Beginning with only modest expectations on a crisp April afternoon in Baltimore, the Orioles 2012 season ended Friday at 161st street in the Bronx with success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Keeping a vigil with Brother Buck’s Black-and-Orange Traveling Salvation Show for the last fifty days had taken its toll. I’d already been losing sleep, biting my nails and sprouting new gray hairs.
Then, with the series against the Yankees, there was more high drama, more extra-inning games – prolonging and intensifying my sleepless baseball stupor. It was a marathon I hadn’t trained for.
With every pitch to a Yankee batter I winced and finally understood why Nana Bartoli would escape to her basement beauty salon, rather than listen or watch as Unitas marched the team downfield for a last second victory or Jim Palmer tried to hold a late-inning one-run lead.
“Oh Dino, I can’t stand the tension!” she would say to my grandfather, throwing up her arms. She peered around the corner for updates.
The NBA pre-season had begun and the Birds were still lacing up their cleats. Plans were being made for Thanksgiving and the Baltimore nine were playing in the Bronx. For O’s fans who date back, this autumnal anxiety rings an exquisitely painful bell.
In New York, Meh. In Baltimore, Frenzy!
After splitting the first two games at home in a frenzied environment more like you’d find at a Ravens game (I was at Game 1 and screamed myself hoarse with the best of them), the Orioles moved to Yankee Stadium where the scene was subdued, Wimbledon-like.
Game 3, though, had started to feel like an Oriole victory. Derek Jeter had limped off the field. Alex Rodriguez had been benched for a pinch hitter. The Yankee dynasty appeared to be crumbling.
Then Raul Ibanez, on loan from the Museum of Natural History, came to the plate. (He has always adored Oriole pitching and as a Mariner hit close to .600 against us one year.)
Ibanez launched a game-tying homer in the ninth and then another to win it in extras. The franchise had risen from the ashes.
On Thursday night in Game 4, Miguel Gonzalez mystified the Yankees like a clever matador and still, they managed once again to tie it late.
“Just so you know, I’m okay with a loss to the Yankees,” fans had been whispering to me all week. “I need to get my life back.”
“Put us out of our misery,” my friend John Wells texted from Colorado.
“We’ll win it in the 13th,” I wrote back optimistically, and somehow we did.
With a New York appointment already in the books for Friday afternoon, I searched the web for tickets and found plenty in supply. Mostly, I realized that I couldn’t watch the game on the train home.
2012 vs. 1997
I’d left New York in 1997 to move back to the area – to be close to my baseball team and family. The Orioles had started that season 43-17 that year and a World Series was surely in the offing. It ended on a rain-soaked gloomy night.
Having suffered through the Jeffrey Maier debacle, I was looking to exorcize those demons and realized Showalter was on a similar mission.
It had taken him 17 years to return to the field and face his former employers in an elimination game. Showalter had molded the core – Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera – in the minor leagues. He’d won with the same strategy he later used to build the 2012 Orioles — journeymen, cast-offs, and rehab projects. They dismissed him after a playoff loss.
As the Number 6 train rolled toward the stadium for Game 5, I glimpsed fleeting black caps with orange bills on the subway platforms. It was raw and the air was heavy and moist at the top of the island. The wind was blowing in.
Air-brushed in Yankee-blue on the bricks next to a playground were phantom visages of Murderer’s Row—Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. I realized the enormity of the task ahead of us.
“Bring back hockey”
Once again, the frustrating scoreless stalemate persisted. Both teams relied heavily on the home run all season and it was going to take a colossal blast to penetrate the cold and heavy air mass.
One team was going to have to play “small ball” and scratch a run across to win it.
Balls died in the air. McClouth, a cross between Willem Dafoe and James Cagney, was the first to get a hit off of C.C. Sabathia. Chris Davis then sent a ball deep to center that would have been a home run under different conditions.
The crowd gasped in fear—and then relaxed when the ball was caught.
“This game sucks,” a guy behind me yelled. “Bring back hockey.”
The crowd shrieked again when McClouth sent a Ruthian blast toward the right field pole that inched foul. The pesky left fielder played his heart out, while the majority of bats on both teams had flown south for the winter.
The Severna Park kid, Mark Teixiera — the one who broke our hearts for cash and pinstripes — helped get the Yankees on the board first with a surprise steal. He barreled down the base path like runaway truck on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
Ibanez knocked him in.
They added another run an inning later with a walk and a double.
The Orioles kept grinding and even loaded the bases in the eighth with one out but the six-foot-seven, 290-pound hurler Sabathia found a way to shut them down.
Hardy’s slow roller to short was handled by Jeter on a broken ankle. Had J.J. beaten it out, we might still be playing.
Hungry and cold, I went for the cheese fries and a long ride home.
Proving It Night After Night
In the end, they had gone further than any team in the last fifteen years. They won a one-game playoff, gained valuable postseason experience and proved night after night that they could beat the best teams in baseball. They had driven the Yankees to the brink of elimination and were within inches of beating them.
There has never been a season like it in Oriole history—where each day you couldn’t wait to learn about Showalter’s next concoction for success.
Mike Flanagan would have loved it.
Those kids around town who are learning to drive finally can boast about a winning baseball team. For the last two months, the Orioles were all many of us could think about.