Orioles fans are buying in to playoff hopes

Team reminds a baseball town what it loves about the game

  • Orioles fans react to Robert Andino's 7th inning home run in the 2nd game of their three game series against the Yankees at Camden Yards.
Orioles fans react to Robert Andino's 7th inning home… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
September 28, 2012|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

It's early fall in Baltimore, that time of year when purple banners, car flags and sweatshirts normally dominate the landscape, as surely as the colors are soon to hit the trees. But Charm City isn't just NFL country now.

In grade schools and taverns, at water coolers and along busy streets, Baltimoreans are sporting Orioles orange and black, following out-of-town scores and relishing every Adam Jones line drive, Mark Reynolds bomb or Jim Johnson strikeout.

The O's are in a pennant race, the franchise's first since 1997, and a baseball town wounded by years of losing is buying in.

"We were wandering out there in the desert for so long, but look at all the orange here now," said Christina Barth of Mount Airy as she sat in the Camden Yards flag court before Tuesday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. "Everybody's watching. Everybody's excited. It's a special feeling to be able to be proud of the Orioles again."

No sports revival can happen without victories, and the O's have delivered plenty. With less than a week remaining in the season, the team — which opened spring training with jumbled pitching, question marks at several key positions and the league's 19th-highest payroll — had 89 wins, 20 more than last season's total, a winning record for the first time in 15 years and a shot at first place.

But what has fans waxing rhapsodic is the way the team has done it. A club with few recognized stars and plenty of hard workers, these O's seem the very image of a city's best traits.

"This team isn't a powerhouse. They have to grind it out. Baseball is little things, and they do the little things," said William Van Alstyne of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during a Toronto game.

"The talent is not so amazing, but they're such a team. And they have this take-no-prisoners attitude. They don't fear anybody," added Josh Neirman of Washington, D.C.

Then Neirman, 27, called on a phrase that evoked the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last time the city boasted two top-level professional teams. "This isn't luck. It's Oriole magic."

The manager's office

The O's began their final home stand of the year on Monday, a seven-game stretch against the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox they knew could decide their fate in this improbable year.

The following night, amid the tens of thousands of orange-clad crazies flooding into Camden Yards, John Toner of Columbia sported a Brooks Robinson No. 5 jersey near the Cal Ripken Jr. statue behind center field. The longtime fan marveled at a team on which so many rookies, backup players and unknowns have been called on to contribute — and have delivered.

"This manager is a hypnotist. I don't know how Buck [Showalter] is doing it, exactly, but trust me; I'm in sales. He has every one of those players believing they're going to win," Toner said.

For someone who hasn't met the manager, he's pretty close.

Before a recent game, Showalter sips coffee behind a vast desk in his roomy Camden Yards office, his eyes red and throat scratchy from two weeks on the road. A row of vintage Orioles caps lines the cabinet behind him.

The manager who makes a point of backing his players in public is courtly — but not above delivering a verbal brushback when he sees fit.

How have his players exceeded expectations? "Whose expectations are those?" he asks. "Some guys with microphones who aren't on the field?"

How do you juggle all these spare parts? "That's a slap in the face to our players."

What's it like to direct … "This is about the players, not me."

He's all aggressive modesty, like a pitcher who throws harder than he seems to.

Any manager, Showalter insists, could be winning with Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Jones and Johnson blossoming at the same time as they are this year. He avoids leadership formulas. But listen to him talk baseball, and a strategy comes into view: What Showalter favors is a positive outlook grounded in honesty, delivered to people he trusts and enjoys.

The stars anchor the team, of course — as the weekend began, closer Johnson had 47 saves, a franchise record, and five players had 20-plus homers, a big-league high. But in concert with general manager Dan Duquette, he has cycled 52 players through the roster, more than any O's manager since 1955. Few are household names.

Yet from Luis Ayala to Taylor Teagarden, all have big-league ability — often more others seem to notice, Showalter says. Just as important, they have qualities that resonate with baseball and life: a "hunger" for their craft, a respectful personality, a deep sense that the game is fun.

Pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, late of the Mexican Pacific League, has come back from rejection by the Boston Red Sox organization and arm surgery to win eight games. Shortstop J.J. Hardy helped his brother, an Iraq War veteran, through post-traumatic stress disorder. Jim Thome is putting his 10 nieces and nephews through college.

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