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It's time for Orioles fans to jump on board

Orioles fans, your time has finally come.

Who's had it tougher than you the past 14 years? The Backstreet Boys? You watched so much bad baseball you almost forgot what good baseball looked like.

Season after season, it felt as if the Orioles were out of the race by Arbor Day. You watched the parade of mediocre players, over-matched managers and timid front office types come and go, took all that abuse from your out-of-town friends, and wondered if it would ever get better.

And now it has. Oh, man, has it gotten better.

Now it's September and your team is in an honest-to-goodness pennant race, and you almost have to pinch yourself to see if it's real.

On Thursday, it gets even better: the AL East-leading Yankees come to town for four games that might be the most important of this magical Orioles season.

Now we'll see how orange and black the place gets. Now we'll see how loud it gets, too, and whether the usual invasion of blustery Yankees fans gets drowned out by the Orioles' faithful.

But it's definitely put up or shut up time, Orioles fans. No more excuses for not supporting a team that has shocked the pundits and delighted its fans for five months now.

The Grand Prix is gone and downtown no longer looks like Fortress Baltimore with all the barriers and chain-link fencing.

And all the other excuses for not going to the Yards — you're not sure this team's for real, you're still ticked at Peter Angelos, ticked at the walk-up ticket surcharge — seem lame, too.

Do yourself a favor: lighten up and enjoy the moment, OK? It's the most amazing baseball summer we've had around here since 1997, the last time the Orioles sniffed the playoffs. And you're crazy if you don't want to be part of it.

Here's another thing to be thrilled about, Orioles fans. Your team may be catching the Yankees at the perfect time.

It sure looks like the Yanks are feeling the pressure, having lost 10 of their last 14 before beating Tampa Bay 6-4 on Wednesday night.

Look what happened the night before. Manager Joe Girardi was tossed in the fourth inning of a 5-2 loss to the Rays, then proceeded to go Chernobyl on home plate ump Tony Randazzo.

Not only that, but the Yankees' clubhouse was a morgue afterward, with the great Derek Jeter reduced to reaching for this ray of sunshine: "How many games do we have left? If we win all of them, we're good, right? If that's the case, you don't have to worry about anyone else."

Girardi wouldn't comment on his outburst. But it came less than two weeks after he went off on a heckler in Chicago after the White Sox swept the Yankees.

No, the Yankees seem rattled, all right. The 10-game lead they had on the rest of the division July 18 is gone. Their fans are starting to panic. The Rottweiler New York media is all over them. That could make things easier for the Orioles over the weekend.

So enjoy what you're seeing now, Orioles fans. And don't worry about the negatives you hear from the national media. Don't worry about the Orioles' lousy run differential and where they rank in hitting, pitching and the rest.

The bottom line is this team keeps winning. And for the first time since '97, the fans in this town are watching September baseball that matters.

"I don't think you could find two teams more dissimilar than this team and the '97 team," Brady Anderson said with a chuckle Wednesday.

Anderson, of course, was the terrific center fielder on that '97 team that won 98 games and the division and advanced to the American League Championship Series. He's a special assistant to GM Dan Duquette now, which gives him a unique perspective to compare the '97 Orioles with these surprising Orioles .

"There's the payroll disparity," he said. "That ('97) team had me, (Robbie) Alomar, (Rafael) Palmeiro, Cal (Ripken), (Bobby) Bonilla, (B.J.) Surhoff, (Chris) Hoiles. I don't think anyone was surprised by that team winning, since it had also won the year before. That was a team built to win, expected to win.

"But one thing that is similar is the reactions to wins and losses," he continued. "This team is not overly excited when they win and not overly-down when they lose."

And while there's plenty of time left in the season and the Orioles haven't won anything yet, Hoiles, the sturdy oak of a catcher on that '97 team, says these Orioles have the one intangible all good teams need, the one that matters most of all.

"The biggest thing," he said, "is finding ways to win games instead of finding ways to lose. And that's their mindset right now."

Should be an exciting weekend at Camden Yards. And no one deserves it more than Orioles fans.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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