In their one-game, sudden-death
Wild Card play-in against two-time defending American League champions the Texas Rangers on Friday night, the Orioles started Joe Saunders, 9-13, who began this season pitching in the Arizona Diamondback's minor league system. He faced the Rangers' Japanese free-agent ace Yu Darvish, he of the steely demeanor, devastating off-speed sinker, and 16-9 record.
As usual, the baseball world didn't give the O's a chance. The same prognosticators who uniformly picked the O's to finish dead last in the American Least East made them 2-1 underdogs in the Wild Card game-almost absurdly long odds for a playoff game.
And yet, like a scene out of
, "Bazooka Joe" Saunders became the latest in a line of unlikely Orioles heroes in this most unlikely of seasons. The journeyman left-hander outdueled the ace as Baltimore's Birds advanced to the American League Division Series against the Yankees.
With a stubborn hustle reflective of their stern skipper's style, this year's team has transported its fans back to a time when baseball was king in Baltimore, resulting in arguably the most exciting season in the Yard's 20-year history.
Since its opening in 1992, Camden Yards has been consistently hailed as one of the best ballparks in the big leagues, but for all its scenic splendor and aesthetic wonder, the Orioles have only enjoyed six winning seasons at Oriole Park, including this year's.
From the time I moved to Baltimore in 1999 and became a convert to Orioles fandom, the proud franchise embarked upon a sustained period of futility, only rivaling its ancestral tenure in St. Louis as the perennial cellar-dwelling Browns in the first half of the 20th century. And although I was not here to experience the playoff seasons of 1996 and 1997, I consider the atmosphere this year to be more exciting because it has taken place after so many losing seasons and, unlike previous Orioles pennant contenders, nobody saw this coming.
For the past 14 baseball seasons, my friends and I have sat mostly in Section 8 at Oriole Park, located in the right-field corner, close to the foul pole. In recent years, the section has become something of a hub for diehards looking for great baseball and a great deal.
Section 8 has great sightlines: You practically get the right fielder's view of the infield. It's also close to Eutaw Street. I can get up and grab a beer or go to the restroom and return to my seat without missing much of the game. It's also close to the Jack Daniel's barbecue stand and my new favorite ballpark fare, beer-can chicken. My buddy, Ben Franklin, a new convert to baseball and Orioles faithful, prefers the thick slab bacon-on-a-stick. I've seen him eat three in one sitting.
And seats are usually available in Section 8 because it is just about the furthest Lower Box seat section from home plate and single-game seats are some of the more expensive in the park, going at a price of $45 and as much as $65 for a prime game against the Yankees, Red Sox, or Phillies. Season-ticket holders tend to gobble up the similarly priced seats closer to first base. Me and my crew are happy to let them have those while we find our way to largely deserted Section 8. On some of the more crowded nights, we sat on the porch at the Roof Deck bar, beyond the bullpens in center field. I watched games from other sections and always had a good time. But I always returned to Section 8.
Among the Section 8 inhabitants is hardcore Orioles fan Ideen Barimani, who was awarded
's "Best Self-Promoting Masochist" last year for his attempt to attend every Orioles home game, which he chronicled in a diary on his All 81 blog page.
"It became an amazing meeting place for all of us, and as people began to understand that I was serious about making it to all 81 games, everyone started to come to that section," he said. "The team was doing poorly, as they have for 14 seasons, so it was easy to sit there for most games. The atmosphere was laid-back. It became a social club as much as it was a ball game."
Although most of the seats have gone unoccupied during those 14 consecutive losing seasons-a streak that finally ended this year-my group of knowledgeable regulars have always made it quite boisterous. This year, our group expanded to include some casual observers drawn to the ballpark by the home team's sudden success. In the past, you could always find a seat in Section 8; this year, late in the season, the section began to fill up, sometimes completely.
This transitional year for the Orioles caused fans in Section 8 to adjust. The atmosphere and climate changed in our cozy corner of the ballpark. There is less elbow room and it's not as laid-back as it was. The pace before was leisurely and fans could choose between watching the game or socializing. Now, the focus is decidedly on baseball. The ritual of standing and cheering for a strikeout when the home-team pitcher gets two strikes on a batter, a rare practice in the last decade, became a regular occurrence. There was more high-fiving and back-slapping. Fans arrived early and stayed late.
This winning thing is all so new. I see kids who have only known a losing team. Then there are those, like me, who moved to the city after the Orioles started losing. For us, going to the ballpark had been a mostly casual affair, often a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was easy to buy tickets at the window on game days. Newcomers never dealt with pennant-race pressure or the increase in demand for tickets.
I never had opportunity to sit in the legendary Section 34 at Memorial Stadium, the former residence of Wild Bill Hagy and other members of a bawdy, beer-swilling brigade that kept a running party going in the right-field upper deck during the Orioles' golden era (1966-1983). But I would like to think that our group in Section 8 has fashioned something similar.
The Orioles opened the 2012 season
with a 4-2 victory at home, in front of an announced sell-out crowd of 46,773, against the Minnesota Twins. Orioles starting pitcher Jake Arrieta got the win and right fielder Nick Markakis hit a two-run homer, but the highlight of the game was a caped streaker (he had shorts on) who ran around in the outfield for about 90 seconds before being tackled by ballpark police. One comment on a YouTube video of the incident: "It is sad that for an entire generation of Orioles fans, this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened at a game." An exaggeration, to be sure, but an unfortunate commentary on the state of Orioles fandom on Opening Day.
On Saturday, April 28, despite stormy conditions, the Orioles kicked off the team's Legends Series, honoring former outfielder Frank Robinson, the first of the team's six members in the National Baseball Hall of Fame to have his life-size bronze statue unveiled.
Numerous former Orioles were in attendance. Robinson called out just about everyone by name and one in particular who couldn't be there.
"One of the greatest is not here today, and my prayers and thanks go out to him and that's my 'brother,' Brooks Robinson. . . . We had fun playing the game. . . . We played the game, as they say, 'the Oriole way.' The Oriole Way is the correct way of playing the game," Frank Robinson said, in reference to a philosophy of practicing baseball fundamentals and patience in developing players that was the team's mantra.
The statue installations and commemorations are in conjunction with other design improvements to Oriole Park this year. The current Orioles organization has often been criticized for its disassociation with the team's fabled history, but this year, in a nod of recognition and perhaps reconciliation, the sculpture garden has helped the team make amends with its glorious past.
"Mr. Angelos thought it to be important in this 20th anniversary season of Oriole Park to honor the six greatest Orioles of all time," Greg Bader, the Orioles' director of communications, says. "The idea to celebrate one per month in a Legends Celebration Series was his vision to appropriately honor each of these men for their accomplishments both on and off the field. "
With numerous baseball brass and dignitaries in attendance, including Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, the Orioles clobbered the Oakland A's, 10-1, on the first statue-dedication night, improving the team's record to 13-8, keeping them tied for first place.
An early harbinger that the team's fortunes might finally have been turning came several weeks later, in Boston, on May 17, when the Orioles completed a three-game sweep in a raucous 17-inning affair that ended with outfielder Chris Davis being brought out in relief to record the last three outs, after Adam Jones' three-run homer put the Orioles ahead 9-6.
Earl Weaver, the most celebrated manager in the team's history, was the next to be honored in the sculpture garden, on June 30. Weaver was the first manager in the major league to win more than 100 games and reach the World Series in each of his first three years on the job. He recognized his connection to the Orioles' glorious history in his statue-dedication ceremony.
"It's been 26 years since I last put on a Baltimore uniform, and during that time, I made many a trip back here to Baltimore. And each time I came back, I was amazed at how the fans remembered the past," said Weaver, who thanked Orioles owner Peter Angelos effusively for his "generosity" in creating the sculpture garden and also thanked sculptor Toby Mendez for making him look like current Orioles manager, Buck Showalter. Actually, the Weaver statue looks just like Weaver-all of the sculptures in the garden bear remarkable resemblances to their human counterparts-but the comparison creates a nice parallel to the Orioles' present team.
The Orioles were still in second place but in the midst of the only prolonged slump of the season on July 14-having fallen to eight games behind the Yankees at 46-41-when the team's greatest pitcher, Jim Palmer, received his statue. Palmer also used the occasion to note the likenesses between Weaver and Showalter, saying: "Buck is all about the things that Earl was about."
The team would fall to its lowest point of the season three days later, dropping to 10 games back at 46-44. The July dip resulted in a drop in attendance, down to an average of 25,450 for 10 home games during the month.
Our group in Section 8 was still holding down the fort and even growing as the season progressed. My friend Ben Franklin, a bartender at the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill, where I live, got caught up in the baseball season, mostly through the interest of some of his female friends and customers, and we made it to about a half-dozen down the stretch, but he also went to a handful on his own, which came as a surprise to people who know him. I received the following text message from Ben on the last Sunday of the regular season: "Have SI [
] @ Tavern. What a game! Got head rubbed by bird."
A glimpse into the Orioles' future arrived on Aug. 9, when 20-year-old infielder Manny Machado made his big-league debut at Oriole Park, starting at third base while going 2 for 4 with a run scored. The next day, he went 2 for 4 with a pair of home runs and 4 RBI in the Orioles' 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals.
Machado's youthful enthusiasm and exuberance sparked the team's charges. More importantly, the relative ease with which Machado moved into the starting position at third base enabled manager Showalter to move Mark Reynolds to first base, where his suddenly slick fielding was a pleasant surprise.
Two days after Machado's debut, "Ed-die! Ed-die!" Murray was honored in the sculpture garden. A member of the Orioles' most recent World Series championship team, in 1983, Murray is still fresh in the minds of Orioles fans. Like Cal Jr., Murray played at both Memorial Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards and bridged the gap between the old days and the modern era. He played in both 1979's and 1983's World Series and was also on the Orioles 1996 Wild Card playoff team. In a comment directed toward Peter Angelos' son Lou, who represented the organization at all of the unveiling ceremonies, Murray acknowledged ownership's contributions:
"Lou, you and your family and this generosity here-I tell you, I think me and the rest of the players really appreciate it."
By the time September rolled around, the pundits couldn't say the Orioles were just lucky anymore. The members of the national sports media had either ignored the team's early success or dismissed it as a fluke or statistical anomaly, obsessing over the Orioles' negative run differential (for most of the season, more runs had been scored against the team than by the team) and its poor defensive play, which improved vastly with the arrival of Machado.
But if it wasn't luck, and statistical evidence couldn't support the team's improbable pennant-race run, then how to explain the Orioles' success?
Of course, there are some solid reasons for the team's almost-inexplicable ability to keep winning games: The bullpen has been lights-out; the Orioles have posted a 73-0 record in games the team was leading after the seventh inning; they've won 16 consecutive extra-inning games while posting a major league record, 29-9 in one-run games.
But perhaps the Orioles have also been touched by the hand of divine intervention-in baseball parlance often referred to as the "Baseball Gods." It seems that every baseball season, the Baseball Gods choose to smile upon a team or two, and this year the Orioles seem to be one of them.
On Sept. 6, the Orioles played in what might very well have been the most significant game Camden Yards has hosted in the context of its importance to the team-Cal Ripken Jr.'s record-breaking, consecutive games-played game on the same date in 1995 notwithstanding.
I don't know if Cal Jr. is the best or most beloved Oriole (my votes go to the Robinson "brothers," Frank for best, Brooks for most beloved), but I do think Jr. is the most magical and other-worldly. Cosmic occurrences seem to swirl around him. His timing and awareness are impeccable.
I wanted to attend the post-ceremony press conference after the unveiling of Ripken Jr.'s statue, and I was all set with the question I was going to ask, but Cal answered it in his opening remarks.
"In the beginning, I wasn't sure what to expect from these bronze statue ceremonies," he said. "Sure, these statues are for pretty good Orioles baseball players, but at the same time, a familiar kind of 'Orioles Magic' started to appear, the magic of the Oriole Way. A deep-rooted connection developed over generations, made up of people who dedicated their lives to baseball in Baltimore."
Of course, there was no way the Orioles would lose the evening's game.
With the "Damn Yankees" arriving in town for the first of a four-game series, holding a one-game lead over the Orioles in the American League Eastern division standings, Oriole Park buzzed and hummed like it hadn't since the last time the team reached the postseason playoffs in 1996 and 1997. The resounding ritual "Oh!" shout during the "Oh, say can you see" part of "The Star-Spangled Banner" shook the structure to its foundation, and the cheers released by the crowd after each of the first three outs stirred the clouds in the sky. Likewise, cheers erupted when catcher Matt Wieters blasted a three-run homer to give the Orioles a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. The Orioles carried a 6-1 lead after seven innings, but the Yankees, being the Yankees, rallied to tie the game, 6-6 in the eighth . . . but that's not the way this one was scripted to end.
Orioles MVP Adam Jones led off the bottom of the eighth with a home run to deep left-center field. Wieters followed with a single and Reynolds and Davis went yard back-to-back, and, just like that, the Orioles were back on top, 10-6. Closer Jim Johnson shut the Yankees down in the top of the ninth, striking out Eric Chavez to end the game.
Six days later, Machado made the defensive play of the Orioles' season, a Houdini-like sleight-of-hand deke that would make Brooks Robinson proud and which will probably earn the youngster an ESPY award on the ESPN network's end-of-year show.
Brooksie finally got his statue on the Sept. 29.
"It's nearly impossible to overstate what he has meant to all Orioles fans in Baltimore; in so many ways, Brooks is Mr. Oriole," Lou Angelos said at the unveiling.
Although Brooks was ailing when his "brother" Frank's statue was unveiled in April, Frank Robby came all the way from California to be with Brooks on his day. Neither Frank nor Brooks is getting any younger and Earl Weaver might even look better than both, but it's great that all six Orioles legends are still with us and present during the current team's surprising uprising.
It seemed surreal when Manny Machado hit the game-winning home run and made two dazzling plays on Brooks' big day.
"We had a lot of pressure on us to win with Brooks here," Showalter said after the game. "It was pretty apropos that the third baseman made a couple of really nice plays."
During the post-game press conference, a reporter asked Buck if he sometimes marvels at the storybook aspect of baseball, "where, on a night when Brooks is honored, . . . Machado, who is 50 years younger, comes up with a couple of big plays."
Showalter replied: "I don't do it sometimes-I do it all the time. That's why I and we and everybody has such an attachment to [baseball]. It's an honor to sit there and watch it and marvel at what these guys can do, especially when certain things start snowballing. And you create your karma. These guys have done a good job of doing that, and they're expecting good things to happen."
The Orioles completed a sweep of the Red Sox the next day and stood on the field after the game, watching the Los Angeles Angels and the Rangers complete the first game of a doubleheader in Texas on the giant scoreboard video screen. A loss by the Angels would have clinched at least a Wild Card playoff spot for the Orioles, which actually happened later in the nightcap, while the Orioles were making an emergency landing at the Jacksonville airport on their way to Tampa for the final three games of the regular season-another odd occurrence in this strange and wonderful season.
The O's would, of course, go on to beat the odds at least once more, ousting the Texas Rangers from the postseason, a development that the Rangers' manager described as "shocking." No matter what happens during the remainder of the 2012 season, it's been a year for the books. The Orioles team and the organization have etched an indelible memory upon the collective consciousness of our city.
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