Shortly after Baltimore's 3-2 win Sunday against the Boston Red Sox, Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli delivered a 30-second speech thanking his team for its continued effort during a season that at times had appeared lost. It was a dramatic speech that would have lasted longer had Mazzilli, wearing dark sunglasses inside the clubhouse, not stopped in the middle of the rousing sermon to cry.
"It's good to see that side of a guy who has such a hard outlook," outfielder Larry Bigbie said. "It's good to see he truly cares."
Common sense says a season shouldn't be measured by one game, one week or even one month, but nobody could evaluate the current state of the Orioles without emphasizing their miraculous comeback, which came in the final month of the season.
In previous years, September has seemed to swallow the Orioles, fading the hopes of that season and clouding the future for the next one. In the three Septembers prior to 2004, the Orioles were a combined 21-53. The final month of the season became an idle time for veterans, who often saw their playing time decrease in favor of younger players trying to prove their worth.
Not this year. In perhaps the most telling sign that the Orioles (78-84) are ready to contend for the American League East title for the first time in eight seasons, Baltimore had its best month of the season in September, an 18-10 mark that was tied for fifth-best in the majors.
"I feel really good about what we were able to accomplish during the last part of the season," said shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was named the team's most valuable player on Sunday. "I hope the owner and everybody in here believes we can win next year."
The biggest endorsement for this year's team came when Jim Beattie, executive vice president of baseball operations, and Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations, agreed to bring back Mazzilli for another season.
"From my point of view, there was a growing period," Beattie said. "The challenges we presented, he grabbed those and handled them."
Mazzilli, who is signed through next year and has two one-year options, said he had known for some time he would return to manage in 2005 and speculation he would not return was simply that: speculation.
"I'm under contract for next season, and hopefully two more seasons after that," Mazzilli said. "We've made a lot of progress. We're looking to build."
As the season headed into the final days, the Orioles still had much to accomplish. During September, Tejada broke the team single-season record for RBI and on Sunday drove in his 150th run of the year, only the 24th player in major league history to do so. Second baseman Brian Roberts broke the club record for doubles in a season with 50, which led the league, and third baseman Melvin Mora established a team single-season batting average mark at .340.
"Individually, I'm happy with what I did," Mora said. "As a team, I'm proud of how we played in the second half. But to be honest, I would love to be playing in October."
Coming out of spring training, the Orioles had hoped to contend for a playoff spot, but were never a factor in the postseason race. They ended the season three wins shy of a .500 record.
As the Orioles fought for a .500 record, veterans such as Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff stayed in the lineup while younger players such as Jose Leon, Darnell McDonald and Tim Raines Jr. sat on the bench. Winning, not development, was emphasized, though many in the organization believe one always brings the other.
A new standard was set in 2004. Will the Orioles build on it?
Mazzilli's staff will also return, including veteran pitching coach Ray Miller, who orchestrated a dramatic turnaround after being hired on June 26 to replace Mark Wiley.
Before Miller's arrival, Orioles pitchers were last in the American League with a 5.34 ERA in 69 games. They ended with a 4.70 team staff ERA. Starting pitchers under Miller improved their ERA by almost a full run.
Starting pitching likely will be Baltimore's biggest concern heading into next season. Rodrigo Lopez and Sidney Ponson certainly will have spots in the rotation, but the other three spots are still in question. The Orioles could choose to upgrade the staff with the availability of potential free agents such as Carl Pavano, Kevin Millwood, Eric Milton, Matt Clement and Derek Lowe.
Which of their young pitchers remain in the rotation will be determined by who Baltimore acquires. Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Matt Riley and Rick Bauer all experienced success at some point in the season, but there likely won't be room for all of them, all least not initially. Beattie said he knew his decision to start the season with two rookies, Riley and Eric DuBose, and one pitcher with limited experience, Kurt Ainsworth, in the rotation could cost the team.
"I think it was necessary for us to do because we didn't have the resources to sign the impact players we wanted to get," Beattie said. "I'll take the criticism, but people in a year or two will say it was a nice step."
Mazzilli, in order to improve an offense that was in the top three in batting average and hits, said he hopes to add a powerful right-handed batter during the offseason. But offense likely will not be an emphasis for the Orioles.
"We have a better offense than" the Yankees and Red Sox, catcher Javy Lopez said in Spanish. "The numbers say it all."
Mora this season became one of the premier players in the AL, ending the season with 27 home runs and 104 RBI. Lopez, playing in the AL for the first time in his career, hit .316 with 23 home runs and 86 RBI. David Newhan, given the opportunity to start for the first time in his career, established himself as an everyday player. And Tejada finished the season with the best offensive numbers of any shortstop, earning AL MVP consideration despite playing on a third-place team.
"I like the pressure," Tejada said. "When I came here, I knew I had to do something for this team."
Only a few questions remain. Palmeiro, whose contract did not vest because he didn't play in 140 games in the field, said he would like to return. The team also doesn't have a set closer for next year. Jorge Julio lost his closing job to B.J. Ryan, who established himself as the best left-handed reliever in baseball. The team has asked Julio to come to Baltimore in December to work on his conditioning.
But for the first time in a long time, optimism exists in Baltimore.