Two weeks ago, when the Orioles celebrated their 60th anniversary following a big win over St. Louis, they brought back a number of great Orioles from the greatest Orioles teams. Each group of great Orioles was introduced with the teammates from that era. The championship teams of 1966, 1970, and 1983, the teams that almost made it in 1979, 1989, and 1997. For the finale of the 40-minute show that featured fireworks and a movie-quality projection onto the Warehouse, the 2014 team took the field to mingle with the great Orioles of the past.
This was a feel good moment, the kind of thing that could have been meaningless if trotted out in front of lesser Orioles teams of the recent past. I remember the 25th anniversary of the 1983 World Series team that was honored before a 2008 game in front of a stadium that was barely half full. It meant nothing to a 49-51 team that past Orioles champions were there. Why should it? They weren't going to be adding to the ranks of glorious Orioles teams. They knew it and we knew it.
During that 60th anniversary celebration, though, this year's Orioles did their part. For one, they entered the game in first place with a five game lead in the division. They also went ahead and thumped the Cardinals by a convincing 12-2 score. The crowd was fired up all game, fired up during the special ceremony, fired up at the end when those responsible for the awesome game came back out to join in the party.
In the two weeks since, the Orioles have played great and extended their lead over their closest competitors to nine games. It's given me plenty of reason to think back on something that occurred to me on that Friday night and has stuck with me since. We are in the next era of Orioles greatness.
Where it will end up, whether any more championship banners will be added to the franchise's haul, that's still to be seen. Maybe this will be the kind of season that is fondly remembered for overachieving, like the 1989 squad, or a team that gave its fans great memories on the way to losing a hard-fought series in the playoffs, like the 1979 American League champions, or, for that matter, the surprise wild card winners of 2012.
Maybe, just maybe, it's the team that will take them all the way for the first time in my lifetime. It's scary to even think about it; only one team can win each year and many good teams lose along the way. Opening up the hope of winning it all is setting up for likely disappointment. But it's exciting, too. It's a possibility, one that becomes a bit more likely with each passing win. It's a heck of a lot more fun than five years ago, when the Orioles entered this date 27 games out of first place.
There is something special happening here. In the darkest days of the last decade, we dreamed that it might some day come. I never imagined it could be like this. Each spring we tried to talk ourselves into thinking that there would be a long climb and at least they'd get it started this year. Then every year they stunk again, at least until Buck Showalter came along and gave us two magical months to close out 2010. A year later they went back into the pits. So much for growth.
As it turns out, success can arrive suddenly and unexpectedly. We saw that in 2012, which is what made it so special. No one saw it coming. Even those mad dreamers who dared imagine greatness could not have imagined that magical team succeeding the way they did. Before it happened, it could not be foreseen. As it went along, the season could not be explained, except to say: Orioles Magic lived again.
It was supposed to be the cavalry that saved us. Instead it was a screwball cast of the unlikely, people whose places in Orioles history may be brief, but legendary. Taylor Teagarden. Nate McLouth. Joe Saunders. Steve Johnson. Pedro Strop. Players who did just the right things at just the right moments. The Orioles could not have succeeded without their core players. They couldn't have succeeded without the fringe players in their motley band, either.
Is it any different this year? Core players are still here, without whom the Orioles would be nowhere: Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy. Others who were once part of that oddball fringe have found their way into the thick of things, like Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez and even Darren O'Day.
You could have guessed that some or all of these players would have good seasons, but Delmon Young, Steve Pearce, Caleb Joseph? Or how about the one-time cavalry Zach Britton turning himself into a strikeout and groundball machine as the closer? Or the good fortune of Nelson Cruz falling to the Orioles for the bargain basement price of $8 million, ready and able to prove he deserved better and proceeding to do just that.
One hallmark of the 2012 team was the way they fluctuated just a bit above .500, never getting too far ahead. Then suddenly it was like a switch got flipped. From a 52-49 record on July 28, 2012, the Orioles pushed their way to their 93-69 final record.
This year's Orioles were 27-27 at the end of May. They haven't been swept since and they've only lost back-to-back games four times. They are 21 games over .500 and don't play a winning team again until September 12.
Something shifted. The starting rotation stabilized, perhaps, but that doesn't explain it all. A strange cast in the bullpen gets the job done, like Tommy Hunter, who's had a 1.78 ERA since being demoted from the closer role. Jonathan Schoop, struggling at times at the plate, but also getting clutch home runs off the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, and helping to fuel the Orioles' league-leading number of double plays turned on defense.
You can't just throw any group of idiots out there, which we learned plenty well in the 00s as we watched season after season of thrashings - capped off by the ignominious 30-3 loss to the Rangers. If you find the right guys, though, by skill or by luck, well...
Much like 2012, it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense based on what we thought we knew before the season. They weren't supposed to win much last year, or this year. The Orioles don't care. They're winning anyway. They are a good team whether not elements of the baseball writing community are ever willing to acknowledge it. The O's might even be building up to something great.
If the Orioles decide to throw another anniversary party in 15 years for the 75th year of their existence, when they show off the teams that mattered in franchise history and bring back those past great players, they will have to add a little something to the presentation: The Buck Showalter Orioles Era.
Markakis and Jones, already in our offseason Top 40 Orioles list, are surely on the path to the Orioles Hall of Fame. Several others could be as well. They could all come out and embrace the 2029 Orioles. However it all shakes out, these three seasons have been something special. We are lucky we've gotten to watch it all.
Maybe this year is the end of it. The late-90s showed us it can all vanish in a hurry. But maybe the Orioles are here to stay. Melvin Mora, solid Oriole that he was, never played on a winning Orioles team. Manny Machado has yet to play on a losing one.
Once, we feared the window that might close when Chris Davis and Matt Wieters headed to free agency, but this season has showed they can win without good performances from either one of them. If the good times do stop rolling, that won't be why.
It would be pretty ridiculous to suggest that the Orioles received some kind of karmic infusion from all those World Series winning greats of the past two weeks ago, and that's why they're winning. After all, they were winning even before that night. It sure didn't hurt, though.
No one can say what's going to happen from here on, but it should be a whole lot of fun. The Orioles are already good enough for whatever the rest of baseball can throw at them.