When I was a kid winning was a given for the Baltimore Orioles.
We didn’t hope they would win – we expected it. It was part of the Orioles Way.
The team was rich with talent and the farm system produced young, up-and-coming players the way that Eastern Shore farmers harvested sweet corn.
The rosters barely changed from year-to-year, affected only by natural attrition or a Frank Robinson-for-Milt Pappas or Mike Cuellar-for-Curt Blefary kind of trade.
We memorized the line-ups, imitated the batting stances and 20-game winners – it was never a question of if but how many.
From 1966 to 1985 the Baltimore Orioles had the best record in Major League Baseball.
Times began to change. From 1987 to 2010 the Orioles fired managers 11 times. What was once a model of organizational stability gradually began to resemble a house of Clint Hurdle rookie cards.
Following the 1997 season, losing became a regular thing for the Orioles.
The roster bled. New players were flipped like fledgling stocks on the New York Stock Exchange floor. The only common denominator during those 14 consecutive tumultuous losing seasons was owner Peter Angelos. He became the villain and for many, archenemy No. 1.
The Orioles lost the support of most from my generation during those years. We couldn’t bear to see to a franchise, once the standard for MLB franchises, slowly decay before our very eyes.
We could no longer care about a team that didn’t care about us.
We couldn’t support an owner who only supported his wallet.
We became detached.
Children didn’t care about the Orioles, perhaps influenced in part by their disenchanted parents and their own disconnect from the team, anesthetized by the failure.
Tarnished by a losing culture, baseball was boring and didn’t provide the instant gratification of video games or other youth sports for that matter.
Yet despite a gloomy landscape for Baltimore baseball, there remained a hardcore legion of Orioles fans that disregarded the fact that their team was often out of the race by the All-Star break. Their loyalty never wavered. Like the minority that may embrace the ugly duckling these fans opened their hearts even more to a perennial loser.
You’ve heard the numbers:
- 45 years since they clinched a division title with a win at home
- 17 years since they last won the AL East
- 14 consecutive losing seasons
Somehow, that now all looks like a distant vision in the rearview mirror.
Last night’s clinching victory somehow erased all of that…for me.
This Orioles team that looked weak on paper in March; suffered devastating injuries; fought through less than productive seasons from some; and watched a pitcher, hired for $50 million be relegated to mop up duties.
They ignored it all.
They rose to the occasion time and time again, guided by a skipper who maintained his resolve and faith.
“I like our guys!”
This Orioles team now embodies the qualities that Baltimoreans have always embraced. Gritty athletes, underdogs who come together as one and exceed expectations.
I must admit that I often questioned Buck Showalter’s loyalties to his players.
I questioned some of his tactical moves.
At best I was cautiously optimistic but still waited for the collapse to come.
It never did!
Throughout this season the club showed the collective heart of a reformed Grinch and they approached the game with the innocence and hope and joy of little leaguers who just enjoyed playing with each other.
But unlike most children, they stood up after each fall, dusted themselves off and prepared for the next challenge. And there were many.
A baseball season is long with peaks and valleys. Those that persevere aren’t the teams that have a swagger when they’re winning – it’s those that can shrug off the agony of a losing streak.
The Orioles did that so well in 2014 and they’ve really taught us all about handling adversity, whether in sports or in life.
For me, this season was about believing again. I had given up, beaten by those 14 losing seasons. Even 2012 seemed like a fluke.
Not this time!
But this AL East Championship, the first rung in the ladder towards a World Championship, isn’t for fans like me, those who have jumped back on the bandwagon.
This championship is for those who invested their hearts, swallowed their pride and maintained hope through those 14 seasons that things would turn around. And they have. This championship is for you, the fans who always wore their colors despite the ridicule. It’s for you, not me, that I’m most happy.
YOU deserve this.
When Nick Markakis looked around the stadium soaking in what just happened in a surrealistic kind of way, he represented each and every one of you who has longed for that feeling.
Thank you for always believing and for rekindling the faith of this prodigal fan.
I have once again found my Orioles Way!