Not long ago, it was suggested by more than one sportswriter that the Baltimore Orioles would never again win the American League East. Not merely because they were bad (although during the post-1997 cellar-dwelling years, they certainly were) but because the checkbook-advantaged franchises in New York and Boston had too great an advantage in the age of free agency.
So that raucous celebration by players and fans alike Tuesday evening at Camden Yards after the Orioles clinched the division with an 8-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays was understandable and well-deserved. It may also be difficult to top given that such sparkling wine-and-beer-soaked antics, including a Cal Ripken Jr.-like victory trot around the warning track, made it look like the team had just simultaneously won the World Series and the Super Bowl and perhaps landed a man on the moon.
But before we go any farther in our praise of the Birds, let us also eat a bit of crow. During the All-Star break in July, we on The Sun's editorial board offered our own assessment of the Orioles and their chances of qualifying for the playoffs this season. Good enough to win, we concluded, but "it's easy to see the Orioles as pretty lucky to this point."
Oops. Did we say lucky? We meant inspired. Or possibly super-human. We harbored doubts about the starting pitching and whether injuries could be overcome. We didn't foresee late season additions like Jimmy Paredes and Alejandro De Aza becoming such difference-makers. Or expect the pitching staff to maintain the third lowest earned run average in the American League.
Two years ago, the Orioles made the playoffs as a wild card, but that was a team that seemed an anomaly, often winning by a single run or in extra innings thanks to a dominating closer. This year's team has been something different altogether — possessing that most magical of qualities known as team chemistry. The entire line-up contributes, and so does the whole pitching staff. It is not a team of stars — although having the Major League's best home run hitter in Nelson Cruz doesn't hurt — but a band of brothers who seem unfazed by the challenges they've faced, whether it was the season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado or, more recently, the 25-game suspension given Chris Davis. After all, what's a mere three All-Star players? Or the lack of a true ace on the pitching staff? Apparently, not that much when everyone shares the load.
But what really made that celebration special was that it's clear the players understand how much the victory meant for this city and its baseball fans. In recent years, the success of the Baltimore Ravens has also done much to bring this region together in celebration, but baseball and the Orioles share a history that runs much deeper. It is a generational moment, a passing of the torch. No wonder one of the first things the MASN announcers had to say after the win was "Ain't the beer cold," the favorite victory phrase of the late Orioles play-by-play man Chuck Thompson who narrated much of the franchise's modern era from their arrival 50 years ago through all their World Series appearances, the last coming in 1983.
Baltimoreans under the age of 35 weren't old enough to live through those high-flying days. But this team seems perfectly capable of showing a new generation how it's done. Las Vegas oddsmakers still don't peg the Orioles as a post-season favorite (a couple of Southern California teams top the charts), but they're no longer the long-shot they were pegged as just two months ago. What a great time to be a fan of the Baltimore Orioles.
Ordinarily, it would seem too much to ask the baseball gods for a dream World Series wherein the Orioles would face the Washington Nationals, the team that clinched their own playoff spot Tuesday atop the National League East. But we are done second-guessing Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, Nick Markakis, Chris Tillman and the rest. In Buck Showalter we trust. If the Nationals can just keep up their half, a Baltimore-Washington Parkway Series looks entirely feasible. "We won't stop" is the rallying cry of the moment, and we don't doubt it. Not anymore.
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