To most people, New Year’s Eve is one of the most boisterous and celebrated nights of the year – two years if you really want to be technical. I see it as more of a reflective time in that I look back on the nearly completed year and think forward on how to make the coming one the best year yet. That includes the Orioles; what have been the biggest moments in 2011 for the Birds? Here are some highlights from my perspective, in no particular order:
- For the most part the Orioles were the Paul Sarbanes of the league in that they were somewhat forgotten. However in the final inning of the final day, they finally announced their presence to the world. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail regarding what happened, and in fact I intend to touch more on it as we get closer to spring training. However keep in mind that the Red Sox have seemed to always find a way to beat the Orioles, and generally in dramatic fashion. So in doing the Red Sox “the same way they had done the O’s” so many times, the Orioles taught a lesson in humility. I don’t think that many people had ever seen a team like the fighting Showalters giving everything they had to win, with literally nothing to play for. When I say that these theatrics taught a lesson in humility, I mean that literally. A few Boston fans that I know asked me why the Orioles played those games “as if they actually counted.” Uh…because they did count! To me, that shows the sense of entitlement that we later found out truly existed in the Red Sox clubhouse. I can’t speak for the players, but at the very least there were Boston Red Sox fans who just figured the O’s would and perhaps even should lay down. Again, a lesson in humility, as well as in respect for your opponent and the game.
- 2011 was a year of great defense for the Birds. Nick Markakis started this off in game two of the season in Tampa when he climbed the wall to save a potential extra-base hit for the final out in Tampa. In June we saw Adam Jones giving his best impression of Willie Mays in Seattle when he saved a home run crashing against the centerfield wall with his back to the plate. (Incidentally on a side note, “the Say Hey kid” might be my all-time favorite baseball nickname.) We also saw both Jones and Markakis team up with Matt Wieters (by way of J.J. Hardy) at home plate on numerous occasions to gun runners down at home plate. And how many runners did Wieters gun down on the base paths?!
- What Orioles’ season would be complete without injuries? There’s a tug-of-war between the mindsets of good teams compensate for injuries, and the team is struggling due to injuries. There’s certainly something to be said for having the depth in your system to compensate for injuries. However when all of your depth is suddenly in the big leagues due to the sheer number of nics and bruises, it becomes a problem like what we’ve seen with the O’s for the past two seasons or so. Brian Roberts, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Luke Scott, Vladimir Guerreo, and Jake Arrieta among others had injuries that forced them to miss time. This is not to say that the Orioles shouldn’t take an honest look at their training staff to see if they’re conditioning these guys properly. However while injuries may come across as an excuse, that excuse is also the truth.
- I think we’ll remember 2011 as a year in which players we didn’t expect to step up came up big. When the Orioles traded for J.J. Hardy I knew that they got a good shortstop. Not only did Hardy have a great season in the field, but he hit a career-high 30 HR’s on the year and became a team leader. The Orioles also saw Robert Andino step up big in 2011, which is somewhat hard for me to admitt. I was never big on Andino because I saw him as a sideways cap-wearing immature kid. However I think I jumped the gun on that a bit in that I hadn’t given him time to mature as a player and as a person. Andino calmed down in his demeanor this past year, and he came up big for the team in the absence of Brian Roberts. Let’s not forget that it was he who hit that game-winning double on the last day.
- While Andino and Hardy were great stories of guys stepping up, there were also a few of the other kind. The Orioles aquired former Toronto closer Kevin Gregg, who granted had always walked a bit on the wild side. However I don’t think they anticipated each appearance to be an adventure. Vladimir Guerrero was also a disappointment in that he didn’t produce what the Orioles expected he would. Somehow this is turning into a bit of a trend in that the Orioles bring in free agents who seem to go into slumps when they arrive.
- I could have put this in the paragraph regarding defense, but I felt it deserved it’s own tab. Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis both won Gold Gloves in 2011. (J.J. Hardy was a runner-up.) Enough said.
- The death of Mike Flanagan is something that’s been touched upon previously in this column (most recently yesterday), but it’s also certainly a highlight of the year. Flanagan will be missed both by those who knew and loved him, and by those who simply saw him pitch or saw him on television. Rest in peace Flanny, we miss you.
For me, the lasting memory will be that final game against Boston. You couldn’t write a better script in terms of how things unfolded that night with the two games juxtaposed together. I can tell you that I’ve sat in Camden Yards as a fan many times for Red Sox games and I’ve been surrounded by sneering Red Sox fans. Baltimore is an old-fashion blue collar town with the best people in the world, who don’t allow outsiders to come in and “give them the business.” Yet when the Red Sox (and Yankees) would come to town, that seemed to be exactly what was happening. It was a great deal; their fans would come to the Orioles’ ballpark and watch their team push the Orioles around, all while pushing Oriole fans around in the stands. That night, September 28, 2011, was the night the magic returned to the yard. The Red Sox and their fans ended up on the wrong end of arguably the greatest closing act in history. As boisterous and loud as some of the Red Sox fans and players can sometimes be when things are going “so amazing” for them, that must have really stung. Oriole fans laughed, and laughed hard, at Boston fans that night. That’s the Baltimore that I know and love so much. This is not to say that we’re unfriendly, but you’re not going to come into our house in our town and “give us the business.” 2011 was disappointing for the Orioles. However this sly set of Birds saved their best for last.
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