As September 1′s go, this one appears to be fairly significant in Baltimore.
For it’s on this day in 2010 that the baseball team in town is actually playing (almost) meaningful baseball. Those of you not counting at home won’t know this, but anyone who has followed the Orioles since 1998 realizes that today is the first September baseball game that has (almost) mattered in Baltimore in 13 years.
Thirteen long years of teams and games and results in September that didn’t matter one iota. At least not to the Orioles or their fans.
But tonight, when the Orioles host Boston, a September game (almost) matters.
I write (almost) in connection with the words “matters” and “meaningful” because let’s all be clear on one thing. When your team is 49-83, like the Orioles are right now, the games you play in September don’t REALLY matter. They matter to the player who’s trying to reach a personal milestone and they mean something to a guy who might be trying to earn a job or keep his for another season. But on the whole, the last month, when you’re 32 games under .500, is nothing but schedule filler.
That’s not a low blow…it’s just a fact.
But — and there IS a qualifying “but” here that MUST be recognized…this September is different than any of the Septembers we’ve seen in these parts since 1998.
Because for once — thankfully — there APPEARS to be modest improvement from our baseball team. Tangible improvement. REAL, honest-to-God improvement. You’ll note that I italicized and underlined the word APPEARS, because that must be emphasized. We’re not definitely seeing improvement. We’re seeing what’s otherwise known as a hot streak. But it’s fair to note that it COULD be real improvement. The sample size under Buck Showalter (27 games) is far too small to declare, definitively, that our orange-feathered friends have turned the corner and will someday soon start competing with the real teams who try to win in their division. But it appears that certain elements of the Orioles organization are starting to fall in place. And those qualities – good starting pitching, a stable of young, dependable arms, and a manager who commands respect – could be the foundation for a 2011 season that might very well be the best we’ve seen in Baltimore since the 1997 club.
These games in September (almost) matter greatly to the Orioles because they can continue to chip away at the notion that the team isn’t capable of competing in the American League East.
For the last 3+ years, the team’s head honcho has spent countless interviews dropping cryptic hints about how the Orioles can’t compete in the A.L. East because of the “unbalanced financial nature” of the division.
You can’t compete in the American League East if you don’t have good players.
And you can’t compete – anywhere – if your heart’s not really set on competing.
The apologists don’t like to admit it, mostly because they know it’s true, but the Orioles haven’t REALLY tried to compete in the American League throughout most of the last decade. It’s not that far away from a pyramid scheme, honestly. In those deals, someone at the bottom of the chain always gets left holding the bag while others around him/her prosper. The Orioles scam has been neatly devised: act as if you want to win, say you really hope you can win soon, maintain that you’re doing your best to win…but when the rubber meets the road and you have to actually DO something to prove you’re trying to win, you just don’t have the balls to do it. And who gets left holding the bag? The fans who cough up $20 to watch you not try to win.
But this Orioles team we’ve seen under Buck Showalter IS competing and the roster of players under his watchful eye ARE trying to win. True, they’ve dumped on some of the gasping-for-air units like the Angels and White Sox and Indians, but last time I checked, you have to beat the bad teams and the good teams in order to be a winner. There are still holes in the lineup and there are still problems to be solved, but the Orioles, under Showalter, appear to be on the verge of turning a corner, albeit four months and 110 games too late.
But just because it’s too late for THIS season doesn’t mean what’s happening right now isn’t a good thing. It’s VERY good, in fact. It gives Andy MacPhail ammunition in the off-season to wave his open checkbook at any number of players and say, “We’re close in Baltimore…close to getting it together again…close to competing…and you (Carl Crawford, or Adam Dunn, or Paul Konerko) can help take us to that next level we’re so desperately trying to reach.” For the first time since 1998, the words Orioles and “epic September collapse” aren’t shoved together in the dictionary.
These games are (almost) meaningful.
Now, I’m not naive enough to ignore the fact that all of this winning and high-fiving and “Buck-for-President” stuff won’t mean s**t in November if MacPhail does what he’s been known to do over the years which is this: tell everyone the team will spend money on free agents in the off-season and then NEVER actually go about doing it. That’s been MacPhail’s M.O. at his three previous stops, although the Cubs spent money on free agents, even if it was never enough to actually get them to win consistently.
At various points during the Orioles dismal 3+ years under the guidance of MacPhail, the man himself has reminded anyone and everyone who would listen “there’s a time and place to spend big money on free agents…and when we have our young pitching sorted out and we feel we’re close to competing and need those 2-3 bats to ‘put us over the top’, then we’ll go out and get those bats.”
Don’t look now Andy, but that time will arrive in November, 2010.
This off-season, assuming the Orioles play roughly .500 ball in September, they’ll be able to say (truthfully) things are starting to really look up in Baltimore. They’ll be able to brag that Showalter showed up and so did winning. They’ll be able to say over the last 1/3 of the season, or thereabouts, they won as many games as they lost, had a staff ERA in the top 5 in the American League and got production from a young corps of arms that are the envy of most teams in the majors.
For the first time in 13 years, the Orioles might actually be an attractive off-season destination for a worthy free agent.
But MacPhail will have to pay them.
And therein lies the rub.
For now, though, there’s no sense in worrying about November.
Let’s enjoy these September games for what they’ve suddenly become: fun and interesting and worthy of following, because with each win the Orioles might just be closer to actually escaping this death-grip-on-losing they’ve had since 1998.
(Almost) meaningful baseball in September.
Could we finally be seeing a small ray of light at the end of the Moribund Tunnel?
One thing for sure, though.
If they keep winning under Buck throughout the remainder of 2010, the Orioles will once again have something to prove to their fanbase in the winter months.
This time, though, they’ll be delivering on their own promise of making the necessary moves once “we get close” to competing.
Will they follow through?
Or will they make excuses about not spending the way they’ve routinely done in the MacPhail era?
Excuses are OK when you’re losing.
But they’re not OK when you’re winning.
Right now, the Orioles are winning.
It’s a good thing.
Let’s hope it lasts longer than August and September.
And let’s hope the Orioles don’t let us down this winter and waste all of this success, modest as it might be.