Try to think back to February and what a non-entity these Orioles were in the view of the wider baseball world. Almost everyone picked them to finish last in the American League East, and season previews decreed that they faced more questions than any Baltimore team in recent memory, which is saying something.

No one in Baltimore had given a second thought to Miguel Gonzalez or McLouth. All-Star relief pitcher Jim Johnson was still talked about as a possible starter. Manny Machado was a teenager expected to help some year in the nebulous future.

But this team — with its dominance in one-run games, its resourcefulness in plugging holes, the unstinting excellence of its relief pitching — has burned itself into the imagination of Baltimore baseball fans.

It will always be the club that ended 14 straight years of losing, the one that made a city don purple and orange for the first September in memory, the one that brought playoff baseball back to a rocking Camden Yards.

Maybe it will be filed with the "Why Not?" season of 1989, a wonderful surprise that did not foretell a full franchise turnaround. Or maybe it will be like 1960, the club's first winning season in Baltimore and the harbinger of a real sea change. Either way, it will be remembered.

"I think it's a changing of the guard," said Adam Wheatley of Cambridge, Md., who attended Games 4 and 5 in New York with his younger brother, Kyle.

The brothers firmly expected the Orioles to win but wanted to witness the pivotal games regardless.

"In my lifetime, there haven't been many chances to celebrate the Orioles like this," said Kyle Wheatley, 23. "You hope this is the first season of many like this, but you also have to take the moment while it's there."

When Diane Bindel slipped on her Orioles jersey Friday morning, she thought she'd go for a normal workday in Ellicott City and then watch Game 5 on television. Bu then her friend, LeeAnne Barbee, stopped at her desk and said, "How adventurous are you feeling?"

By 3:30 p.m., the women were standing in the first row at Yankee Stadium, watching their Orioles warm up.

"I've watched every pitch this season," Barbee said. "I love them. You know how long it's been since the Orioles had a good team?"

Bindel was aware that the drive back to Baltimore could be a sad one if the Orioles' season ended in the Bronx.

"But I don't think it will be sad, because it's so much fun that they've come so far," she said. "I'll always remember walking out of the stadium after the last home game and seeing everybody in O's shirts and a car rolling down the road, blaring 'Orioles Magic.'

"It was the coolest thing."

The Orioles, who will return most of their core players, expect to be back in contention next year. And the Yankees, eternal powerhouse of the AL East, expect the battle to carry over.

"You know, it's not a Baltimore team that you've seen in the past," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson saud. "It's going to be a very good Baltimore team for a long time to come."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary McCauley contributed to this article.

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