I have rooted for the Dallas Cowboys since I was a little boy and during the winter I eat, sleep and breathe Washington Capitals hockey, but the Baltimore Orioles are my first and one true sports love. The O's have always held a special place in my fan heart, that cartoon bird a constant presence in my fan soul. The battle with the Brewers in 1982 and the World Series season in 1983 are among my earliest sports memories. My grandfather was a great baseball fan and thankfully my mother carried on tradition by introducing me to the joy a baseball season can bring. I took it from there, acquiring baseball cards (caring little about value, more about picking up O's), ripping open the morning paper to pore over box scores and hanging on every word broadcast by Chuck Thompson, and later, Jon Miller. I have enjoyed many an hour watching games with friends, talking O's with my father-in-law, debating rivalries, analyzing statistics and discussing our Birds with anybody who wants to chat. Orioles baseball is a link, bonding community and family, connecting past and present.
Sunday night, when the Orioles clinched a playoff berth for the first time in fifteen years, I was covered in goosebumps and flooded with warm memories dating back to childhood: Imitating Eddie Murray's exaggerated leaned-back batting stance, being lucky enough to win a contest to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, Camden Yards $5 center field bleacher seats, firing tennis balls off the front steps pretending to be Brooks and Cal, the '93 All-Star festivities, the 1989 'Why Not ?' season (Bob Melvin!), walking the seemingly unending ramps up to Memorial Stadium's upper deck, Eddie Murray answering our relentless chants of "Eddie-Eddie-Eddie" with a mammoth blast to center field, Wild Bill Hagy, getting an early sneak peek of Camden Yards as a student journalist, skipping class to watch playoff games, The Streak, getting misty-eyed during the final game on 33rd Street, Grace eagerly tracking the Oriole Bird through the stands, the greenest grass you'll ever see, the simple joy of sharing cold beers and batting practice with your best friends...
Of course, there have been plenty of dark times. Most of the Angelos Era. Tony F-ing Fernandez. Jeffrey Maier. 0-21 to start 1988. (For which I feel totally responsible. I jinxed the team by attending my first Opening Day that year, a 12-0 shellacking at the hands of the Brewers.) Albert Belle. Fifteen years of season-submarining, spirit-crushing eight game losing streaks, sometimes in May, sometimes in August, but always present. Despite all the lean times, true fans have loyally donned the orange and black of our heroes, cheering them even when hope and faith had left the yard.
That is why this season is so awesome. Years of despair flattened expectations. Sure, Buck seemed to building something, but a .500 season was as likely as there being meaningful dialogue in tonight's presidential debate. As the team kept winning I kept looking skyward for the other shoe. I was sure every loss was the first in a string of twelve. As the wins continued to pile up it was difficult to ignore that something special was brewing. Succeeding despite such an upside down run differential? Unlikely. Winning almost every extra inning game and one run decision they played? Improbable. Contributions from cast-offs like Nate McClouth, Carlos Quentanilla and Miguel Gonzalez? Seriously? Incredibly, yes. Pitching, power and a sprinkle of Orioles Magic was a recipe for success that hearkened back to the O's powerhouses of my youth.
I don't know what will happen tonight or Friday or beyond. In many ways it doesn't matter; the Birds are in the hunt for the pennant. They are relevant again. Summer was fun. September was meaningful. October (Yes, October) is full of possibility. This team has given its fans the greatest gift any team can give-restoration of hope and faith. So, in the words of former Orioles public address announcer, the late Rex Barney, I say to the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, "Thank Yooooouuuuu."