After 14 consecutive losing seasons, there's bound to be angst on the part of any fan base. Bearing that in mind, I think there's something that a lot of fans are struggling with right now: The Orioles are in contention.
Back when the season started and things were going so well, my public stance on Birds Watcher was that it was early and we had to see how things played out. Privately, while I kept that advice in the back of my mind, I also felt that this time might be just a bit different. Orioles fans had seen strong starts before, most notably in 2005 when the Birds were 47-40 at the break before fading hard in the second half.
So can we really blame fans for being just a bit skeptical? Probably not. That above-mentioned 2005 season certainly ended on a downer, to say the least. So is there any particular reason why this time around might be a bit different?
First off, Orioles fans should take a lot of hope in how the season finished in 2011. I'm not sure that many people had ever seen a team playing at a playoff level like the Orioles did during September, with literally nothing to play for. While the makeup of this team is somewhat different, the same nucleus of players is still around. These guys know how to win big games and close games, evidenced by last week's 4-3 win in Minnesota after a late rally.
Secondly (and this ties back to how they finished 2011), the Orioles are led by Buck Showalter. This is Showalter's second full season in Baltimore, after he took over the reins in August 2010. Remember that season? When the O's started 2-16? The Birds closed the season with a winning record in the months of August and September, which impressed a lot of people. So if you think about it, the O's have always finished well under Showalter, which is much more than can be said about pre-2010. In the second halfs of 2010 and 2011, there were similar questions about the starting pitching (although perhaps not quite as much in 2010) as we see this year. Yet the Birds still found a way to win. That perhaps more than anything else should tell Orioles fans something about the current administration in the dugout.
The Orioles went through a tough stretch moving through June and early July, and a few people actually said they felt they were jilted at the altar once again. First off, let's give a little bit of credit to the Orioles' opponents; it's tough to win games in this league, and that goes for the Orioles as well as every other team. However I'm not sure that the mindset of some people is yet ready for being in contention. In no way am I suggesting that fans (and players, for that matter) should walk around assuming that they're entitled to success like some franchises/fan bases do (not to call anyone out, but see Boston Red Sox September 28, 2011). However, winning deserves a certain mindset, and the Orioles are a winning team.
Again, I can't necessarily blame fans for thinking that the other shoe is going to drop. It might well fall, for all I know; however, at the very least, I would submit that what the Orioles have put together now is much easier to swallow than what we saw in 2010. Orioles fans have a choice: They can believe it when they see it, or they can take Journey's advice in "Don't Stop Believing." (On a side note, I'm a huge fan of Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Johnny Cash, so why in the world did I just reference Journey?)
You might notice that I've used the term "in contention" a lot; to this point, I haven't used the word "playoffs." I can't tell you if the playoffs are in the Orioles' future this year. However, I can say that I believe the Orioles will remain in contention for at least most of the season. They've gone through some tough times, but yet they've found a way to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
If the O's go to the playoffs, that would undoubtably be a successful season. However, if they find themselves on the outside looking in at the last minute, is that not still a successful season based on the past 14 years? That's what being in contention is - you might make it and you might not. But you're still in contention. And if you believe, you never know where you'll end up.
Domenic Vadala blogs about the Orioles at Birds Watcher, and his opinions appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.