From left, Orioles fans Andy Jarboe, Jim Hammond, John Rea,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
On an exquisite Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards, while the home team completed a lovely weekend sweep of the Boston Red Sox, we popped the question among the beer-fisted on the sun-splashed flag court above right field: When did you start to believe — really believe — that the Orioles would make the American League playoffs for the first time in 15 years?
We had to yell the question to be heard above the raucous, happy crowd that celebrated the Birds' drive for at least a postseason wild-card berth, which they clinched when the Los Angeles Angels lost the second game of a doubleheader to the Texas Rangers Sunday night.
We had to ask because a survey by OpinionWorks for The Baltimore Sun found that four of 10 Marylanders think the 2012 Orioles will make it to the World Series. The World Series! The team finished last in the American League East a year ago, with only 69 wins against 93 losses. What convinced even the faithful on the flag court that such a thing was possible?
"When they won that 17-inning game against the Red Sox [in May] up in Fenway Park," says Andy Jarboe, who, with his buddy John Rea, drives from York, Pa., for every Sunday home game. "That Fenway win was special. That told me something."
"When [Wilson] Betemit hit a home run to win a game," says Rea. "It was at home [on April 29 against Oakland]. It was a walk-off homer [in the bottom of the ninth inning], and we'd never heard of Betemit before that. Something felt different."
"Honestly?" says John Miller, who with two buddies wore stunning mullet wigs to the game. "When the Orioles swept the Twins to start the season. ... That's when I knew."
If Miller's hindsight is a little rosy, his friend Andy Zetzer offered the realism of a long-suffering Orioles fan.
Zetzer has been going to Orioles games since he was a kid. At 26, he attends up to 30 a year now. So he's committed. And yet, he's still surprised that the Orioles could come this far, to the brink of the American League playoffs after years of baseball irrelevance. The Orioles haven't been in a World Series since before Zetzer was born.
"And I didn't think I would see this until I was in my 40s," he says. "It's awesome."
Aaron Zetzer, Andy's older brother, was born in 1983, the year of the last Baltimore appearance in a World Series. He tends bar at the Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point and hears a lot of sports talk in that job. This is the first year he heard patrons speak of the Orioles in the playoffs.
"There was always this general feeling that the Orioles were a half-season team, they they'd fade after the All-Star break," Andy Zetzer says. "But there was something different this year. Customers talked more positively about the team, and the team did well after the All-Star break. People had faith in Buck [Showalter] and the skeptics started coming around. ...
"But, I'll tell you, the way the team played in the second half of last season, that's when I started to have faith."
Same with Jim Hammond, such a diehard he dyes his hair orange. Because of the way the team finished in 2011, he says, he knew the Orioles were for real.
"I bet a guy $100 in April that the Orioles would win 85 games this year," he says, as the Orioles notched their 92nd before an announced crowd of 41,257, half of them resplendent in orange Orioles give-away apparel.
"I just had a feeling about it," Hammond says. "This is Buck Showalter's second full season as manager. ..."
And in his second full season as manager, Showalter's teams become winners. It happened years ago in New York when he managed the Yankees. It happened in Arizona when he managed the Diamondbacks. It happened in Texas when he managed the Rangers.
"When I heard that statistic about Buck roll off the lips of an ESPN broadcaster, that's when I believed," says Robert Rhodes, 41, enjoying the Orioles' final home game of the regular-season with his friends, Norwood Johnson and Lamont Brown.
Brown is still in mourning -- "Mourning isn't the word for it," he says -- about a certain former Orioles relief pitcher, Armando Benitez, who threw to a Cleveland batter in October 1997, the last time Baltimore was in the playoffs. The Birds lost the American League championship and the Indians went on to the World Series.
Johnson, like a lot of fans who grew accustomed to seeing the Orioles fall out of contention early each season, didn't imagine they'd get as far as they have in 2012.
"I didn't think the Orioles were gonna make the playoffs," he says. "But you know what? The Orioles are gonna make the playoffs."