As the Baltimore Orioles' team bus pulled up beside Tiger Stadium at noon today, a vast line of fans was wrapped around the intersection of Michigan and Trumball to buy playoff tickets.
"Look at that," cried Jim Palmer in surprise.
"Tiger Fever," cracked Steve Stone sarcastically.
"Don't you people in Detroit go to work?" yelled Eddie Murray.
Then the bus fell silent.
The Detroit Tigers, who finished 16 games behind the Orioles a year ago, are dreaming of a playoff now and maybe a World Series. The Orioles' fondest wish today was a quick game, no rain delays, and a drowsy flight back to Baltimore. Instead, they won a laborious, cold, wet-under-foot 10-inning game, 5-4, then learned they'd missed their plane and would have at least a five-hour airport wait for the next one.
"Typical of the whole season," grumped Doug DeCinces, in a post-defeat mood after a victory.
The Tigers also were glum. They go to Milwaukee for the final three games of the regular season one-half game behind the Brewers, instead of one-half game ahead. However, Boston has been given a new life; a victory by Detroit today would have eliminated the Red Sox from the AL East race.
In the year when the Orioles thought they'd reach their peak as a team, when they were collectively convinced they'd burn their brand into the game's history, they've been eliminated before October ever began. Today they got the worst of all baseball punishments: being forced to endure the enthusiasm of another team at a white heat of excitement after your own season is extinct.
That symbolic moment came in the bottom of the ninth with two out and one on. The Orioles led, 4-2, with lefty Tippy Martinez working to Detroit's Mr. Adrenaline -- Kirk Gibson, the former football star at Michigan State.
Gibson hit a 500-foot, game-tying home run, a titanic shot that was a yard of becoming the 14th ball since 1938 to clear the right field roof. After this jumbo blast, the Tiger celebration seemed to last for days.
Even though the stubborn, professional Orioles, who got two homers from shortstop Lenn Sakata, went on to win in the 10th on Gary Roenicke's sacrifice fly, it was Gibson's homer that was the emotional heart of this game.
In the AL East, the joy is now on the other foot.
Few compounds are as instable as a baseball team, its chemistry dependent on 25 individual elements plus the alchemy of a manager.
And few baseball teams of recent years have been as delicate a mixture as the Orioles of 1979 and 1980. Those Orioles understood in their baseball bones why they won 202 games in two seasons, but they had a hard time putting it in words.
Oh, they talked about pitching and fundamentals, deep depth and home run power hidden throughout their lineup in platoon disguise. They grudgingly said that Earl Weaver was the best of managers and that the Oriole organization fostered genuine team morale, a thing sadly uncharacteristic in pro sports.
But they couldn't really explain why the clutch home runs -- like Gibson's today -- came at the right times, why their pitchers forced a pop-up when it was desperately needed, or why a kind of electricity of anticipation existed on the bench and sparked victory.
They always knew that nothing stays the same. But they never guessed that this would be the year that the rose faded.
In Miami in March, the Orioles' confidence was enormous. Now, the team talks in quiet voices about what went wrong, what should be done, what a new year will bring.
"We thought we might win 105 games this year, and instead we only end up playing 105 games," said Mike Flanagan.
"I had a horsefeathers year," said Palmer. "Knowing what to do and not being able to do it is a lousy feeling."
"We tried to play the second half with only two healthy starters -- Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor," said Ray Miller, the pitching coach.
"I hope we don't go overboard in making changes," said Terry Crowley. "The nucleus is still here."
Said Ken Singleton, "All this team needs is a 162-game season. We're a long-haul, grind-'em-down team that got caught in a weird sprint season."
The Orioles are not so stubborn or defiantly obtuse that they do not realize how much below their own expectations they have played this season.
In a truth-in-jest mood, Singleton, pretending to be the team's owner, asked Dempsey, pretending to be the manager, "What do we need for next year, Demper?"
"First, we need three new outfielders," said Dempsey, aware the pitching staff shudders at the thought of Singleton's lack of speed in right, Bumbry's deteriorated arm in center and the lack of power in left fielder Roenicke's bat. "Get Frank Robinson out of retirement.
"Then, we need a switch-hitting catcher with some power," said Dempsey, who plans to learn to hit left-handed this winter in the Instructional League, "so that I'll never see another slider low and away."
"How about a pitching staff whose arms don't blow out all the time?" suggested Singleton.
"We could certainly use that," said Dempsey.
"No, no," said Palmer. "I may have been 7-8, but this season was all your fault, Singleton. You should have hit 35 home runs."
"What else do we need, Demper?" asked Singleton.
"We need a shortstop who can hit .200," said Dempsey, "and if Brooks (Robinson) wants to come out of a retirement, I got a place for him to play defense," added Dempsey, knowing that third baseman DeCinces had a jittery '81.
"We also need our own team psychiatrist and an acupuncturist from Japan," concluded Dempsey.
Several Orioles laughed.
What was the difference between the '79, '80 and '81 teams, Singleton was asked.
"There was no difference," said Singleton, an answer perhaps an Oriole would understand. "We had a good team each year, played hard each year, no matter what anybody thinks. All three were great teams to be a part of."
And because that feeling still exists, the Oriole rose may yet blossom again in another spring.