Significance In September Reviving Old Love Affair
By Matt Palmer
A year ago, the Orioles shocked the baseball world by beating the Boston Red Sox on the last day of the season and keeping their foes out of the playoffs. Players stormed the field in celebration. Fans went wild for a team that still finished last in the American League East and had a 14th consecutive losing season.
What a difference a year makes. Moral victories no longer exist in the clubhouse, and that was clear on Sept. 9, after the team lost to the Yankees, 13-3. The Birds entered the game with a 78-61 record, having won two of the three previous games during the series and with a chance to take a one-game lead in the AL East against the Yankees.
"Obviously, we don't want to split," pitcher Zach Britton said. "We want to win it."
As a reporter asked center fielder Adam Jones about the fact that the Orioles hadn't split a season series with the Yankees since the late 1990s, the All-Star cut the question off.
"All that stuff about '96, '97, please, that's so irrelevant to me," Jones said. "We've been winning. It shows that like every other sport, everybody's getting better. There's been juggernauts, big dogs and winning teams. Now, everybody is getting better as a team. Now everybody just can't guarantee that the Yankees are going to get this or the Red Sox are going to get this."
The point was clear: the Orioles feel they belong atop baseball's crown jewel division, and are no longer satisfied with being the scrappy underdog. Such talk borders on offensive.
"I'm not that hard," manager Buck Showalter said. "I've got it. I'm proud of the way our guys competed. It's a given with some of their resources that [the Yankees] are always going to be competitive. Some people think that's good for baseball. I'm not going to jump on that wagon.
"You go in that clubhouse right now and poll our guys and ask them how many of them know what our regular-season record is against the Yankees. They want to know what our record is compared to the Yankees when the season is over [after] 162 games."
The Orioles entered the 2012 season with a series of promotional activities, including honoring past legends with statues, for the 20th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Above all, winning has been the most potent thing that has rekindled interest in the club. The Orioles have gone from a quaint underdog story during the first half of the season to a legitimate contender after a post-All-Star Game surge, which has kept the club not only in contention for one of two wild-card spots, but also for the AL East title.
"Our guys realize … it's their responsibility to put a product on the field that's consistent enough that people trust emotionally," Showalter said. "I don't think anybody feels like we're there yet. I think our guys really have a grip on how fleeting everything can be. This is a team that takes nothing for granted."
Early autumn baseball with something on the line is a far cry from the days when the Orioles would relish the role of spoiler and start planning postseason vacations.
"We're all playing with confidence," said first baseman Mark Reynolds, who hit nine home runs during a nine-game period in late August and early September. "We're having a lot of fun, and we're excited to get to the ballpark every day."
Virtually no one outside of the Orioles themselves thought this was a team with a shot to emerge from the division cellar. Now, the team's fortunes have mended a fractured relationship with some of the city's fans. Home attendance should come close to topping two million fans for the first time since 2007. When the Orioles beat the Yankees before a sellout crowd Sept. 6, there was a playoff-like atmosphere, as if the Baltimore fans were starting to believe the hometown team was for real.
"The fans may or may not know we need them," starting pitcher Jason Hammel said. "They're part of it as much as we are."
Cal Ripken Jr., one of the most beloved figures in team history, is among those admitting surprise. The final four seasons of Ripken's career were all losing campaigns in Baltimore, and 10 more losing seasons followed.
Since he retired, Ripken has had to deal with questions about the club's struggles. Now, he sees a team contending for a championship.
"If you look around, they have All-Star caliber players in many different positions, and the question is … is the pitching going to keep you in ball games?" Ripken said. "The Orioles are playing really well. I don't think anyone could have projected.
"I think everybody was hoping that they would continue to develop and they would be challenging for the wild card, but this is exciting. It's been a while since you were watching, you were checking up, you were listening everywhere you are to what's happening in the games. It's exciting for me."
Showalter, hired two seasons ago to change the Orioles' culture, has been credited with the team's turnaround. When the club began to make its late-season surge toward the top, the Orioles used the marketing slogan, "BUCKle up!" Some observers have been comparing Showalter with Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, and say the Oriole Way is close to returning.
Showalter, meanwhile, is a student of the game and said he realized that the three World Series trophies the franchise won in 1966, 1970 and 1983 were the benchmarks for success in Baltimore.
"Those guys were so consistent and did it for so many years," Showalter said. "We haven't even been able to scratch the surface of what they were able to do, but you feel them pulling for you."
Issue 177: September 2012