Remember when all you ever wanted was for the Baltimore Orioles to be a contender in the month of September? Or to win half their games? Or simply not finish with the worst record in the American League East?
Surely, you haven't forgotten because that was all of two years ago. But as the Orioles wound up their 2013 season this weekend, it was difficult to put a finger on the public's mood. By June, the team made it clear that 2012 was no fluke and they were a serious contender in one of baseball's toughest divisions. But then August doldrums turned into September losses, and the team was eliminated from the wild-card race in the final week, finishing with a modestly winning record.
Expectations were raised, not just by the Orioles' 2012 playoff appearance but by the emergence of some real star-power in the lineup, including first baseman Chris Davis and Manny Machado at third base. The strong defense, the towering home runs, the torrent of doubles and a bullpen featuring four pitchers with earned run averages below 3.00, all were impressive.
There was even a bright spot among the starting pitchers as Chris Tilman racked up wins and more than 200 innings to establish himself as, if not a dominant No. 1 starter, a solid and reliable right-hander in the rotation.
But we don't believe Orioles Nation was heart-broken exactly by the September swoon and the failure to reach the post-season — underscored by a season-ending injury to their rising young star at the hot corner. Disappointed? Yes. But not upset in the way that Red Sox or Yankees fans might be, turning to their local sports talk radio station in a froth, berating their latest free-agent busts and demanding some front-office heads on a silver platter.
Instead, what we have in Charm City is a sense of — for lack of a better word — reassurance. What the latest 162 games have proven is that Baltimore is not going back to its status as perennial fifth-place finisher aspiring to be fourth. This is a team capable of contending and, with some tweaks and signings, could make a serious run next year.
That's no small thing. The joy of baseball is not just in the action on the field but in the contemplation away from it. Fans live to debate, to speculate, to imagine trades and off-season free-agent signings, to cite statistics and propose changes. That's not much fun when you finish the season 43 games out of contention, but it's a blast when just a few more runs scored or strikeouts pitched here or there could put you in the World Series.
No, you won't see the Orioles paraded through town this month, and the odds of Buck Showalter repeating as Marylander of the Year are looking long, indeed, but that's OK. This is a team that obviously believes in itself, in its manager and its circumstances. It's easy for fans to be optimistic under such circumstances.
Not long ago, Baltimore's Octobers were comforted only by the presence of the Ravens. And, frankly, the return of the defending NFL Super Bowl champions (Look, Ma, we found another chance to use that phrase!) makes the seasonal transition a bit easier again — even if the pro football team faces its own challenges this fall.
It's fair to say that the Orioles don't quite have the same place in our collective hearts that the Ravens occupy these days. Their continued success has made them an easy sell for a generation of Baltimoreans. The Colts? For most under the age of 40, that team is a historical footnote. The Orioles? Well, they're just starting to get interesting.
Here's one measure of where things stand: For all their recent success, the Orioles finished the season with middle-of-the-pack attendance figures. The Washington Nationals drew better. As did the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees. Within the division, only Tampa Bay was worse, and they were dead last in average attendance in Major League Baseball.
Still, that may change. It takes time, and the Orioles helped themselves this year by seemingly staying on track developing young players and not reaching out in desperation for aging stars or rehab projects. It's always a bit sad when a baseball season ends in September, but fans should be genuinely optimistic. This will be remembered not as the season for falling short but of proving Baltimore's pro baseball team is in it for the long haul.