The curtains have fallen on the 2014 Orioles. There will be no encore. The lights in the theater have come back on, darkness receding quickly, as if it was all nothing more than a dream. The ending was abrupt and unexpected, probably undeserved, if you compare the respective regular seasons of the O's and their ALCS opponents, the Royals. Yet, as gun-toters as varied as Will Munny and Snoop remind us: Deserve's got nothin' to do with it. It was their time, is all.
There's no shame in losing in the American League Championship Series. Indeed, three years ago, if you had been told that just now the Orioles would be in a place where this is where their season ends, that would have been thrilling. And it is thrilling. Months from now, when the sting of losing subsides, this season will be one full of warm memories. Years from now, looking back, this season will be in context as part of a successful era of the Orioles.
We're lucky we got to watch Nelson Cruz and his 40 homers, the double-play-turning ability of Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy. We're lucky that Delmon Young and Steve Pearce found their way into Orioles uniforms this year, lucky that Zach Britton got his shot as the closer. In a 96-win season that also featured a division title and a sweep in the ALDS against three straight Cy Young winners, there was not a shortage of awesome moments.
No one can take away the cathartic, pie-and-champagne-filled celebration as the Orioles clinched the division. It might not have ended in a World Series title, but it was still a worthy way to mark another milestone to show that the franchise has come out of the baseball wilderness.
Every year, 29 teams are going to end up as losers, one way or another. The Orioles made it farther than 26 of those teams. That is a good year even if there aren't any new pennants or trophies hanging up in Camden Yards. With all that they overcame, with Matt Wieters playing for only a month, Manny Machado playing for less than half the year, Chris Davis being a shell of his previous year's self, with their big offseason signing Ubaldo Jimenez being a total bust, they made it here when they were projected for 75 wins.
The long, cold offseason is now upon us. Any year where it's mid-October before you have to cast your eyes ahead to the offseason and next year is not a bad year, not after nearly a decade and a half of losing seasons. Casting the tea leaves about as to what moves Dan Duquette might make from November through February is not nearly as fun as cheering for the Orioles in October, but that's all we've got now.
Turns out that it's also more fun looking to next year after three straight winning seasons and two postseasons in three years, which helps a little bit. It'll help more once I'm not laying awake every night, seeing broken bat bloopers falling into eternity in my nightmares.
There is the very cold comfort of knowing - in the same way that I know the Orioles would have won the 1996 ALCS without Jeffrey Maier's intervention - that the Orioles were the better team than the Royals this year, but they certainly didn't show it in the ALCS. You can't say the Royals didn't earn it. They won the games that were played. Sure could have easily gone a whole lot differently, though.
Fluke plays significantly fueled the Royals' triumph, composed of some combination of luck, skill, and design, the exact makeup of which we'll debate forever. It's a lot like wondering what if Armando Benitez didn't start hanging sliders in the 1997 ALCS. This is the fate of all postseason teams except for one, every year. When it's close enough that the little things matter, they all hurt. And oh, how they hurt.
The show is over. It's not the style of baseball teams to come out and take a bow - unless they win the World Series, anyway - but these Orioles deserve one. They played like champions, and they were. Division champions, anyway, which is better than nothing. There will never be another season like this one again. If we're lucky, one will be as good or better, in a different way.
There will be another show next year, a different cast, a different script. The costumes will probably look about the same. We can look forward to that in time.
For now, as sad as it is that it's over, it's time to stand up and applaud the 2014 Orioles. There has never been a better O's team in my adult lifetime. There may never be a better one, although I hope that's not so.
This has been a special team, World Series or not. I'm glad I got to see them play. They were the kings of the American League East. Bravo.