By Mike Klingaman
The Baltimore Sun
7:10 PM EDT, October 4, 2012
It has been nearly five years since he set foot in Camden Yards. But if the Orioles advance to host American League Division Series games this weekend, Jay Gibbons will be there, clad in orange and black, whooping it up in the cheap seats with a mob of playoff-starved fans.
"Are you kidding me? That is something I just can't miss," said Gibbons, an Orioles outfielder from 2001 through 2007, during the team's darker days. "Things were so tough for so long, and I always wanted to make the playoffs.
"I'll get my Orioles cap out of the garage, fly in from California, wear my Brian Roberts jersey and sit in the right-field bleachers."
Like Gibbons, others who played for the O's during the lean skein — 14 straight losing seasons between 1998 and 2011, when they dropped 286 more games than they won — saluted the team for its turnaround. But excuse their envy.
"It makes you want to be a part of that. You want to wear your number 6 again; you want to be there," said Melvin Mora, the onetime All-Star third baseman whose 10 years with the Orioles (2000 through 2009) produced one third-place finish, seven fourths and two fifths.
"Finally, the Orioles have a manager who puts all the pieces together," said Mora, 40, who left via free agency the year before skipper Buck Showalter arrived. "Everybody is hungry to play, they believe in themselves and it doesn't matter who's who.
"I'm happy for the owner [Peter Angelos], too," he said. "Now, the Angelos family can sleep in peace."
Likewise, the Orioles of yore.
"I wish the city the best, but ... part of me is jealous. I wish I could have done this for my teammates," said Brook Fordyce, an Orioles catcher from 2000 through 2003. "Our times weren't what everyone wanted. But I'm ecstatic for everyone involved because [making the playoffs] is tough to do over 162 games.
"Baseball is a marathon, and it takes a year like this to appreciate how many things go right, how much goes your way and the fact that you're still standing. Plus, nobody is more deserving of an October atmosphere than the fans in Baltimore."
The Orioles' brass — the current regime, at least — could flash an I-told-you-so to their critics, said Fordyce, who runs a baseball academy for kids in Stuart, Fla.
"This proves the scouting department, the general manager and the manager correct," he said. "The Orioles had question marks everywhere, but those question marks came to fruition."
The two World Series rings he won with the Florida [now Miami] Marlins don't erase the hankering he had to carry the Orioles into October, Jeff Conine said.
"If not for that, I'd be jealous," said Conine, a first baseman-outfielder who batted .287 in two stints with the Orioles over six years (1999-2003 and 2006). "I am a little bummed out that I wasn't there for a [postseason] run, because Camden Yards was one of my favorite places to play. To be there, in this atmosphere, would be second to none. But I'm happy for the fans, and for one of the premier franchises in the sport."
Don't sell Baltimore short at this point, Conine said.
"It's not necessarily the best team that wins it all, it's the hottest team. Get hot at the right time and anything can happen," he said.
That the Orioles' hopes hinge on more than a couple of arms and bats bodes well for their chances, said Conine, now special assistant to the Marlins' president.
"The bottom line is that they're getting contributions throughout the lineup," he said. "People discount chemistry a lot, but clubhouse unity is the bottom line. You can't plan it. It just happens."
Kevin Millar agreed.
"There's no reason why the Orioles can't take it all. There's no team, head-and-shoulder-wise, that's better than them," said Millar, the Orioles' first baseman from 2006 through 2008. "What's different this year is the parity in the big leagues. It's an even playing field, and there's no reason why they can't be world champions."
Let Millar, an analyst for the MLB Network, dissect his old team:
"They are physical, they've filled the void at first base, and [center fielder] Adam Jones has turned into a superstar. I'm surprised the starting [pitching] staff has stayed in the game this long, because they don't have one bona fide guy. It's a testament to the bullpen.
"It's awesome that the city is grasping for a winner for the first time since 1997. When you're the doormat of the league, you get tired of looking up at New York and Boston. It's been fun to watch the Yankees play in [Camden Yards] with more Baltimore fans out there."
Not that Millar wouldn't enjoy being part of the Orioles' renaissance.
"I wish we were this good when I played there," he said. "But right now, it's nice to enjoy these 25 guys and to watch them do their thing.
"I've got friends on that club, and I'm going to live through them. That team has a chance to shock the world."
The Orioles have few bigger fans than Gibbons, 35, the onetime slugger who retired from baseball this year.
"It's so much fun to finally see them winning, even all the way from California," he said. "I shot [trainer] Richie Bancells a text message awhile back and asked him, 'Is this all for real?' He shot back, 'We're praying.'
"I've been on the phone constantly, checking their scores. My wife says, 'Give it up, you don't play for them any more.' But I can't help it."
The Orioles' success helps to shelve thoughts of the lost years, said Gibbons, who'd rather return here anonymously.
"Those were tough times, like in 2002, when we lost 32 of our last 36 games. So I don't need to reminisce when I come back to Baltimore," he said. "Just a 'Hi, Howya doin?' from a fan or two would be fine. I don't want to get eggs thrown at me, or anything."
All Gibbons wants is to sit in the stands and soak up the fervor. Better late than never.
"The atmosphere at the ballpark will be crazy," he said. "I remember going to Ravens games and thinking, 'Man, it would be nice if we had that at our park.'
"Now, we will. And I have to be part of that."
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