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Fans cheer before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Camden Yards.
Fans cheer before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Camden Yards. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Cara Woods had never been to a playoff game in her 21 years as an Orioles fan.

But as she waited for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series to begin Friday night at Camden Yards, she couldn't help thinking ahead, just a little.

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"You can almost taste the [World Series]," the Glen Burnie native said.

These are heady times for Baltimore baseball fans. Their team has the best record of the four left standing, and they've begun entertaining goals that had seemed out of reach for a generation.

But first things first. The Orioles hosted their first ALCS game in 17 years against the Kansas City Royals, a team that had waited even longer — 29 years — to return to the promised land. And if this quirky, razor-close opener was any indication, supporters of both teams are in for a wild time.

It was a sweet story for two oft-disappointed fan bases, and even an anticipated rainfall remained at bay — until midway through the game at least — to give them their night on baseball's big stage.

What the packed house of 47,124 saw was a classic playoff game, with the Royals coming out on top, 8-6, on two 10th-inning home runs. That came after the Orioles fought back from a four-run deficit to tie the game at 5-5.

"I feel like baseball means something again," said Woods, a senior at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. She was barely old enough to understand what was happening the last time the Orioles advanced so far.

Weather dominated the talk as game time neared, with the National Weather Service calling for a 100 percent chance of a wet evening. But it seemed like everyone — Major League Baseball, the teams and the fans — wanted the game to be played Friday night in a packed Camden Yards on prime time TV. With a chance to get Game 1 in, nobody wanted to wait another day.

Asked if he'd rather play three hours in the rain or face the prospect of five games in five days, Royals manager Ned Yost was clear. "I prefer to play in the rain tonight," he said. "I just feel that we're ready for this. We've had four days off. The rain doesn't scare us. I'd just as soon play tonight … and have the off day on Sunday."

Many expected a scene similar to Oct. 7, 2012, when a sellout crowd waited through a 2 1/2-hour rain delay for the Orioles' first home playoff game in 15 years. No one seemed to leave that night and, if anything, the crowd's enthusiasm grew as the Orioles waited for the first pitch against the New York Yankees.

Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president for operations, said he anticipated a possible postponement during the day Friday. But later forecasts predicted the bulk of the rain would hold off until midnight.

"It's all about the forecast for us," Torre said. "We don't want the fans to be inconvenienced. We certainly don't want, at this time of year, the game to be less than it should be."

As it turned out, the tarp on the field an hour before game time was the only real similarity to 2012. The grounds crew received a pleasant cheer when they pulled the cover off at 7:12 p.m. but nothing like the wild ovation of two years earlier.

The game began without rain, though it eventually came in the later innings.

"I'm definitely pleasantly surprised," said Derek Shorey of Glen Burnie, clutching his unused umbrella on the flag court in right field. "The last time I was here was a Yankees game where it was delayed two hours, and they never started again. So I was afraid that might happen tonight."

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The atmosphere at Camden Yards differed in another way from that 2012 series against the Yankees — in the collegiality between Orioles loyalists and visiting Royals fans. All around the ballpark, those wearing orange and those wearing blue seemed to be getting along.

Fans of both teams had spent so many years hopelessly yearning for the playoffs that any preseries animosity seemed out of place.

"Oh, I feel very comfortable here," said Royals fan Bill Witnauer, who had risen at 5 a.m. to drive down from Buffalo for the game. Witnauer fell for the Royals way back in 1980, when he was a T-ball third baseman hoping to emulate Kansas City star George Brett.

But his mother made him go to bed before he could catch the Royals clinching the 1985 World Series, and he waited 29 years for another chance to celebrate his team in the postseason.

"It's huge," he said.

He was a wreck, watching the Royals mount an improbable rally in their wild-card win over the Oakland Athletics. He estimated he drank a beer an inning to ease the tension. When the Royals pulled that one out, Witnauer figured he'd treat anything else as a wonderful surprise.

"Ever since then, I've felt like they're a team of destiny," he said. "Now I can believe anything."

He sounded a lot like Scott Woods, Cara's father, describing the Orioles' return to the playoffs in 2012. "That was just a ridiculously magical season," Woods said.

"I'm not feeling like the underdog anymore," he added.

So 2014 isn't 2012. The Royals, not the Orioles, are the unexpected belles at the ball. And Baltimore fans aren't happy just to be in the playoffs.

The players feel it as well. "You get to this spot," said Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz, "and you want to go all the way."

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