It's time to start thinking in terms of magic numbers.
It's time to bring up as dinner conversation the all-important loss column. Bring it up over salad, and it'll take you through dessert. I mean, what else -- Woody? Woody's old news. The all-important loss column, like a diamond, is forever.
I know it's time because I got a call from my September friend asking if I knew where he might be able to get his hands on some World Series tickets. I told him he must be kidding. You can't even get a ticket for a Wednesday night game against Detroit. The truth is that Cal Ripken has a better chance of hitting a home run than this guy has of getting a ticket to the Series.
But that isn't the point.
The point is that it's September and he called me. Not somebody in Boston or Chicago.
Not somebody in L.A. or New York.
Hadn't heard from him in years. Kind of missed him.
It's time. It's time to face up to a real, live, honest-to-Earl-Weaver, don't-buy- nonrefundable-tickets-for-October divisional race.
jTC Used to be, back when it was "only June" or "only July" that it was OK to get excited about the Orioles -- but only within reason, only up to a point. The operative phrase was lowered expectations. It's also, by the way, the best way to approach the presidential election.
With spirits high and expectations in check, fans filled Camden Yards for an entire summer.
And now? It's all different. What I'm trying to say is, if you've got a bandwagon, grease it up. Or, if you don't mind the wait, just use the light rail.
It's too late to think in terms of what a great season it has been for the underdog Orioles simply to have stayed in the race for most of the summer. We've moved past the point of settling for some summer excitement. We're into fall ball.
Fantasy time? Well, here are the facts: The Orioles are a half-game back, with 29 to go. They're even in the all-important loss column (told you: we're not even halfway through the main course). The pitching staff is suddenly as unhittable as the early Ali. The Blue Jays are the Blue Jays.
This is real.
It's nuts, but it's real.
I remember, when the season began, the most important question was whether the Orioles could put on a show to match the new showcase. They had, of course, lost 95 games the year before. There was some springtime optimism, however. But it should be pointed out that there was also no shortage of springtime optimism in 1988, right before they lost those first 21 games.
We all know what happened this season. Brady and Devo and Sutcliffe and Mussina happened. Even if Cal didn't happen, other than contractually, it didn't matter. And if Glenn Davis rarely happened, that didn't matter either.
What matters is that this is the time to give in.
This is what the poet wrote about -- you know, better to have rooted and lost than never to have rooted at all.
This is half-heaven, half-heartache time. It's what every real fan hopes will happen.
You don't lower expectations. You raise them.
You don't think about Rick Sutcliffe's July. You remember only Rick Sutcliffe's August.
You start pools for Devereaux's 100th RBI, for Brady's 50th steal, for Olson's 40th save, for Cal's next homer.
You actually believe Cal will hit another homer.
What the true fan does this time of year is hold his or her breath a lot.
The losses are excruciating. Even the wins are excruciating. It looks as if you're having no fun -- especially when you've got your fingers crossed, your toes crossed, your eyes crossed for each at-bat -- but there's fun in the pain. Sort of. It's a fan thing. If you've never been one, you wouldn't understand.
OK, so somebody asks: Realistically, what are the Orioles' chances?
And you say: Realistically, shmealistically.
Actually, the Orioles have a real chance. They've suddenly got a hot pitching staff. Cal Ripken is 7-for-his-past-19. Randy Milligan has rediscovered his swing. Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux haven't lost theirs. Johnny Oates is going to be Manager of the Year. And Rick Sutcliffe is as tough in a big game as anyone you want to name.
It actually could happen. On the other hand, the Orioles might well break your heart.
But that's the whole point, isn't it?