The 2012 season is now a quarter over.
As of this writing, the best team in the American League would be the Baltimore Orioles. They have more wins than the two-time defending AL Champion Rangers. They have more wins than the always dangerous Rays. And they are certainly ahead of the big budget underachieving Red Sox, Angels and Yankees.
Last year this was a 93 loss team. What has changed? J
Jason Hammel has emerged as a top starter during the first quarter of the season. He was acquired from the Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie and has been a huge step up. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen has been solid.
Many of the other big contributors were part of the team in 2011. Buck Showalter is still manager. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson, Matt Wieters, J. J. Hardy, Nolan Reimold, Robert Andino and Jake Arrieta were all there last year.
What's the big difference? It has got to be the return of the smiling bird.
Dismiss this article all you want, but Baltimore fans can not deny it. The team looks like a winner again. The team brought back the smiling bird and the team is winning.
The Orioles first put the smiling bird on their cap in 1966. What happened that year? They won the first World Series in the history of the franchise, which went all the way back through the St. Louis Browns years.
The Orioles also acquired Frank Robinson that year, but their winning ways continued long after Frank left town.
From 1966 to 1988, the Orioles had the smiling bird cap. In that 23-year stretch they won 7 Division Titles, 6 pennants and the 1966, 1970 and 1983 World Series. And they only had 1 losing season between 1966 and 1985.
Granted they had three straight losing years between 1986 and 1988, including the dreadful 0-21 start to the 1988 season. But for years the Orioles won and the bird smiled.
Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan and Steve Stone all won Cy Young Awards with the bird grinning back.
Eddie Murray would scowl at pitchers with the bird mocking them, as if to say "Yup, my pal Eddie is going to take you deep."
Brooks Robinson would make a great catch or Earl Weaver would argue with an umpire and the bird was happier than anyone in Baltimore.
The team switched to the sideways ornithologically-correct Orioles cap in 1989. They had a fluke good season that year and stuck with the boring bird.
The results spoke for themselves. From 1989 to 2011, the Orioles made two playoffs appearances and never won another pennant. In 23 seasons, they have been sub .500 17 times.
This is the same franchise that has suffered through 14 straight losing seasons and have not been relevant since Roberto Alomar was caught looking to end the 1997 American League Championship Series.
This is the same team that had six straight seasons of 92 or more losses including last year's 69-93 season.
And the swagger of the bird was gone. When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record, the bird wasn't even watching. When Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa did steroids, he literally looked away.
Some players may have changed, but so has the attitude. They look like the Orioles again. It feels like Baltimore again. That's worth smiling about.
I covered a lot of this in a video I produced last winter. I had no idea how accurate it turned out to be.