BALTIMORE – Honestly, this all seems too private to be played out in the open.
The prodigal franchise returns to its people, cartoon-bird cap in hand, regretful. The people measure the old franchise through aged and well-manicured suspicion.
The franchise paws at the stoop. The people wedge their foot against the door. All the lies. The promises to change. The heartache.
Dan Duquette watched Friday’s batting practice from the first-base side at Camden Yards. This is partly his creation, his and Buck Showalter’s, but mostly it’s the 50-or-so men who’d shown up and inch by inch played themselves back onto that stoop.
Now it’s touch and go, a fragile time for the Baltimore Orioles and their many revenue streams. Fans, I mean. A satisfying and profitable existence in the AL East is at stake. For this fall, unfathomably, the very AL East is at stake.
Duquette squinted into the afternoon sun.
“It’s fun,” he said.
From where the Boston Red Sox once stood and about where the Tampa Bay Rays stand, the Orioles took another shot at the New York Yankees and something like happily ever after on Friday night. Happily through the end of the month, at the very least. Clearly qualified and just as clearly unafraid, they lost. It happens.
Against a pitcher who leads the sport in home runs allowed, the night after they hit six themselves, they lost. Against a lineup whose Nos. five through nine hitters arrived batting .203, .233, .203, .200 and .186, they lost. With chants of “Let’s go Yankees!” being doused by loud groans and cool stares, yes, they lost.
The mood of September will change nightly now. The euphoria of 10-6 Thursday night becomes the slog of 8-5 Friday, which becomes their own Joe Saunders vs. CC Sabathia on Saturday, and another three weeks after that.
Because just across the way, wearing the gray uniforms and expressions, the Yankees have a story, too. It’s a disabled list of stars, and waiting on Mark Teixeira (who likely will play Saturday night), and a huge mid-summer lead lost, and finally Rafael Soriano’s signature untucked jersey in the bottom of the ninth. What the Orioles endure over a generation, the Yankees experience by the day. It’s the nature of the beast, and of the east, and nobody stands around to ensure no one’s feelings get hurt along the way.
Realistically, the division is the Yankees’ to lose. From 10 up, as they once were, to one up, as they are today, to whatever follows, they are the Yankees. Most days it’s great. On others, they spit the last of a 10-game lead, ride into Baltimore and are pretty sure they can survive this.
Said Showalter, who’s been there, “I think the toughest thing in professional sports is to win when you’re expected to win.”
Well, here they are. The Orioles convinced Baltimore to sell out the place Thursday night, then sold nearly 41,000 more tickets Friday. The Yankees, they do this annually, playing to the standards of the uniform and the expectations, or trying.
The Orioles have played them even over two nights, and even head-to-head over 16 games, and within a game in the standings over 138 games. The momentum here died on three Wei-Yin Chen pitches – a changeup to Russell Martin, and fastballs to Alex Rodriguez and Steve Pearce, all of which were turned around for home runs.
Pearce was among those 50-or-so Orioles just a month-and-a-half ago. Three days after Pearce’s final game as an Oriole, Rodriguez hit his 299th home run as a Yankee. The very next day had his hand broken by a Felix Rodriguez fastball.
Eventually, if everything goes as close to right as baseball allows, it all finds itself on the same field -- together -- in the first week of September and it will matter. The city leans in, the fans hope to forgive, the players slow their heart rates, and the Orioles try to prove they’re winners today while the Yankees try to prove they’re not losers compared to yesterday.
“I think it’s the best thing to happen to this team,” Rodriguez said. “We start playing playoff caliber baseball in September. It’s very exciting and it’s very fun.”
Except, of course, that the Yankees are a mere 2-4 in September.
“The bottom line,” Rodriguez said, “it’s going to come down to the guys in the middle of the lineup, the guys who’ve been there before, to get it done. … I think we’re in a good place.”
On it goes. The Yankees win, the Orioles lose, the Rays win, and the people at Camden Yards, the ones who really have forgiven their team, hang on. Duquette was right. It’s fun. And Showalter is right, too.
“At some point we’re going to play these 20-some games,” he said. “I’m not going to insult your intelligence and try to tell you how it’s going to go. But I’m looking forward to finding out. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
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