Cheerful thought comes to O's - it's over

October 03, 2005|By RICK MAESE

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.-- --In the spring, romance is eternal. We get choked up talking about the smell of grass. We're sentimental feeling the inside of a leather glove and reminiscent watching young children chase errant foul balls.

In the spring, baseball is a game for mill workers and poets alike. Size, color, wallet - none of it matters because the spirit of the game doesn't know how to discriminate. We're all innocent dreamers who live for the sacrifice bunt and pray that our team will still be playing when the leaves begin changing colors.

As perfect as Opening Day can be, the season finale could not be less remarkable. The game's Rockwellian beauty fades as your team slides down the standings.

There is no better setting for a game that lacks meaning than Tropicana Field, baseball's Rolex knockoff with its circus-tent top and that rug of plastic grass. In the bowels of the stadium, the Orioles prepared to put a final punctuation on a tired, merciless season.

They talked about football. One player dozed in a recliner. Another jokingly feigned an injury. Who could stand to walk out there and do this for the 162nd time? Suffice to say, the Orioles - baseball's hapless marriage of comedy and tragedy - hadn't looked forward to a game this much in a while.

"If you're not in the playoffs when 162 is over, you go, `Whew, boy that was a long year,' " said interim manager Sam Perlozzo.

Spring - the next one or the last one - never seemed so far away. The Orioles won the finale over the Devil Rays, a forgettable footnote on an unforgettable season. The record books will forever show that they finished the year 74-88. Only the eyewitnesses will recall they were once 14 games above .500, an extraordinary, 28-game swing.

Champagne corks popped at other stadiums. There's nothing worth celebrating here. The last month has been like a party the Orioles attended out of obligation, looking for the earliest possible moment to duck out unnoticed.

And when it was finally finished, you'd think someone had called in a bomb scare. Dick Pound couldn't clear out a major-league clubhouse faster. The stragglers circulated baseballs for autographing. There were handshakes and hugs.

But there was not a team meeting. No post-game speech from the manager and no that-a-way-boys. They packed their bags and scattered. Some players took the team charter back to Baltimore last night. Many others made their own arrangements, having packed up their Baltimore lives several days ago.

Perlozzo is staying in the Tampa Bay area for at least a couple of days, unpacking boxes at a new home, all the while staring anxiously at his cell phone. His future will be calling soon. As the season wound down, Perlozzo spoke as a man who expected to hold the reins for a fresh start.

The Orioles bosses will likely call him in the next couple of days. They must now make decisions designed to make you start longing for next spring.

Several Orioles said goodbye yesterday afternoon, unsure whether they'll be back next year. Will we see David Newhan, Luis Matos, Jorge Julio, Eric Byrnes or Steve Kline again? Will the Orioles pay to keep Jay Gibbons in orange? Will B.J. Surhoff play another year? Questions for another day.

While Opening Day is all rebirth and joy, the final game of the season is simply relief. Bodies ache and spirits throb.

Wives and children have had this date marked for a couple of months. During the season, even when the Orioles play at home, players are still sleeping when their children leave for school, and they're already at the ballpark by the time school is out. Families are usually tucked in before the final out in the ninth.

In the next few days, Orioles players will wake up needing to adjust to a new life, a new schedule. After the last couple of months, they all need the break. It's another sort of rebirth.

"You have days off during the season, but you're not used to so many," said Surhoff, the Orioles' elder statesman, a 19-year veteran. "All of a sudden, three or four days pass and you feel different."

Some go stir-crazy. Some forget about baseball. Some live in the gym. Surhoff said the transition is like a "a de-tuning process."

It's only the players who can de-tune, though. The next month will decide so much about what to expect come next spring.

Fortunately, the 2005 season has ended. Finally. The Orioles sprinted out of the gate and crawled slowly to the finish line.

There was no reason for ceremony. Yesterday afternoon was for packed bags and quick handshakes.

The day's irrelevance was fitting. A bang would have been out of character. The whimper made it all the easier to let everything go.

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