream, and the last 14 years have been a disease, a municipal illness. For too long, the Orioles were something else to be frustrated about in an often-frustrating town.
Now, there are sweet memories to sustain us during the cold, empty months before pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Now, there is hope that rises above the level of a fantasy. Now, when we fall back on that tired refrain, "Just wait till next year," we don't just say it. We really mean it.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun