Did the Orioles really win the AL East? Oh yes, hon

Hey, look at that. The Orioles don’t stink anymore.

To be fair, the team has been pretty darn formidable over the last three years, slipping into the playoffs in 2012 as a wild card entry, and narrowly missing out on that opportunity last year — fielding a competitive team that was seeking a postseason birth until the last week of the season.

But teams getting into the postseason via the wild card face upturned noses from the baseball purists who believe you should win your division to qualify for the playoffs. Their argument is that baseball is different than the other sports — a 162-game season is a true test of a team’s mettle and ability to withstand the adversity each team inevitably goes through over the course of the marathon season. I agree with that sentiment, but I also acknowledge that baseball had to start including wild card teams for one significant reason.

The money.

More rounds of playoffs means more opportunities for the league to cash in on nationally-televised games. It also means that more teams are still alive in playoff chases, meaning more fan bases are invested in the season for longer periods of time — translating into more people in seats, more people buying merchandise and more people watching or listening to games through television, radio and the Internet. In a time when baseball is no longer the undisputed king of sports, every dollar helps.

That being said, no baseball traditionalist can turn up his or her nose to the 2014 Baltimore Orioles team. Clinching their first American League East title since 1997, and doing so at home for the first time since 1969, the Orioles storm into the postseason with a solid resume, a hot team and a rabid fan base that has embraced the Buck Showalter-led squad with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen since Earl Weaver was getting thrown out of games as manager of the Orioles from 1968 through 1982 (we won’t count his cameo appearance as manager in 1985-86 because, well, it wasn’t great).

Unlike our mop-headed sports columnist (see page A62) who doesn’t remember when the Orioles were a force in Major League Baseball, I do. Granted, I missed the Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Frank Robinson editions of the team, but I do warmly remember the Eddie Murray, Al Bumbry, Ken Singleton and Jim Palmer teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I remember crying as I watched the Orioles blow a 3-1 World Series lead to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979 as a 10-year-old fan, and high-fiving my father as they downed the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1983 Series. I remember Tippy Martinez picking off three baserunners in an inning to preserve a game, Rick Dempsey entertaining fans during rain delays and “Wild Bill” Hagy leading a raucous Memorial Stadium crowd in cheers.

Good times all around.

And, make no mistake, the good times are back. Oh, those teams in the ’90s were very good under the leadership of manager Davey Johnson, but they were much-more expected. The Orioles outspent teams on talent back then, and bought themselves a lot of very good baseball players. The fans were still a bit spoiled at the time from previous success, as well, so there was as much griping about the team from its fans when they lost as there was appreciation for their efforts when they won. But this group of players, and Showalter the manager, has found itself as the target of love from the fan base, and that is a special and unique thing.

The Orioles were so bad for so long that they had become an afterthought to many Baltimore sports fans, particularly with the extended run of success by the Baltimore Ravens in the much more popular NFL. Oh, people still liked the Orioles, but they stopped drawing big crowds and generating comments on the Internet message boards from all but the most-ardent of fans.

They had achieved apathy from their supporters, and there is no worse fate for a professional sports franchise than an indifferent fan base.

Current Orioles outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones were part of some of those awful teams, and they were quite often the only shining lights for fans to cling to as the rest of the team struggled to compete. I often worried that the Orioles would lose either or both of those players to contending teams as the losses piled up and they often played in front of an empty stadium.

But they both stuck it out, and they’d often state publicly that it would be worth it when the team eventually reversed their fortunes. I looked for both of them Tuesday night on television as the team celebrated the division championship in a champagne-filled explosion in the locker room. Jones was his typical, outgoing self, sporting goggles to protect his eyes from flying champagne and smiling from ear to ear.

“It’s a milestone,” said Jones (and I stole this quote from the Baltimore Sun). “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re going to celebrate tonight... the whole city of Baltimore... It has been a long time coming for the city of Baltimore.”

Markakis was also being Markakis. He was smiling, watching his younger teammates celebrating, and stopping to hug other players in the background, but not actively participating in the craziness.

“Just taking it all in and the experience is something I’ll never forget,” said Markakis, via the Sun.

It’s something us fans won’t forget, either.