BALTIMORE – Sprayed in orange and perhaps as much curiosity as pride, a gleaming new Cal Ripken Jr. statue in its left-center field, a real September game on its grounds, Camden Yards hadn't looked this good this late in going on a generation.
Among my last memories of being here, from the decade before last, hundreds of people in the left-field bleachers stood mid-game, let their hinged seats shudder closed beneath them and walked out en masse. Protesting the state of their home ballclub, the owner Peter Angelos, the growing financial clout of the visiting New York Yankees and whatever else might have been on their minds, they paid to come in quietly and leave prematurely. And clamorously.
That was about the last time I – or just about anyone not overtaken by Palmer, Boog, Brooks, Blair, Ripken and Murray, only to be beholden to their franchise forever – had given much thought to the Baltimore Orioles.
Now there are fall perennials blooming along the perimeter of the ballpark. They're orange. The streets and alleys on Thursday evening were alive with orangey people, the ballpark would be full with Orioles fans and not Yankees interlopers, and the home team was relevant for the first time since it was run by Davey Johnson, eight managers and 15 years past.
The teams here, the hopelessness, they'd conspired to run the old girl down some. It's not that she didn't look great. She did. But, then, maybe she'd lost some of her soul in the trudge of second-division finishes and apathy, and so she'd become a symbol of what was. Maybe that's OK for a statue. It does very little for a ballpark.
Fourteen consecutive losing seasons has that effect on a building, on a city, on a baseball fan.
[Power Rankings: Have the Orioles emerged as class of the American League?]
They're back, the people, the town and the spirit of a place that had reason to wander. Maybe just for a weekend, maybe for a whole season, maybe all the way into October, they're back. Probably.
They cling to the legend of Buck Showalter, the way he revives teams, the way he stalks to and from the mound with his head down and his right hand stuffed in his pocket, all business and asymmetry, and the way he's convinced this will work. They measure this funny little band of players, who pluck and grind and have convinced themselves to believe, and a payroll that probably won't be going anywhere too good too soon. They grant that maybe the back-from-the-dead general manager might indeed have a touch for this sort of thing, or that Andy MacPhail may have been onto something, but perhaps shouldn't over-think any of it.
For on this steamy Thursday night, the Orioles had those Yankees in for the first of four games at Camden Yards, and it was the place to be. By the time John Denver roared over the loudspeakers, the Orioles had all but retaken a tie for first in the AL East. The people cheered and danced and shouted, "Thank God I'm a country boy!" as though they'd been here all along and never left.
(Though, in honesty, when it was time for the big O-R-I-O-L-E-S spell-out, the scoreboard helped with the letter order.)
The Yankees arrived having lost 10 games in the standings to the Orioles over six weeks. Had the same thing happened in September, they'd be the Red Sox. Either way, they've played themselves into four weeks of drama. They've helped put the Orioles (and the Tampa Bay Rays) back into play, while the Orioles and Rays have helped put the Yankees back in play, and maybe the only thing no one saw coming was the O's.
"Some very good things have happened," Showalter said.
Yet, here's the thing about big games in September – they're scary. The other team is good. That's why the game is big. And in the biggest game at Camden Yards since, oh, 1997, the sheer delirium of an early Orioles lead led to that last beer getting caught about Adam's apple deep, before delirium made its comeback. The Orioles hit three home runs and led 6-1, the Yankees scored five in the eighth to tie, and then the Orioles hit three more home runs – all in the bottom of the eighth – to win 10-6.
In the span of a handful of pitches, 15 years of dust flew.
First Adam Jones, the elegant center fielder. Then Mark Reynolds, who'd homered two innings before. Then Chris Davis, the muscled DH. The baseballs were launched, and Baltimore swooned, and Joe Girardi ran laps to the pitcher's mound, and damn if the O's weren't in first place – tied in the standings, first alphabetically – again.
"That right there," said Jones, 27 years old and seven seasons into his career, "is the biggest hit I've had in my whole life. Everything else was leading up to that."
In the shadow of that old warehouse and a regal hardball history that has inched away by the season, the Orioles had played another day toward October. They'd bombed the Bombers with six home runs. They'd given away a lead and a mood then pulled it back.
"The city is a baseball city," Jones insisted, "and it's the first time I've gotten a feel for that. They're here. The fans are here. We understand why they weren't for the first six months."
Oh, it's been longer than that. So much longer. But, you know, things change. They unveiled that statue, and they honored the Iron Man, and the turnstiles spun, and the Orioles became a little bolder. It won them nothing but another day, another big game. And if that doesn't sound like much, then it's been a while since you gave much thought to the Baltimore Orioles.
But, man, you should have seen the old girl glow Thursday night. She cleaned up pretty good.
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