Second baseman Robert Andino and his band of upstart, red-hot, second-place Orioles swear they're facing just another tough divisional rival on the road this weekend.
It's not a big deal, Andino says, that Friday will be the first time his club plays a regular-season game against the Boston Red Sox since Sept. 28, 2011 — when Andino's two-out, ninth-inning single at Camden Yards gave the Orioles an unforgettable comeback.
No big deal, although that one hit — combined with a nearly simultaneous 12th-inning homer by the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria against the New York Yankees in Florida — capped a historic collapse by the Red Sox, extinguishing their playoff chances on the last day of the season while igniting a tumultuous offseason in Boston that resulted in the termination of their respected manager and the departure of their ballyhooed general manager.
That moment has been immortalized as "The Curse of the Andino," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said Wednesday, chuckling.
Andino smiles sheepishly at the catchphrase — a play on the "Curse of the Bambino" slogan that haunted Red Sox Nation for 86 title-less years after the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees — and acknowledges it's somewhat amusing to see it emblazoned on T-shirts.
"You can laugh about it a few times, but everybody is going to make their own little sayings or whatever," Andino said. "So, whatever."
Moments after his season-ending hit, Andino uttered a simple quote that will forever be remembered by Orioles fans as wonderful payback for the continual indignity of losing to Boston and remembered by Red Sox fans as fighting words.
"End of season like this — make Boston go home sad, crying — I'll take it all day."
On Wednesday, Andino softened his all-time one-liner.
"I meant to say to walk-off on anybody, and especially Boston. I mean, Boston is like the Yankees," Andino said. "And so to do it against [closerJonathan] Papelbonand at home to end the season like that, I'll take that every day."
More than spoiling a rival's postseason hopes, Andino said he was exceptionally proud to be involved in what will go down as one of the greatest nights in major league baseball history. Besides the Rays-Red Sox drama, the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals made the playoffs on the final day when they won and the Atlanta Braves lost an extra-innings game.
"It was cool the way it ended, with Atlanta and the Cardinals and Tampa and us. All that, yeah, it was pretty great," he said. "If you talk about that day, that 162 in baseball, yeah, I'll always remember that day. But as far as me just getting a hit, not really. That's how I look at it."
Andino doesn't view his liner against Papelbon that bounced in front of left fielder Carl Crawford and scored Nolan Reimold as the spark that caused Boston's Great Baseball Wildfire of 2011.
"That's their problem, that's their team. I don't worry about that," Andino said. "I don't know what was the Red Sox's downfall. I have no idea, I just play my game."
Boston's downward spiral began well before the finale. The Red Sox went 7-20 in September, including losing five of their final seven against the last-place Orioles, who finished on an 11-5 run against playoff contenders.
It didn't get any better for the Red Sox in October, when a report surfaced that three veteran starters, John Lackey, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, ate fried chicken, drank beer and played video games in the clubhouse during games in which they didn't pitch.
Ultimately, manager Terry Francona was fired, GM Theo Epstein left for the Chicago Cubs, Papelbon darted to the Philadelphia Phillies, Crawford had wrist surgery and Lackey had elbow surgery — to name a few of the calamities that occurred to the Red Sox this past offseason.
Andino was involved in none of them.
Yet he'll always be a poster boy for the Red Sox's collapse. In an exhibition game this spring against Tampa Bay, Andino received a standing ovation from the Rays faithful in his first at-bat. And the converse is expected to happen Friday, when he steps to the Fenway Park plate and likely will be lustily booed.
"Actually, I don't really care," said Andino, who is batting .342 in 23 games for the Orioles in 2012. "Not in a bad way, but whatever is going to happen is going to happen. So I'm not thinking about it, to be honest with you."
Orioles' third base coach DeMarlo Hale, who spent six years on Francona's staff before joining the Orioles this past offseason, has this take on what will occur at Fenway: "They usually boo everybody that comes in there, so it should be no big deal. I think these [Orioles] players that have been in there before, they understand the atmosphere. That [the fans] cheer for their team and they boo the opposing team. It's not very complicated."
Having been around the Orioles since February, Hale said he has heard no talk about 2011. The focus since the beginning of spring training, he said, has been this season.
"It's the 2012 schedule; 2011 is gone," Hale said. "When you hear conversation in here, it's all about this year and where we're headed and what we are trying to sustain here."
The teams begin this weekend in unfamiliar roles. The Orioles (16-9) are one game behind the first-place Rays in the American League East; the Red Sox (11-13) are last in the division. The Orioles are 14-40 in their past six seasons playing at Fenway Park, but they did take three of four there last September.
"The Orioles have a good ballclub coming into Fenway Park, that's the new story," Duquette said. "The Orioles played well against the Red Sox at the end of last year, and we have an improved pitching staff, so hopefully we'll play well throughout the rest of the road trip."
A Dalton, Mass., native, Duquette spent eight seasons as general manager of the Red Sox before being dismissed as part of a regime change in 2002. He hadn't had a major league executive job since until the Orioles hired him, and now he will be returning to Fenway with a rival.
"It will be a new experience, right? I grew up around Boston, but things have changed," Duquette said. "My family is going to be at the ballpark. They spent many days at Fenway cheering for the Red Sox. So now they need to be cheering for the Orioles. We'll have about 10 [people there] each day, and they better be cheering for the Orioles."
Winners of eight of their past 10, the Orioles are seven games over .500 for the first time since 2005. They are coming off their first series win in Yankee Stadium since September 2010.
"We are going to find out what kind of ballclub we have over the next few weeks," Duquette said, "because we are playing the best teams in the league."
So getting better, competing with the big boys, proving that this start isn't a fluke — those are the important things to focus on this weekend in Boston.
And not what happened last September.
"In the big leagues, that was one of my best moments, but I don't live in the past," Andino said. "I really can't think about it no more."
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