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'Happy Bird' returns to Baltimore for remarkable year

Maybe the bird has something to do with this.

Look at him, perched there atop the heads of the surprising Baltimore Orioles. He is the cartoon bird of our youth -- or, at least, our younger days.

I like to refer to him as "Happy Bird," because he certainly looks happy. And why wouldn't he be? Happy Bird is a baseball fan, and he's seen quite a bit of good ball.

He is the bird of six World Series appearances and three victories. He is the bird of Brooks and Frank and Boog and Jim and Earl and Eddie. He is the bird of Cal ... or at least, he was, until 1989. That's when the Orioles dumped Happy Bird and turned to what they call the "Ornithologically Correct Bird."

Now, look, everyone has their reasons for doing the things they do, and I'm sure, from a marketing or merchandise standpoint, the O's had their reasons for going "ornithologically correct" -- even if this seems like too haughty and hefty a term for a game (and even if the Microsoft Word program on which I write this refuses to even recognize "ornithologically" as a real word).

It was 1989. The Cold War was winding down, but culture wars of class, of tradition, of family values were being waged all across the United States. Political correctness was of the utmost import, and somehow this correctness extended even to harmless, cartoon birds.

Happy Bird was simply too much for the country to handle.

So for 23 seasons, the Orioles went with a more realistic Oriole. First, it was the "ornithologically correct" installment, then the "lifelike" model and, finally, the "traditional" version. You can find them all here. I'm looking at them right now, and, frankly, I can barely tell them apart. Because they all look dull to me.

This was a stoic bird, not a happy one. This was an all-business bird. He looks like a professor prone to impossible pop quizzes or the kind of girl who won't even acknowledge your existence at the bar. He's a tough one, this bird. But you respect him for his serenity, even in turbulent times.

And yes, times were turbulent for the Orioles from 1989 through 2011. They had just six winning seasons and two playoff appearances under Dull Bird. Both of those playoff appearances ended in American League Championship Series heartbreak -- first with Jeffrey Maier forever altering the course of Game 1 against the Yankees in 1996, then with Tony Fernandez's solo shot in the 11th securing Game 6 for the Indians in '97.

(Quick digression: As a Clevelander, I'll always remember Herb Score's overly excited call of that Fernandez home run. "The Indians are going to the World Series!" Score said as he leaped out of his chair, only to remember it was the top of the 11th, not the bottom, and adding a quick disclaimer: "Maybe.")

Anyway, those were some lean years under Dull Bird. Certainly, there were some great moments. The move to Camden Yards, which is still one of the more beautiful ballparks in the country, stands out, as does Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record, easily one of the greatest nights in the sport's history.

But Dull Bird was also there for the post-primes of Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, the degenerative hip of Albert Belle. Dull Bird was there when the O's gave up 30 runs to the Rangers in a 2007 doubleheader ... the first game of a doubleheader. And he was there when they lost the nightcap, 9-7. In 2010, when a frustrated Brian Roberts hit himself in the helmet with his bat and gave himself a concussion, do you know who he hit with that bat? Dull Bird.

Listen, it's not fair to pin any of that on Dull Bird. He didn't make the personnel moves or the pitching changes or the mental mistakes that led to 14 consecutive losing seasons. He just sort of sat there, a disinterested observer to all that plagued the O's. But there's an old saying in baseball (one I just made up), and it goes, "The duller the logo, the duller the team," and Dull Bird brought nothing to the table.

Now, Happy Bird is back, and the O's stunning success seems to surpass pure coincidence.

Happy Bird smiles a wry smile, like he knows something you don't know. Like Buck Showalter just whispered the secret to success in his ear.

It's the kind of smile that says, "Yes, I know how we've managed to go a ludicrous 27-7 in one-run games, but I'm not going to tell you."

It's the kind of smirk that says, "Yes, I know we have a middle-rung staff ERA and we rate poorly in the defensive metrics, but I don't particularly care."

It's the kind of sly grin that says, "Yes, I know our general manager, Dan Duquette, was out of baseball for a decade before we hired him, but that just means he's fresh."

Happy Bird also has this youthful glow to him, not unlike the youthful glow of third baseman Manny Machado, promoted, some argued, prematurely, only to show some obvious pop and prescience. His pump-fake to nab Rays pinch-runner Rich Thompson to end the top of the ninth Wednesday night was one of the more heady plays we've seen all year from anyone, let alone a 20-year-old. Happy Bird had to be loving it.

Just look at those wild eyes. Happy Bird seems to take pleasure in the absurdities of life. Like the O's winning 13 consecutive extra-innings games. Like Lew Ford returning from the dead and not only playing in the Majors for the first time in five years, but sometimes batting fifth. Like the Orioles making 168 roster moves and cycling through 11 starting pitchers just to stay afloat.

Like the simple fact that all this is happening in the vaunted AL East, and the O's might well win the division title.

Happy Bird knows a thing or two about titles. The first season the O's wore him on their hats was 1966. They went on to win the franchise's first World Series championship with a four-game sweep of the Dodgers. (I'm not saying, I'm just saying).

It's crazy, right? It's crazy to think something as stupid as a logo has any part in the O's ridiculous resurgence. That doesn't seem logically correct, let alone ornithologically correct.

But I do know this: Things are a lot happier in the Orioles' world here in 2012, and they've got the smiling bird to prove it.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
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