Er, Go Orioles? For Now, Why Not?

After 14 losing years, even an early-season tease can be awfully nice

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Adam Jones (R) of the Baltimore Orioles slaps hands with teammate J.J. Hardy after Baltimore beat Boston, 9-6, in 17 innings at Fenway Park in Boston, on May 6, 2012. Jones' three-run home run in the top of the 17th was the difference in the game (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

OK, so I’ve been around awhile. A New York resident for more than half my life, I was born in Baltimore and drank deep from the keg of Orioles love and lore. I watched the ’66 Series sweep over the Dodgers, attended the first two games of the ’71 Series loss to the Pirates and the last three of the ’83 victory over the Phillies, even wearing an O’s cap in the fight cage that was old Veteran’s Stadium — an act of mortal folly if ever there was one. My grandfather once paid on-the-gold-standard dollars to watch Babe Ruth play. As a pitcher. In the Baltimore minor league system. So we’ve got history, B’more and me.

Of course, for the past 14 years, ever since the O’s fell to the Yankees in the ’97 League Championship Series, that history has been bleak. The seasonal drill for Orioles fans in that time has been familiar: hope for the best, wait for the crash, anticipate fourth place and accept the growing likelihood of fifth. There have been teases: a .500 record after 126 games in 2002, followed by a 4-32 flameout so breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly, gobsmackingly awful that it was more performance art than sport; a first-place run from mid-April to June in 2005 leading to the inevitable plunge and a 74-88 fourth place finish. The team’s sub-.500 streak now stands at 14 seasons and counting.

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So how much does it matter that as of sun-up on May 7, the Orioles were sitting at 19-9, for first-place in the AL East,  a .679 winning percentage and the best record in baseball? To the rational mind it matters not a whit — especially when only 17% of the season is in the books. For a modern-day Orioles fan, 19-9 guarantees only that the team can do no worse than 19-143 when all the games are finally played. (And indeed, last night, an exhausted pitching staff gave up 14 runs en route to a football-like 14-3 loss, a .655 record and a multi-way tie for best record in the sport.)

And yet: there’s the just-concluded 3-0 series sweep of the Red Sox; the 2-1 pocket-picking of the Yankees that preceded it, making it a 5-1 road trip against the perennial bullies of the division. There’s the four-game winning streak in extra inning games, including the 17-inning monster on Sunday night, in which the team went through all eight of its eligible pitchers and had to turn the ball over to first baseman/DH Chris Davis — who threw two scoreless innings for a 9-6 win.

Do stuff like that and even bad teams take on a shimmer — a kind of self-fulfilling, kissed by luck certainty that things will somehow work out. It happened to the Red Sox in the 2004 playoffs. It happened to the O’s back in ’83, when they were locked in a four-way death grip for first place and trailed the Brewers — one of the other three contenders — 11-3 in the late innings of a blowout game and somehow came back to win it. There was a palpable deflation in the rest of the division after that, a sense that that year at least, the O’s would not be denied — and they weren’t.

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Of course, that was nearly 30 years ago, that was late in the season instead of just 29 games in, and that was when the vaunted slogan The Oriole Way meant solid pitching, good defense, timely home runs and 90-win seasons, as opposed to what it’s meant in recent years, which is more or less stinking out the joint from April to October. That’s a Way too. It’s been The Cubs’ Way for many decades. It was The Rays’ Way for their entire brief history — until suddenly, a few years ago, it wasn’t anymore. And it’s been The Oriole Way since the middle years of the Clinton Administration.

Odds are, it will continue to be that way. The bullpen, which currently has the best ERA in baseball, will come down to Earth; the live arms of the young pitchers will eventually go dead; O’s manager Buck Showalter, who made winners of the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers, will prove that some lifts are too heavy even for him; and the team will sink softly back into the familiar silt of fifth place.

But for now it’s May, for now they’re in first, and for now the pinstripes and the Red Sox are looking up at the orange and black. It’s sweet — even if it’s short.

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