Before Baltimore becomes swept up entirely in Ravens football (as impossible as that may be given the first place team's comeback win against the dread Steelers on the road), a tip of the cap is due Buck Showalter and the Orioles. A baseball season that started out as an epic disaster in the making turned into something not so embarrassing after all.
We knew of Mr. Showalter's legendary turnaround skills before he took over the team this summer. He worked baseball magic in New York, Texas and Arizona. But we were unprepared for a team potentially headed to a record number of losses to have its best August and September finish to a season in 14 years.
Some may perceive the Orioles 66-96 season as more of the usual. It's just two wins better than 2009, and two wins less than 2008. But given the manager inherited the team at 32-73, his 34 wins against just 23 losses is really quite remarkable.
To put it in perspective, Mr. Showalter's winning percentage, sustained for a whole major league season, would likely put the team in the playoffs. Admittedly, two months does not a season make, and the Orioles still have their shortcomings, but at least it means that fans can wear the team apparel without fear of being mocked -- or pitied by out-of-towners.
If this keeps up next spring, Mr. Showalter really ought to be put in charge of the economy. Or perhaps lead Middle East peace efforts. Or otherwise tackle the impossible. Certainly, he's not encumbered by ego, as he still hasn't taken much credit for the Orioles' winning ways.
Of course, Orioles fans now must do what they've learned to do for the past 13 years: watch other teams compete in the playoffs. But at least the community is spared from late-night talk show hosts' cracks about futility and losing streaks. Let the residents of Pittsburgh and Seattle enjoy that dubious distinction for the time being.
Still, Baltimoreans are a skeptical lot, and anyone who listens to talk radio knows the community doesn't expect a World Series appearance in 2011. But there are too many talented players on this roster (and too many highly rated prospects in the farm system) to not have some optimism about the next five years.
If that renewed sense of pride and hope causes owner Peter Angelos to open up his wallet and allow top executive Andy MacPhail to spend some money on free agents in the off-season, so much the better.
As a player, Cal Ripken Jr. used to always say he was careful never to get too excited when things were going well for him or too low when they weren't. Long-suffering baseball fans aren't usually so disciplined in their approach to sports, but we'll do the best we can.
For the more excitable among us, there's always the Ravens from now until, oh, how about the Feb. 6 Super Bowl game in Dallas? These birds may not play baseball, but the defense gets its share of hits, and newcomers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are serious homerun threats. And you can bet Jay Leno isn't going to mock Ray Lewis anytime soon, no matter how dorky his Old Spice commercials seem.