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by Jeff Wilkin

Type A To Z

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Features reporter Jeff Wilkin on pop culture

Angry Birds

I was waiting to check out at my neighborhood supermarket a few weeks ago, when a guy in a nearby line looked my way and said: "You just start wearing that hat?"

It took me a second, but I caught on. I was wearing my black and orange Baltimore Oriole baseball cap, which is a regular fashion accessory when I'm on the run. And because the Orioles were riding high in mid-September - the first September of the millennium they have managed such a feat - the guy was wondering if I had just jumped on the bandwagon.

I assured the lad I was a longtime Oriole fan. There are bunches of us around the Capital Region, but with the infestation of New York Yankees fans and with longtime admirers of the Boston Red Sox, you see a lot more navy blue caps in our neck of the woods.

The Orioles are riding even higher today. Longtime losers in the American League's east division, the Birds beat the Texas Rangers in the first American League wildcard playoff game Friday night. They begin a best-of-five series Sunday night against the Yankees.

Finally! Baseball in October that matters!

People who know me and my brother Tim - another longtime Orioles booster - have asked why we back the Birds. The answer is easy, and enlightening.

We're both from Rochester, and when we were growing up, our International League Rochester Red Wings were the top farm affiliate for the Orioles. We saw guys like Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Al Bumbry, Rich Coggins and Don Baylor play, and they all had decent big league careers. We also saw Roger Freed and Roric Harrison, play. They were also supposed to be big stars, but it didn't work out that way when they hit the majors.

Earlier, when the St. Louis Cardinals were our affiliate --- that's how the team became the "Red Wings" --- soon-to-be red birds Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver came through. Other Baltimore stars of the future, such as Boog Powell and Cal Ripken Jr. also made stops.

The Orioles haven't been in the playoffs since 1997. And while Yankee fans will never be able to understand it - the pinstriped pinheads have been to the baseball playoffs 17 out of the last 18 years, so they take October for granted every year - it really is something to savor.

For once, my main reason for watching the playoffs won't be just to root against the Yankees .. which is really kind of fun in itself. And it's never been hard to root against the best team money can buy, not with attitude guys like Alex Rodriguez and "Joba" Chamberlain in the lineup.

The real beef Orioles fans have against New York though, is the Jeffrey Maier incident. Thought we'd forgotten, you bums? Naw, man, never!

It happened in 1996, the last time the Yankees and Orioles met in a playoff series. Maier, then a 12-year-old weasel, took a fly ball away from Oriole right fielder Tony Tarasco, and the umps lets the play stand. T'was fan interference, plain and simple. It was only Game 1, and the Birds lost the series 4-1, but nobody in the orange and black has forgotten.

And I'm sure someone will dig up Maier, now 28, to reminisce about his 15 minutes of fame. I hope those minutes have been followed with misery and despair, with more decades of sorrow, scandal and bankruptcy to follow. Suffer, Maier! Suffer!

It is tough to be playing the Yankees. While they do have guys on the team that would have made excellent Orioles - guys like Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher - they always seem to get the breaks.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard Yanks' radio broadcaster John Sterling say, "Ohhh! What a break for the Yankees!" I could have retired about five years ago. Sometimes, with all the lucky plays that come their way, it seems like Mr. Applegate from "Damn Yankees" has forgotten all about the Washington Senators and is now a celebrated guest in the Yankee dugout.

I hope the Birds win. And I'll bet the baseball nation is kind of squeezing for the underdog Orioles.

But I'm OK with whatever happens. We're in the playoffs, playing baseball in October.

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