Orioles close the book on an era of losing, but the players are looking for more

The Orioles celebrate their 14-innings victory over the Rays on Thursday.
The Orioles celebrate their 14-innings victory over the Rays on Thursday. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

In the end, these Orioles reduced the milestone to something small, almost insignificant. That's how weird, wonderful and exciting they have turned out to be in 2012.

For years, any big-picture assessment of the franchise has included a reminder of its growing streak of losing seasons. The number was 14 going into this year, a run of futility stretching all the way back to 1997.

It won't hit 15.

The Orioles guaranteed that Thursday with a spine-tingling, 14-inning victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that brought their season win total to 81.

On Opening Day, many Orioles fans said they'd be thrilled if the club finally broke even — 81-81. But this group has made everyone, not least themselves, considerably greedier. Decent no longer cuts it. The Orioles, and their fans, want to beat the New York Yankees and win the big, bad American League East.

"I don't think that means anything this year," catcher Matt Wieters said of reaching 81 wins. "Maybe if we were coming down to the last three or four games of the year and that's what we were shooting for. But right now, an above-.500 record is not our goal. As players, we want to win it all."

To a man, the Orioles said win No. 81 would be just another in their growing collection.

"That's definitely not what we're looking at," said shortstop J.J. Hardy. "Right now, we want to go win our division. If that doesn't happen, then we want a chance to win that wild-card game. Our goal is to get into the playoffs and go deep in the playoffs. We're not worried about the winning season right now."

Of course, none of the current players were around for the beginning of the losing streak. So what about the few people in the organization who were?

"Sure, that was the hope in spring training, that it would be 81-81," said radio broadcaster Fred Manfra, who has called Orioles games since 1993. "This is beyond my wildest dreams of what would happen this year. And, quite frankly, what we have to do is enjoy the run. When we get to 81 victories, you hope it's just a situation where we build on that and play deep into October."

In light of how far the team has come, Manfra called 81 wins "a minimal milestone."

"No one's even thinking about it," he said. "It's sure nice to be able to say that."

Fans certainly seem to have moved on to grander thoughts.

"Sure, .500 seemed like a great goal at the beginning of the year, but now it feels like let's get some more," said Paul Mayhew, having a drink along Eutaw Street before Thursday afternoon's game.

Mayhew, a Catonsville resident, said it's not just the record but the nature of the team that has captivated him. "This is just a bunch of blue-collar guys who love their manager, and their manager loves them," he said. "And everything has just fallen into place."

Irene DePavvo of Dundalk has rooted for the Orioles since she attended the team's welcome-to-Baltimore parade in 1954. She has seen a lot of winners in her time and said she now believes this year's team, which seems to produce a different star every day, can go all the way.

"I didn't expect this, and I'm happier than a pig in mud," she said.

The club's final run to securing 81 wins was a microcosm of its whole crazy season.

In win No. 79, on Tuesday, the Orioles lost Jason Hammel, their best starting pitcher for much of the season, to a recurrent knee injury. They responded by clubbing Tampa Bay's Matt Moore, only one of the sport's hottest young pitchers, in a 9-2 laugher.

The next night, the Orioles used superb defense to hold a tense 2-2 tie into the bottom of the ninth inning. That set the stage for Nate McLouth, one of the club's miracle midseason finds, to win it with a hit deep into the right-field corner.

Finally, on Thursday, back-up catcher Taylor Teagarden continued his season of improbable timely hitting, putting the Orioles ahead with a two-run double in the seventh inning. Teagarden has six hits all year; five have provided crucial runs in one- or two-run victories.

But that wasn't dramatic enough for the Orioles, who allowed the tying run in the eighth, so they could eventually win in the 14th on a looping single by 20-year-old phenom Manny Machado.

With the victory, they moved to 27-7 in one-run games, the best any team has ever performed in those tightest of contests.

As a sign of just how loose the Orioles are, they had all the club's rookies — including Machado — donning tutus for the five-hour flight to Oakland after the game.

Fifteen years can feel like an eternity in baseball.

Roger Maris still held the single-season home run record and Hank Aaron the career mark the last time the Orioles fielded a winner. The term "steroid era" had not been coined. Derek Jeter was playing his second full season for the Yankees.

Not a single member of the 1997 Orioles remains an active player (reliever Arthur Rhodes pitched until last season). Two key players from that team, Roberto Alomar and Cal Ripken Jr., are in the Hall of Fame.

The streak of losing records has consumed seven managers and six front-office regimes. Only Pittsburgh, where the Pirates are struggling to stay above .500, has waited longer for a winner. If the Pirates join the Orioles and break their losing string at 19, the Kansas City Royals, on their way to a ninth straight losing season, would be next in line.

Thoughts of such streaks seemed distant for the Orioles after Thursday's marathon win. The playoffs loomed far larger.

"There's a bigger goal in mind," said manager Buck Showalter. "We've been watching other teams for years and saying, 'We want to do what they're doing. We'd like to get a chair at the dance.'"


Orioles records since 1997

Year W L Pct.

*2012 81 62 .566

2011 69 93 .426

2010 66 96 .407

2009 64 98 .395

2008 68 93 .422

2007 69 93 .426

2006 70 92 .432

2005 74 88 .457

2004 78 84 .481

2003 71 91 .438

2002 67 95 .414

2001 63 98 .391

2000 74 88 .457

1999 78 84 .481

1998 79 83 .488

1997 98 64 .605

*Through Thursday