It's early fall in Baltimore, that time of year when purple banners, car flags and sweatshirts normally dominate the landscape, as surely as the colors are soon to hit the trees. But Charm City isn't just
In grade schools and taverns, at water coolers and along busy streets, Baltimoreans are sporting
The O's are in a pennant race, the franchise's first since 1997, and a baseball town wounded by years of losing is buying in.
"We were wandering out there in the desert for so long, but look at all the orange here now," said Christina Barth of Mount Airy as she sat in the
No sports revival can happen without victories, and the O's have delivered plenty. With less than a week remaining in the season, the team — which opened
But what has fans waxing rhapsodic is the way the team has done it. A club with few recognized stars and plenty of hard workers, these O's seem the very image of a city's best traits.
"This team isn't a powerhouse. They have to grind it out. Baseball is little things, and they do the little things," said William Van Alstyne of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during a Toronto game.
"The talent is not so amazing, but they're such a team. And they have this take-no-prisoners attitude. They don't fear anybody," added Josh Neirman of Washington, D.C.
Then Neirman, 27, called on a phrase that evoked the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last time the city boasted two top-level professional teams. "This isn't luck. It's Oriole magic."
The manager's office
The O's began their final home stand of the year on Monday, a seven-game stretch against the Toronto Blue Jays and
"This manager is a hypnotist. I don't know how Buck [Showalter] is doing it, exactly, but trust me; I'm in sales. He has every one of those players believing they're going to win," Toner said.
For someone who hasn't met the manager, he's pretty close.
Before a recent game, Showalter sips coffee behind a vast desk in his roomy Camden Yards office, his eyes red and throat scratchy from two weeks on the road. A row of vintage Orioles caps lines the cabinet behind him.
The manager who makes a point of backing his players in public is courtly — but not above delivering a verbal brushback when he sees fit.
How have his players exceeded expectations? "Whose expectations are those?" he asks. "Some guys with microphones who aren't on the field?"
How do you juggle all these spare parts? "That's a slap in the face to our players."
What's it like to direct … "This is about the players, not me."
He's all aggressive modesty, like a pitcher who throws harder than he seems to.
Any manager, Showalter insists, could be winning with
The stars anchor the team, of course — as the weekend began, closer Johnson had 47 saves, a franchise record, and five players had 20-plus homers, a big-league high. But in concert with general manager Dan Duquette, he has cycled 52 players through the roster, more than any O's manager since 1955. Few are household names.
"Before I add anybody to this team, I think long and hard about how he's going to fit in, what kind of teammate he's going to be," Showalter says. "This [clubhouse] is a special fraternity. Why would I want to do anything to disturb that?" It's a nod to everyone from quietly patient Manny Machado, 20, to upbeat veterans such as 30-year-old
From there, Showalter says, his job is to "define reality" — that is, tell his charges what they need to hear.
Winning is the goal, after all. Offer players a taste, he says, and good things will happen — and snowball. People will end up doing things no one saw coming.
He takes another sip of coffee and says, "These guys surprise me every game."
For a team in the midst of an all-too-rare pennant race, the Orioles don't seem to feel the strain. A few hours before one game, they toss a football and some Frisbees as part of their warmup.
The day after a doubleheader split with the Blue Jays, the clubhouse is lively but reserved, a fair summation of the mindset that has gotten the team here.
It's a sprawling, carpeted place, with players' names and uniform numbers neatly displayed above the wood-trimmed lockers lining the walls. In the center, players in shorts and T-shirts lounge on oversized black sofas.
The pingpong table is getting a workout, and not far away, McLouth and pitcher
And from his locker at one end,
For Arrieta, all this pennant fever got its start long before, in his case in 2007, when the Orioles made him a fifth-round pick in the June draft. From then on, the 6-foot-5 pitcher says, he has been part of a gradual building process that has left everyone in the room all but certain this would happen sooner or later.
"You can't go by what others say. We felt we had this ability all along," he says, adding that even though the players come from all walks of life, there's a natural camaraderie among them.
"Look around this room, you'll see what I mean," he says, as though inviting a guest.
There are voices of experience. Thome, the future Hall of Famer, sits on a stool in front of his locker, patiently answering half a dozen reporters' questions. The past month in Baltimore reminds him of the mid-1990s in Cleveland, he says, when he was helping lead the
There are quieter voices. The notoriously reserved Markakis, still sidelined with a broken thumb, tells someone he plans to get the pins out when the team is in Tampa.
There are voices of unity. Pitcher
Out in the ballpark, the crazies are filing in, and their orange-and-black gear tells a tale. It's not just the oldsters who wear the Palmer, Murray and Ripken stuff, nor the teeny-boppers who sport Jones' 10 or Wieters' 32.
Plenty of T-shirts proclaim ""Buck-le Up!" or "O Buck Yeah!"
"It's just great to see so many people here having fun," says Stasia Zarling, a partial season-ticket holder sitting along the third base line with her partner, Jeff Bejma.
Bejma knows turnarounds. He grew up in Detroit, where he suffered through years of despair following the football
"You stick with your team," says Bejma, who even led a group of 30 friends to Camden Yards for two Red Sox games, where they "took back the stadium" by singing drinking songs and shouting down the usually boisterous Boston faithful.
As the game unfolds, it's clear starting pitcher
But one of Showalter's mottos is a saying his father taught him: "Don't overlook an orchid while waiting for a rose." He gives pitching phenom
The 19-year-old serves up a glimpse of the future, firing 95-mph heat in a shutout inning. More than half the crowd stays till the end.
Choosing to believe
Is it panic time in Baltimore? The O's have uncharacteristically dropped three of their past four. Showalter reminds them they've also won seven of 10.
At Kisling's Tavern & Grill in Canton, lifelong fan Brian Paska, 31, is watching the final Toronto game with a bunch of friends. Clad in orange and black, he appears in an advanced state of sports awe.
The Orioles haven't been in contention this late since he was 16 — years before the
"I've never switched back and forth between the Ravens and Orioles like I'm doing now," he says. "It's a great time to be a sports fan in Baltimore."
He doesn't know the half of it.
McLouth leads off the first with a home run. Thome, Machado and
Over at Willow in Fells Point, John Wienholt is gratified. He lives on a houseboat in the harbor and comes here to watch nearly every televised game.
"This game was a statement," he says. "This is a response — a furious response to losing those three out of four. The heck with the wild card. This team's going to win the division."
Like thousands of fans, Wienholt has surrendered his heart cautiously this year. Even in a season in which the team has won an incredible 16 straight extra-inning games — the most by any club since the 1949 Indians — he has withdrawn, at times, into a self-protective shell of pessimism.
"Sometimes I think, 'What if we get this far, this close to the promised land, then crash and burn?'" he says. "That can still happen. Think of the humiliation, the torture."
Then he thinks of the manager.
"Buck obviously has some powerful Zen working in that clubhouse," he says. "He's Yoda. I guess I'm going to choose to have faith."
A baseball town
As the O's play a weekend series at home against Boston, then three in Tampa Bay to end the season, they know they could overtake the
It's do or die, as it seems to have been all year.
No matter what happens, fans say, the team has reminded Baltmore of the game it used to love, and it seems to have held up a mirror to that city in the process.
To Bejma, the Fells Point fan, it's about more than baseball.
"Those boys are great representatives of Baltimore," he says. "They have grit. They don't give up. And this town was down on its luck once upon a time, and it found a way to get reborn."
Showalter knows a thing or two about picking up and starting over. Three big-league teams have fired the manager in his career, yet he has always found a way to rise again.
"We're glad to be where we are, but we aren't done yet," he says. "Kind of fun, don't you think?"