Although it seems like only yesterday, incredibly it was three long years when I made my first trip to the most underrated park in baseball, Camden Yards, to watch the Baltimore Orioles. For some of you long-time readers of this site you may even remember my write-up following the trip, and for those who don’t, just know that the stadium exceeded my expectations in every way possible. Camden Yards is the perfect blend of old-school charm with new school amenities, with plenty of good food, good sightlines and an overall good vibe to go along with it.
Unfortunately, with all that good has come a lot of bad as well, mostly in the baseball played on the field at Camden Yards. Most Orioles fans don’t need me to tell them it’s been 15 long years since their team last made the playoffs, and the same amount of time since they had a winning record or anything better than a third place finish in the AL East standings.
But in a lot of ways, my biggest takeaway from Camden Yards wasn’t the lousy baseball or appealing sightlines, but how passionate the fans remained through the bad times. When I visited Baltimore the organization wasn’t giving anyone much reason for hope; they didn’t have the cold, hard cash of the Yankees, the front office savvy of the Rays, or the minor league system teeming with talent like the Rangers, just a whole lot of excuses, and not nearly enough talent.
Still, the fans did show up, and did care, probably more than they should’ve. They still cheered when their team did something good, booed when the umps made a call against them, and sat a little too close to the edge of their seats in the late innings of a tight game. Again, all in support of a team that was headed nowhere, except in a nosedive toward the basement of the AL East standings. We always hear what great “baseball towns” Boston and New York are, yet fans in Baltimore are every bit as passionate, loyal and dedicated to their team.
And to me, what the Orioles fans exhibited that weekend is really what being a sports fan is supposed to be about. Anyone can show up to the park and buy expensive jerseys when the team is winning, but how many do the same when that same team is struggling? Not many.
To look at it from a different perspective, the whole reason I was in Baltimore in the first place was because my stepdad (an Orioles fan), had bought one of those partial season ticket plans and couldn’t use them that weekend. Still, his reasoning for buying the tickets at the time was as simple: He wanted to secure good seats while the team was lousy, so he wouldn’t get priced out when the team got good. To which I say forget Tony Robbins, Orioles fans should get together and write a book on positive thought. Nobody exhibited more, with less reason for hope than they did over the last few years.
It does appear though that their hope will finally be rewarded. With two weeks left to play, Baltimore enters Tuesday night’s game with Seattle a half game out of first place in the AL East, and tied with Oakland for the American League’s two Wild Card spots, with the Angels trailing by three games. While a postseason berth is hardly guaranteed, it does look promising for the Baltimore Orioles. That’s right, for the first time since 1997, this organization could be headed for the postseason.
And if the Orioles do make the playoffs, well, they’ll have a new fan in me. With my Red Sox finishing up a 2012 season where they could be best described as “so bad, they’re kinda entertaining” it looks like I will be a baseball orphan this postseason. And if you don’t mind me tagging along Orioles fans, I’d like to hop aboard your bandwagon.
Now understand one thing: I’ll always be a Red Sox fan, and by no means would I ever want to rain on the parade of what Orioles fans are experiencing right now. At the same time, as a sportswriter I’m always looking for a great story above a great team, and right now, there’s no better story in all of sports than the Orioles.
Yes, the Orioles- the Baltimore freakin’ Orioles- are in the thick of a playoff race in the American League. What’s even more impressive though, is that they’re doing it in the most unconventional of ways.
As a matter of fact, just for fun, here are a few tidbits about the ragtag group of Orioles heading into tonight’s game:
Did You Know: Baltimore doesn’t have a single regular in their lineup that’s batting at least .300? Their best hitter to date has been Nick Markakis whose .298 batting average puts him 14th in the American League in that category.
Did You Know: The Orioles have just one starting pitcher with more than eight wins? That man is Wei-Yin Chen with 12, and if you’re not familiar with Chen’s name now, you better learn it in a hurry. He’ll almost certainly take the mound in the Orioles opening game of the playoffs this October.
Did You Know: The Orioles have actually been outscored by their opponents by 14 runs during the 2012 season, making them the only team with a negative run differential that’s even sniffing the playoffs right now? For comparisons sake, the Yankees, a team that is just a half-game ahead of the Orioles in the chase for the AL East title, has outscored their opponents by 97 runs during the 2012 season.
Yup, the Orioles are most definitely different. In a sport where a 162-game regular season is supposed to weed out the statistical outliers, the Orioles are an outlier in every sense of the word. Yet here they are, right on the cusp of a playoff berth, and it’s in large part because they’ve looked convention in the eye, and laughed in its face. For years baseball contenders have been built with starting pitching and defense, yet the Orioles have instead chosen relief pitching and the long ball as their weapons of choice. Add in a little magic from manager Buck Showalter, and the Baltimore Orioles are definitely the baseball team from the bizarro world.
Let’s start with that offense, because it really is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, tied together in an enigma, or whatever the hell that stupid expression is. Whatever they are, I can tell you this: These aren’t your granddaddy’s Baltimore Orioles.
No, no, no.
That’s because as baseball has slowly worked itself out of the steroid era (despite the valiant efforts of Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon to keep it going strong) and have transitioned back to playing small ball, the Orioles still have the look of the juiciest of juiced up teams of a decade ago. Teams like Tampa Bay, Oakland and even the Angels have all pushed themselves into the wild card race by doing all the little things; bunting, stealing bases, moving runners over. But in Baltimore, the only small ball they play is electing to hit a solo home run instead of the three-run shot. In the same way that Buck Showalter likes his steaks thick, his beer dark and his cigarettes filtered, he also likes his home runs long, and his base runners not to move an inch.
As things stand Baltimore ranks dead last in all of baseball with a mere 50 stolen bases, with over a quarter of them (14) coming from Adam Jones. For comparison’s sake, the three teams the Orioles are competing for a Wild Card berth- the A’s, Angels and Rays- have three players each with more than 14 steals. Baltimore also ranks 26th out of 30 teams in sacrifice flies this season, with just 29. That comes out to an average of just one sac fly every five games.
Where they make up for it though is with the long ball, and in the hitter-friendly Camden Yards, few teams do it better. Currently the Orioles have a staggering five players with at least 20 home runs, and seven with at least 10, and that number doesn’t even include Manny Machado who would’ve likely joined the double-digit home run club had he played the entire season in Baltimore (he has four, but has also played in just 36 games). Regardless, the main point of this paragraph is simple: Few teams mash at the plate like Orioles do. Only the Yankees and White Sox have hit more home runs this season.
But where the Orioles are truly elite is on the back end, where they simply have the best bullpen in baseball. Jim Johnson (no, not the NASCAR driver) is tied for the Major League lead in saves with 43, and Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala have all made at least 60 appearances, and all are sporting an ERA below 3.00. I’ll be the first to admit that I had never heard of most of these guys before the season, and I’m guessing a lot of Orioles fans would say the same. But I guarantee you everyone in baseball knows, and fears this bullpen heading into October.
Really though, this all comes back to Showalter. The wily, old veteran skipper (aren’t all the good managers wily and old?) has made a career out of being a no non-sense grinder, and it’s easy to see his team has taken after him. Basically, the Orioles are the movie “Major League” come to life; a sum is greater than the parts club that doesn’t make excuses, plays over its head and for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the back.
It shows in the stats I mentioned earlier (no .300 hitter at the plate, no 15-game winner on the mound, the negative run differential) but it shows in other ways too. It shows in the way that the team embraced the 20-year-old Machado when he got to the big leagues, and how the young player reciprocated by hitting two home runs in just his second big league game. It showed in former top prospect Brian Matusz moving from the rotation to the bullpen in late August, if only because that’s where his team needed him. It’s shown in Nate McLouth arriving from the MLB scrap-heap, getting thrown into the starting lineup and producing in the stretch run. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m just as surprised to write the words “Nate McLouth,” “producing” and “stretch run” in the same sentence as you are to read them.
And in the end, that attitude, effort and will all comes back to Showalter. No he isn’t the flashiest guy, but his team isn’t flashy either, making this a perfect match between manager and ball-club.
It also makes the Orioles the easiest team to root for in baseball right now. They’re hardly the most conventional team in baseball, but in a lot of ways, that’s what makes them so fun.
It’s also what will make them dangerous come October.
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