It's early fall in Baltimore, that time of year when purple banners, car flags and sweatshirts normally dominate the landscape, as surely as the colors are soon to hit the trees. But Charm City isn't just NFL country now.
In grade schools and taverns, at water coolers and along busy streets, Baltimoreans are sporting Orioles orange and black, following out-of-town scores and relishing every Adam Jones line drive, Mark Reynolds bomb or Jim Johnson strikeout.
The O's are in a pennant race, the franchise's first since 1997, and a baseball town wounded by years of losing is buying in.
"We were wandering out there in the desert for so long, but look at all the orange here now," said Christina Barth of Mount Airy as she sat in the Camden Yards flag court before Tuesday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "Everybody's watching. Everybody's excited. It's a special feeling to be able to be proud of the Orioles again."
No sports revival can happen without victories, and the O's have delivered plenty. With less than a week remaining in the season, the team — which opened spring training with jumbled pitching, question marks at several key positions and the league's 19th-highest payroll — had 89 wins, 20 more than last season's total, a winning record for the first time in 15 years and a shot at first place.
"This manager is a hypnotist. I don't know how Buck [Showalter] is doing it, exactly, but trust me; I'm in sales. He has every one of those players believing they're going to win," Toner said.
For someone who hasn't met the manager, he's pretty close.
Before a recent game, Showalter sips coffee behind a vast desk in his roomy Camden Yards office, his eyes red and throat scratchy from two weeks on the road. A row of vintage Orioles caps lines the cabinet behind him.
Any manager, Showalter insists, could be winning with Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Jones and Johnson blossoming at the same time as they are this year. He avoids leadership formulas. But listen to him talk baseball, and a strategy comes into view: What Showalter favors is a positive outlook grounded in honesty, delivered to people he trusts and enjoys.
The stars anchor the team, of course — as the weekend began, closer Johnson had 47 saves, a franchise record, and five players had 20-plus homers, a big-league high. But in concert with general manager Dan Duquette, he has cycled 52 players through the roster, more than any O's manager since 1955. Few are household names.
Yet from Luis Ayala to Taylor Teagarden, all have big-league ability — often more others seem to notice, Showalter says. Just as important, they have qualities that resonate with baseball and life: a "hunger" for their craft, a respectful personality, a deep sense that the game is fun.
Pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, late of the Mexican Pacific League, has come back from rejection by the Boston Red Sox organization and arm surgery to win eight games. Shortstop J.J. Hardy helped his brother, an Iraq War veteran, through post-traumatic stress disorder. Jim Thome is putting his 10 nieces and nephews through college.
"Before I add anybody to this team, I think long and hard about how he's going to fit in, what kind of teammate he's going to be," Showalter says. "This [clubhouse] is a special fraternity. Why would I want to do anything to disturb that?" It's a nod to everyone from quietly patient Manny Machado, 20, to upbeat veterans such as 30-year-old Nate McLouth.
From there, Showalter says, his job is to "define reality" — that is, tell his charges what they need to hear.
Winning is the goal, after all. Offer players a taste, he says, and good things will happen — and snowball. People will end up doing things no one saw coming.
He takes another sip of coffee and says, "These guys surprise me every game."
For a team in the midst of an all-too-rare pennant race, the Orioles don't seem to feel the strain. A few hours before one game, they toss a football and some Frisbees as part of their warmup.
The day after a doubleheader split with the Blue Jays, the clubhouse is lively but reserved, a fair summation of the mindset that has gotten the team here.
It's a sprawling, carpeted place, with players' names and uniform numbers neatly displayed above the wood-trimmed lockers lining the walls. In the center, players in shorts and T-shirts lounge on oversized black sofas.
The pingpong table is getting a workout, and not far away, McLouth and pitcher Randy Wolf trade stories about a favorite baseball figure, Kirk Gibson, recounting the legendary home run that the injured star hit for the L.A. Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.
And from his locker at one end, Jake Arrieta, the Opening Day starter who now works out of the bullpen, puts the pennant race in perspective.
For Arrieta, all this pennant fever got its start long before, in his case in 2007, when the Orioles made him a fifth-round pick in the June draft. From then on, the 6-foot-5 pitcher says, he has been part of a gradual building process that has left everyone in the room all but certain this would happen sooner or later.
"You can't go by what others say. We felt we had this ability all along," he says, adding that even though the players come from all walks of life, there's a natural camaraderie among them.
"Look around this room, you'll see what I mean," he says, as though inviting a guest.
There are voices of experience. Thome, the future Hall of Famer, sits on a stool in front of his locker, patiently answering half a dozen reporters' questions. The past month in Baltimore reminds him of the mid-1990s in Cleveland, he says, when he was helping lead the Indians out of the doldrums.
There are quieter voices. The notoriously reserved Markakis, still sidelined with a broken thumb, tells someone he plans to get the pins out when the team is in Tampa.
There are voices of unity. Pitcher Tommy Hunter recalls his two pennant races with the Texas Rangers and says this one is better, if only because of teammates like Markakis, who played with dignity on so many losing teams. "You want to win for guys like Nick," he says.
Out in the ballpark, the crazies are filing in, and their orange-and-black gear tells a tale. It's not just the oldsters who wear the Palmer, Murray and Ripken stuff, nor the teeny-boppers who sport Jones' 10 or Wieters' 32.
Plenty of T-shirts proclaim ""Buck-le Up!" or "O Buck Yeah!"
"It's just great to see so many people here having fun," says Stasia Zarling, a partial season-ticket holder sitting along the third base line with her partner, Jeff Bejma.
Bejma knows turnarounds. He grew up in Detroit, where he suffered through years of despair following the football Lions and lived through the second-worst season in baseball history when the Tigers lost 119 games in 2003. They won the World Series three years later.
"You stick with your team," says Bejma, who even led a group of 30 friends to Camden Yards for two Red Sox games, where they "took back the stadium" by singing drinking songs and shouting down the usually boisterous Boston faithful.
As the game unfolds, it's clear starting pitcher Joe Saunders is off his game. He gives up 11 hits and three runs in six innings, and the O's lose.
But one of Showalter's mottos is a saying his father taught him: "Don't overlook an orchid while waiting for a rose." He gives pitching phenom Dylan Bundy his Camden Yards debut in the ninth.
The 19-year-old serves up a glimpse of the future, firing 95-mph heat in a shutout inning. More than half the crowd stays till the end.
Choosing to believe
Is it panic time in Baltimore? The O's have uncharacteristically dropped three of their past four. Showalter reminds them they've also won seven of 10.
At Kisling's Tavern & Grill in Canton, lifelong fan Brian Paska, 31, is watching the final Toronto game with a bunch of friends. Clad in orange and black, he appears in an advanced state of sports awe.
The Orioles haven't been in contention this late since he was 16 — years before the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001.
"I've never switched back and forth between the Ravens and Orioles like I'm doing now," he says. "It's a great time to be a sports fan in Baltimore."
He doesn't know the half of it.
McLouth leads off the first with a home run. Thome, Machado and Chris Davis follow with homers in the fifth. Reynolds hits another in the sixth, and the rout is on. The team clobbers seven home runs in the game, tying a team record, and romps, 12-2.
Over at Willow in Fells Point, John Wienholt is gratified. He lives on a houseboat in the harbor and comes here to watch nearly every televised game.
"This game was a statement," he says. "This is a response — a furious response to losing those three out of four. The heck with the wild card. This team's going to win the division."
Like thousands of fans, Wienholt has surrendered his heart cautiously this year. Even in a season in which the team has won an incredible 16 straight extra-inning games — the most by any club since the 1949 Indians — he has withdrawn, at times, into a self-protective shell of pessimism.
"Sometimes I think, 'What if we get this far, this close to the promised land, then crash and burn?'" he says. "That can still happen. Think of the humiliation, the torture."
Then he thinks of the manager.
"Buck obviously has some powerful Zen working in that clubhouse," he says. "He's Yoda. I guess I'm going to choose to have faith."
A baseball town
As the O's play a weekend series at home against Boston, then three in Tampa Bay to end the season, they know they could overtake the Yankees and win the division, capture one of two wild-card playoff spots or end out of the running.
It's do or die, as it seems to have been all year.
No matter what happens, fans say, the team has reminded Baltmore of the game it used to love, and it seems to have held up a mirror to that city in the process.
To Bejma, the Fells Point fan, it's about more than baseball.
"Those boys are great representatives of Baltimore," he says. "They have grit. They don't give up. And this town was down on its luck once upon a time, and it found a way to get reborn."
Showalter knows a thing or two about picking up and starting over. Three big-league teams have fired the manager in his career, yet he has always found a way to rise again.
"We're glad to be where we are, but we aren't done yet," he says. "Kind of fun, don't you think?"