The Orioles raised the bar a season ago and will still be looking up at it when they close out their second consecutive winning season against the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox on Sunday. The only question left is how you should feel about that.
Is any season that falls short of the playoffs a disappointment? Or is there still some perspective — or even pride — to be derived from the fact that the Orioles spent 14 straight years wandering through the sub-.500 wilderness before re-emerging as a legitimate contender during their magical 2012 campaign?
"I think both — proud that we fought, proud that we were in it until the last eight to 10 games of the season," center fielder Adam Jones said. "I think that's something to say, that we battled and grinded all year to put ourselves in the situation. It was a long time coming, after a lot of summer vacations spent away from Camden Yards, because there is good baseball being played.
"Disappointed, yeah, because we didn't play well down the stretch when it mattered most, but they (the fans) were behind us."
It will certainly be remembered by the accounting department as a successful season. The Orioles enjoyed another significant rise in attendance as well as improvements in television ratings, advertising volume and ballpark revenues. It will also be remembered for the on-field heroics of Chris Davis, Manny Machado and Jones, whose names have been prominent on the league leader sheet all year.
"I think there were a lot of good things in this season,'' said baseball operations chief Dan Duquette. "The feedback I'm getting from the fans is that they're happy that we had another winning season, of course, and they had a chance to see a couple of emerging stars in Davis and Machado. I think they see there is plenty of hope for the future. We have a pretty solid pitching staff and a good core group of players."
Still, the way the offense sputtered in September left just about everyone — from the clubhouse to the stands — frustrated that the Orioles could not take the next step after reaching the American League Division Series last October. Twelve months after manager Buck Showalter was extolled as the Earl Weaver-like savior of the Oriole Way, a lot of grumpy social media types and talk show callers are convinced that he somehow lost his magic touch.
The reality is that Showalter pushed a lot of the same buttons this year and didn't get the same results. The Orioles bullpen was almost impermeable in 2012. It would have been highly unusual to get that level of combined performance two seasons in a row, and even moreso to duplicate the club's otherworldly record in one-run and extra-inning games, but that was the standard by which this year's team was doomed to be judged.
To their credit, the players have made no excuses and continue to say they welcome the raised expectations that also will follow them into 2014.
"Obviously, we're disappointed,'' said shortstop J.J. Hardy. "It's not what we wanted. We come to spring training expecting to make the playoffs, wanting to make the playoffs, but there are 30 teams and not all of them get to go. We were still playing for something with six games left in the season. We still had a chance, that's better than not playing for anything at the beginning of August. I think we have a good team here. We're going to continue to have a good team. We're going to continue to compete and try to get to the playoffs every year. I can't tell you how I think the fans should view it, but I hope they see us out here grinding."
If the O's could not replicate the scrappy nature of last year's playoff team, it was not for lack of effort. If the offense fizzled down the stretch, it probably was because they were trying too hard to make good things happen and their aggressiveness was exploited too well by the strong pitching they faced at crunch time.
Jones said he hopes during the club's Fan Appreciation Celebration that the feeling is mutual.
"I think the fan base should be appreciative that we grinded our tails off,'' Jones said. "We're bringing back baseball here in Baltimore. We're trying to bring back winning baseball — and not just here and there — but back-to-back winning seasons says something about the job our team has been doing. Now, we go back the drawing board and figure out how to get better and better. I think this offseason is going to be exciting because the fans see the potential that we have here. They're happy the way we grind and disappointed how we finished and appreciative of what the future can be."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.