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Peace has come to the Middle East; upheaval has come to the American League East. If Israelis and Arabs can heal their divisions, surely someone can heal this one. Lord knows, it is contentious. Two weeks into September, the Toronto Blue Jeans were shrinking and fading and folding quite neatly. The New York Yankees could not trip most motion detectors. Suddenly it was a three-legged race, and the leg to watch belonged to the Baltimore Orioles. Pity, then, that you could not get a ticket to watch them.
On Sunday night the Orioles played before their 43rd consecutive home sellout. Even if they hadn't won 10 of their last 12, even if they hadn't gained five games on the first-place Blue Jays in the first eight days of September, even if they didn't end the week a mere 1� games out of first place, still the multitudes would have come, as always, to Camden Yards.
And over the weekend, they came: George (the Thrill) Will, Richard (Digger) Phelps, Leonard (Boogie) Weinglass. (It is Baltimore legend and multimillionaire ragman Weinglass who was played by Mickey Rourke in the motion-picture classic Diner.) The Orioles also hosted a film crew shooting crowd scenes for Major League 2, which may be what inspired the Oakland Athletics' Dave Henderson to stylishly circle the bases after hitting a long but very foul ball on Friday night. Yes, last week in Baltimore, baseball witnessed its first foul-ball trot.
This is the way it always is here. The Camden Yards home schedule is a series of 81 spectacles. But with the exception of a certain blue-eyed, buzz-cut shortstop who is chasing the ghost of Gehrig, the Orioles have a lower national Q-rating than many of their fans. As Baltimore's sterling catcher, Chris Hoiles, puts it, "Nobody knows these guys."
Locally, however, everyone knows these guys. "I started out here 2 for 17," says Jack-of-all-positions Jack Voigt, who joined the Orioles from their Triple A affiliate on April 29. "The fans weren't afraid to voice their disapproval, because they knew who I was when I got here: a guy who had big numbers in Rochester. They're the kind of fans who will look up a guy's numbers from the minor leagues."
"Even early in the season, when we weren't playing well, this place was packed every night," says first baseman David Segui. "Now that we're playing with the season on the line, there's real electricity here. You can feel it. And it really does pick you up."
All of this is essential because Camden Yards is where the Last will be won. The Orioles play their final 10 games at home, the last seven of those against the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Camden Yards will determine who gets the rings and who gets the Heimlichs. These questions became all the more urgent last week when baseball was balkanized into six divisions, effective next season. Thus, this could be the last true divisional race the American League will ever see. and it is brought to you courtesy of the Blue Jays.
Baltimore would not be best positioned to win this division were it not for Toronto's folding like intricate origami, losing six straight games to the odoriferous California Angels and the unspeakable Oakland A's to begin September. If the A's were an Oscar Mayer product, they would have expired in mid-April. Oakland had lost 15 of its previous 16 games before sweeping the Jays under the SkyDome rug on Sept. 7, 8 and 9. Also in the early days of September, the second-place Yankees were losing four out of six to the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, while the Orioles, for their part, were winning five of six games from Oakland and the Seattle Mariners.
"Other teams' losing enabled us to get back in it," says Hoiles, who through Sunday was hitting .309 with 24 home runs and 69 RBIs despite missing almost all of August with a back injury. "But to climb back like we did in a week and a half—I don't want to say it's unbelievable, but it is hard to believe."
What Baltimore is attempting to accomplish happens once every Blue Moon Odom. On Sept. 1, the O's were six games behind Toronto. Only six teams in the 20th century have won a league or division title by making up so much ground so late. The Orioles are trying to join the 1978 Yankees, the '64 St. Louis Cardinals and the '51 New York Giants, while the Jays, conversely, may go the way of the '78 Boston Red Sox, the '64 Philadelphia Phillies and the '29 stock market.