By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun
12:18 AM EDT, October 8, 2012
After 15 years of waiting for playoff baseball at Camden Yards, Orioles fans had to endure an extra 21/2 hours as chilly rain pushed back the start of Sunday's division series opener against the hated New York Yankees.
A mighty roar shook the stadium when the grounds crew peeled away the protective tarp at 8 p.m., conveying just how badly Baltimore fans wanted their October moment. The crowd didn't grow quiet until the Yankees scored five runs in the ninth inning on their way to a 7-2 victory.
There were many sights Sunday that would not have been possible in recent autumns at Camden Yards.
A body-to-body crowd pushed along Eutaw Street more than an hour before the scheduled first pitch, breaking into spontaneous chants of "Let's go, O's!" Yankees fans crept between the masses of orange and black, looking sheepish as they realized how badly outnumbered they were. Orange "Buckle Up" towels swirled wildly as the crowd greeted each Oriole during pre-game introductions.
One emotional moment came when Jesse Wasmer, the Perry Hall High School counselor who restrained a student gunman on the first day of school in August, and Daniel Borowy, the student who was shot in the back in the incident, threw out simultaneous ceremonial first pitches.
Eager as fans were for playoff baseball — they cheered raucously whenever a grounds-crew member emerged to sweep away a puddle — most accepted the rain delay with reasonable cheer. Mary Michaels of Cecil County saw the wet forecast but never thought of staying home.
"I was 12 the last time they were in the playoffs," said Michaels, 27. "We'll figure something out."
Her parents took her to games as a child, and Sunday she wore her mother's Orioles jacket. "She went to the World Series, back in the day," Michaels said, "so this has a lot of meaning."
The Orioles were well aware of the emotions the game stirred for fans like Michaels who had waited so long for their team to win again.
When Buck Showalter took over as manager in 2010, he reminisced about coming to Camden Yards with other teams, soaking up the fervor of sellout crowds during big games. He said he wanted to get the franchise back to that point.
"Yeah, it's great," Showalter said Sunday before managing his first home playoff game in Baltimore.
He also talked about balancing the excitement of the moment with the daily routines that are the essence of baseball. His team is young, after all, and many key players have never played meaningful games in October.
"The one challenge, too, is you can't — it's impossible to tell your players to take the emotion out of an at-bat or a pitch or a throw or whatever," Showalter said. "That's why we've tried to do, as much as we can, everything the same, with some exceptions.
"You can't coach taking out the emotion — that's part of it. It's also part of what is good. I think we saw it last year when we were playing some real meaningful games for the opposition in their ballpark, and our guys kind of fed off the emotion of the ballpark."
He said he has counseled his players to enjoy the experience wherever they can.
"This is something — you always hope that you get a chance to do it again, but you don't know," said Showalter, managing in his first postseason since 1999. "One of the things I'll tell them: Have a blast, trust yourself, let it rip, have fun. … The last thing you want to do is draw more attention to it. But if you've been in our clubhouse this year, the one thing I don't have to worry about them is living in the moment, enjoying it."
The Yankees, of course, dwarf the Orioles in playoff experience. Players like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte have hardly ever missed the postseason in long careers. But they claimed little advantage when asked about the discrepancy.
"I see them as a very good team," Pettitte, who has a major league-record 19 postseason wins and will start Game 2 for the Yankees, said of the Orioles. "We're going to have to play well to beat these guys."
Despite such words of respect, everyone understands that a playoff game in Baltimore is a much rarer spectacle than it would be in New York.
Some fans traveled great distances to make sure they wouldn't miss it.
When the Orioles clinched a playoff berth, Bryan Coleman immediately texted his childhood friend, Greg Finkelstein.
"You've got to get up to Atlanta and drive me to Baltimore for the playoffs," Coleman wrote.
Finkelstein, who lives in Orlando, Fla., called his buddy the next morning and said, "Let's go."
The men grew up in Baltimore as devoted fans of the Orioles who made it to the 1979 World Series and won it all in 1983. Both left the city years ago, but they held out hope that one day, they'd be able to return for a playoff game.
So they spent last week scrounging up tickets and flights, and on Sunday, they entered Camden Yards with Finkelstein's 11-year-old son, Eli, and Coleman's sister, Lisa Frank, in tow.
"It gives me chills, man," Coleman said, surveying the park from beside the bronze statue of Cal Ripken Jr. in center field.
"I'm misty," said Finkelstein.
He was referring to his emotions, not the light rain that began to fall about an hour before game time.
"There is no weather," Finkelstein said, his joy too great for the drops to perturb him.
Eli has grown up 900 miles away, rooting for a losing team he inherited from his dad. At his first Orioles playoff game, he mugged gleefully for a photo beside the Ripken statue.
"I've always been a great Orioles fan," he said. "But when they'd get 40 games below .500 or something, it was hard to keep track. This year, I was up every morning, looking at the box score, saying, 'Did they win?'"
He was so optimistic, he bet his cousins in June that his Orioles would finish with a better record than the teams in their home cities. The loser would have to wear a humiliating outfit and dance for the family at Thanksgiving. With the Orioles in the playoffs, Eli is safe from torment.
The Matthews family of Greensboro, N.C., usually catches the Orioles on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. But when the team won in Texas on Friday night, they immediately jumped on the ticket resale web site StubHub and purchased seats for Sunday's game. They made the five-hour drive in the morning and planned to leave immediately after the game so they'd be home in time for work Monday.
"When they made the playoffs, we said, 'We're going,'" said Steve Matthews, who grew up in Bel Air and passed his Orioles love to his sons. "I felt like I would eventually see this day, especially the way this year developed."
The family traveled in mixed company, with pal and Yankees fan Sarah Turner along for the trip.
"Unfortunately, we had to bring her along," joked Holly Matthews, who married into the family of Orioles fans. "She might have to find her own way back."
"My boyfriend here is giving me a hard time," said Turner, sporting Yankees pinstripes. "But I think I'll be fine."
Holly Matthews agreed. "People here are nice," she said. "It's not like we're in Philly."
Steve Matthews wants the Orioles to go as far as possible, but this season has already rewarded him for years of supporting losing teams.
"For so long, they were considered the class organization of baseball," he said. "It really hurt when they weren't, when they were more of a laughingstock. But they're getting back there, and it feels good."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella contributed to this article.