May 5, 2012
After six weeks of my first spring training covering the Orioles, I came across a fan -- wearing a tattered O's cap you could tell he placed upon his head every day -- who recognized me at the airport. We caught eyes, and I nodded cordially to him. He asked me when the team was going to sign Adam Jones to an extension. He succinctly carried the voice of most Orioles fans, reeling from 14 straight losing seasons, heading into another April.
"We just want hope," he said.
This season, the Orioles did just that -- and more -- breathing life into a franchise and fan base that had suffered for a decade and a half, taking the city on a wild, improbable ride fitting of its late-season motto, "BUCKle Up."
For me, a Baltimore-area native returning home after eight years in Florida, covering the 2012 Orioles was a surreal experience. As a kid, I saved copies of The Baltimore Sun as keepsakes of great Orioles moments. Now, I was the one writing the stories I used to save, realizing at every critical turn that the next day's newspaper might be one some kid would keep for years.
There was that 17-inning game in Boston on May 6, the one in which I had to wipe off my binoculars to make sure that was really Chris Davis warming up in the bullpen in the 15th inning. It was one of many grueling extra-inning marathon wins -- 16 straight to be exact -- that characterized the Orioles' resolve under manager Buck Showalter.
It was somewhat anticlimactic, but there was the sight of the Orioles watching the end of the first game of a doubleheader between the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers on the center field video screen at Camden Yards. The Orioles had just beaten the Red Sox in their regular-season home finale, and a Rangers win would clinch them a playoff berth. The stands remained packed, and the Orioles stood on the field and watched with their fans, until the Angels rallied to win. The playoff spot was sealed later that night.
After winning the wild-card game in Texas against a Rangers team that often used Orioles pitching as batting practice -- Josh Hamilton hit four homers in one game against them in May, Adrian Beltre hit three in another in August -- the highlight was coming home, something Showalter expertly used as motivation.
But there was nothing like the energy that consumed Camden Yards for the Orioles' two home American League Division Series games against the New York Yankees. You could feel similar excitement down the stretch in September, definitely at the Sept. 6 game honoring Cal Ripken, Jr., the last time the Yankees were in town. There was some early on, when the Orioles beat the Washington Nationals at home. But nothing like this, with the orange and white rally towels waving, fans letting out years of pent-up frustration. I'd never seen anything like it.
As a journalist, you are trained to be unwavering. But I couldn't help but get caught up in the moment. I caught myself taking long deep breaths during the national anthem, not just for the Orioles, but for the city of Baltimore.
Even months into the offseason, I still get questions about how the Orioles were able to do it, to go from 93 losses to 93 wins. Regardless of whether they are able to duplicate that success in the new year, nothing will be like 2012.
What will carry over? The hope.
-- Eduardo A. Encina