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For Boog, Robby and Cal Jr.

Sep 14, 2012 - Lew Diehl, Riverton

It's September, and the Orioles have the lead

I have to write this column fast, while it's still relevant. Everything could change over the weekend.

Is it a loving thank-you for the long growing season which began in April and still lingers? No.

An uncanny prediction on a college football game? No.

A cogent analysis of a political campaign? No.

It's something else.

The Baltimore Orioles are in first place.

Careful readers with good memories may recall that I am a fan of the baseball team from Charm City. In practical terms, I'm more of a Colorado Rockies fan nowadays (and a season ticket holder at Coors Field), but your team loyalty from childhood never disappears.

My allegiance stems from 1969, when I first became aware of the Birds in the World Series. We had a black-and-orange bird in our yard that summer, and my mother and I looked through the bird book together trying to identify it.

According to the book, it turned out to be a western oriole, or maybe a Bullock's, but the name Baltimore oriole must have registered with me from our bird study, because later that year when I first gave my first boyhood attention to baseball and learned there was a team called the Baltimore Orioles, they became my team instantly. I went back to that page in the bird book again and again that October.

Baltimore lost that '69 World Series to the New York Mets, but generally that was the ideal time to become an Orioles fan. Baltimore played in the World Series four times in six years, winning twice, won the American League East a couple of more times in those years, and then made the Series again in 1979 in my freshman year at college and won it in 1983, a memorable fall when I had cut short a planned academic year abroad and came back home as a confused 22-year-old. Baltimore's World Series win over the Phillies made things easier. A baseball card featuring the Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Mike Boddicker still hangs from a tack on the bulletin board by my desk.

But it's been hard to be an O's fan since then. There were the Cal Ripken years as he chased, broke and set irrevocably in stone the record for consecutive games played, and a brief flowering in the mid-1990s when they made the American League Championship Series twice in a row.

Remember that snot-nosed little Yankees fan who skipped school in the sixth-grade and interfered with the Baltimore outfielder's catch in right field, and then the obviously corrupt umpire called in a home run? If you're an Orioles fan you do.

Other than that, though, Baltimore has been an also-ran at best, an embarrassment at worst. The Orioles set the Major League record for most consecutive losses to start a season -- 22. They have the record for the most runs ever allowed in an American League game. The manager's office might as well have a revolving door on it, there have been so many since the great Earl Weaver retired.

The one and only team every to have four 20-game winners in the same season (yes, I remember them -- McNalley, Palmer, Cuellar and Dobson in 1971), has had just one all-star caliber pitcher in 20 years, Mike Mussina (and even he didn't have a 20-win season until he left to pitch for the damned Yankees).

This year, though, they were decent to start the season, pretty good through the middle of the year, and now, in the final month of the season, they're playing better than just about anybody.

The Orioles won a 14-inning game Thursday night. They've won 13 extra-inning games this year, the most in baseball in more than 20 years, and they have an astonishing record of 27-7 in one-run games. Thursday's score: 3-2.

Even if they lost all 19 games remaining this season, they still would have a winning record for the first time since 1997.

And, yes, they are in first place. Tied with the Yankees, true, but not behind anyone. This isn't April. This isn't the All-Star break. This is mid-September, with 90 percent of the season completed.

Orioles fans aren't commonplace in Wyoming. A few of us have found each other through the years, but to others it is an oddity. How is a person from Wyoming an Orioles fan? Why would you root for a team that's been so bad?

It's because I remember the great Brooks Robinson. I remember the buttery smooth shortstop Mark Belanger. Big-swinging Boog Powell is my all-time favorite big leaguer. I remember Earl Weaver getting ejected from a game before it started. I remember, with great affection, Bumbry, Buford and Blair, Elrod and Etchebarren, and Baylor and Grich, Flan the Man and the new Iron Horse.

Gary Roenicke, the left fielder who had a facemask on his batting helmet and whose son now pitches for the Rockies. Frank Robinson tagging and scoring in Game Six against the Pirates in '71.

I've seen five times as many Rockies games as Orioles games. I've never been to Camden Yards, the first of the great "new" stadiums. ESPN barely noticed the Birds until Wednesday night. It might all evaporate still under the Yankees onslaught. Alex Rodriguez makes more money by himself than the entire Baltimore starting lineup Thursday night.

But for now, for this weekend, there they are, just as they were so often when I was a boy. First in the AL East, listed ahead of Yankees (thanks to alphabetizing). In the thick of it for once.

I'm getting out the bird book tonight. I'll bet it still falls open to that very page.

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