Fans of losing teams know the term all too well. "Playing out the string." It's enough to make a longsuffering bleacher bum shudder: thoughts of sitting through ill-attended contests with nothing on the line; stadiums loaded up with the fans of an opposing team who still has a chance; feeling the weather get colder while your team's players struggle to play their best ball for nothing but pride or personal statistics.
Orioles fans in particular know this pain. During the team's losing run surrounding the '00s, buying Orioles tickets for September was all but guaranteed to be a meaningless exercise, in all practical terms early in the month, and in mathematical certitude later on. You could still enjoy the beauty of Camden Yards, even soak in its amenities and sights a little bit without huge crowds, but the product on the field was something you had to struggle to make yourself care about.
And if the Orioles were playing the Red Sox or Yankees down the stretch, oh lord. You had to be ready for the mockery of a bunch of bandwagoning jerks who hadn't lived in Boston/New York for decades, all because you had the audacity to come support your team in a rough patch, or try to enjoy an evening of baseball for its own sake.
But no more! In 2012, the Orioles had to play right up until the season's end to assure themselves of a Wild Card berth as that strange, magical season wrapped up. For last year's 85-win campaign, the team didn't get eliminated (mathematically, anyway) until September 25th, with only a few games left in the season.
Let's not downplay the incredible nature of the team winning its first division title since 1997, or clinching at home for the first time since 1969. Those are the big storylines of the end of this incredible campaign. But a weird byproduct of that story is that fans have a whole new experience -- to watch the team play largely meaningless baseball, while they wait for something better, rather than waiting for October to roll in like Kevorkian and put an end to the suffering.
I had the chance to attend the game the night after the Orioles clinched (shockingly, I reverse-jinxed the team to winning behind Ubaldo Freaking Jimenez by buying tickets for the following night). It was a bizarre vibe, a game where the stadium held about 30,000 fans, the Jays played dirty baseball (continuing a series of beanballs by throwing near Steve Pearce's head) -- but while fans cheered and booed at all the right times, it had a decidedly relaxed vibe, like suddenly it wasn't worth calling for Aaron Sanchez's head on a stake, because the Orioles were playoff-bound and the Blue Jays were about to be banished back to the Great White North from whence they came.
So fans get to watch young guys and on-the-bubble players audition while regulars get rotating days of rest to tend to minor injuries -- and it's not a bad thing. It's a teaser. A prologue. You can sip a beer, evaluate the minutiae of the game without any concern for their effect on a larger outcome, root for Derek Jeter to fail just because -- but the scoreboard fades into the background like a Coldplay track in a department store.
You've earned this stretch, Orioles fans. Relax and soak it in, and get ready to cheer twice as hard next week.