It was just a casual line in many general conversations, but it was enough to get the brain cells stirring. Enough to get one to wondering just how history would treat the 2014 Orioles, a team that seemed to defy all odds to win 96 games and the American League's Eastern Division championship.
Would this be recognized as the team that shed for good the dreaded "loser" label that had dogged the organization for years? Or would it be known as the one that completed a journey that actually started three years earlier, when only the most optimistic could see light at the end of the tunnel?
"We have waited so long for this," was the prevailing sentiment as the Orioles prepared for what would eventually become their three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series. It was a phrase heard over and over, repeated with the kind of fervor that screamed "nobody could've seen this coming," when in fact the turnaround went into the rear view mirror almost unnoticed.
It had been a mere two years since the Orioles had been in the exact same position, facing the Yankees in the 2012 ALDS after having survived a Wild Card matchup with the Texas Rangers. The Orioles were in the postseason for the second time in three years, the only AL East team to do that, and yet the general populace was still caught up in the 14 straight losing seasons that ended abruptly when that 2012 team reversed the 69-93 record from the year before. As the Orioles prepared for the series against the Tigers, it seemed, to many, the last two years never happened -- that this year's version was little more than the product of manager Buck Showalter's imagination.
That kind of thinking, in fact, was so prevalent that it became obvious that much of the Orioles' fan base was thinking more long term -- the 31-year absence from the World Series -- than the more recent 14-year losing streak. Just as the last two years seemed little more than a mirage, so were the 1996 and '97 teams that advanced to postseason play, only to be dismissed in the ALCS round.
To me, it became obvious that those who had been around for three decades identified more with the successful O's teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s than they did with the group from the mid-1990s. It's almost as if those teams, for whatever reason, don't exist in the minds of the fervent fans.
The reasoning may be very simple. The successful teams in the mid-1990s represented a "quick fix" for a team that was aging and featured a parade of free agents who passed through the area, stopping barely long enough to make their presence known, but not leave a lasting impression. Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson had been key players and B.J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick became fixtures in the community but for the most part, this was a team in transition, a team with a woefully weak pitching staff, hardly the kind usually identified with previous successes.
It was not unlike the stretch the O's went through under Edward Bennett Williams' ownership from 1984-86, the major difference of course being that the team in the 1990s salvaged a couple of postseason experiences, the unfortunate highlight of which was the Derek Jeter-Jeffrey Maier home run. Some still would have you believe that play cost the Orioles the American League pennant, when in fact they won the next game before losing three straight at home because of a pitching staff seemingly being held together by duct tape.
The end result is that the hardcore fans still identify more with the team from the 1970s and 1980s than they do with the team from the 1990s, for the simple reason that they bought into the notion those teams were like "family," like long-standing neighbors who grew up and grew old together. And it's that same feeling fans want to have about the current team. They are tired of hearing about the "small window of opportunity," about how "lucky" their team has been to win all those one-run and extra-inning games.
They want to embrace this team because they sense, like those of three decades ago, it is a mirror image of the fan base and the community it represents. It is a young team. And by signing shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year contract extension the Orioles have assured they will keep the core of their defense intact for the foreseeable future -- a vital commitment for the club's long term success. Not all of them will be part of the future. Some might leave for free agency and others could be trade chips down the road -- but there's more than enough for a solid core. The successful teams in the 1990s had relatively few players younger than 30 -- for the last three years the O's have not had more than two key players older than 30. Even as it faces a transitional stage, this is a team still growing with its core players.
Sometimes we carry these notions too far, but the bottom line is the fans who closely relate to a team want to feel like a part of it, and you get the impression there is a generation out there eager to latch onto this group, ride this wave of enthusiasm and see where it takes them. The 14-year losing streak was buried three years ago. Despite all the prognostications to the contrary, the Orioles have been more than competitive. They've been contenders now for three straight years.
"We've waited so long for this," no longer applies. It's time to put that tune to rest. That ship has sailed. There will always be waves in the water, but it's time to put the past in the past and realize two out of three isn't bad.
It remains to be seen how history looks back on the 2014 Orioles, but let it be known: This has been more a culmination of a three-year run than it has been a one-season turnaround.
The last time the Orioles were in the American League Championship Series, online dating was little more than a fad and online ticket selling was in its infancy, so perhaps the club can be excused for some of the blips it has encountered along the way. But like most teams in all sports, there is still room for an awful lot of improvement.
Here is the issue: The rule of thumb on standing room only tickets has always been that they are not sold until after the general sale of tickets for all seats is completed. But headed into the ALCS, standing room only tickets could be found and purchased on the secondary market before the club had completed its seat sales.
The Orioles aren't the only ones being called out on this because it happens everywhere, but like other teams in the various professional leagues, they should be embarrassed by what they see on the secondary ticket market. Nobody can blame the Orioles for using this opportunity to hype season ticket plans. However, when deadlines keep getting extended and new plans added with each progression, it is a game plan for disaster.
It's bad enough when thousands of seats show up on eBay or StubHub while some plan holders are waiting for the opportunity to exercise their purchase options. But there is no way to justify how standing room only tickets can be listed on the secondary market before the club has completed its seat sales.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.