If you're looking for a winner of this first round of All-Star balloting, it's an easy call. How about them Orioles? Thank you, manager Buck Showalter. You, too, general manager Dan Duquette. And of course, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters and Jim Johnson.
These four players slogged through some tough times, consummate pros all. Ask them now if there were days when they doubted the O's would be great again, they'll say absolutely, positively never.
They always trusted that if they did the right thing, if they worked hard and encouraged their teammates, things eventually would turn around. Through the years, Orioles trainer Richie Bancells would tell 'em how it used to be.
Sometimes when Camden Yards was really loud and the crowd was into it, Jones would turn to Bancells and ask, "Did it used to be louder than this?"
"Oh yeah," Bancells would say.
And then on a night last September when the O's won a tense pennant-race game over the Yankees in front of 46,000 fans, Bancells leaned over and whispered in Jones' ear.
"Like this," he said.
Baltimore was one of the sweetest stories in a 2012 season filled with them, as it made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. They got the folks of Charm City invested in baseball, and that investment has carried over into this season.
Home attendance is up 23 percent, the Orioles are back in contention, and when the first round of American League All-Star balloting was announced on Monday, it was the fans of Baltimore who spoke loudly.
Seven AL teams are averaging more fans per home game than the Orioles, but the O's were the only team to have the top or second-highest vote-getter at five spots.
In the outfield, Jones, Markakis and Nate McLouth were second, sixth and seventh, respectively, in the voting. Around the infield, Wieters, third baseman Manny Machado and shortstop J.J. Hardy were all second in the balloting.
Orioles fans voted in such large numbers that it seemed easy to feel their passion and especially their belief that this team has staying power. In Machado, who is still only 20, they see a future superstar.
In Jones, Wieters and the others, they see the kind of players who are easy to cheer for, productive on the field, responsible off it.
And then there's Chris Davis. He led the AL voting at first base with 1.176 million votes, barely ahead of Prince Fielder, who had 1.059 million. Mike Napoli and Albert Pujols were well behind in third and fourth place.
Only Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano got more votes than Davis, so it seemed obvious that fans around the world have been paying attention to a season in which the O's first baseman leads the AL in home runs (20), slugging (.754) and OPS (1.194).
Davis' career has taken some unexpected turns. Once upon a time, he was one of the players the Texas Rangers were going to build around. Then in 2011, Davis was traded to Baltimore, and Showalter worked his usual magic. The veteran manager bathed Davis in confidence, told him that he believed in him. Little by little, Davis has emerged as one of the game's best hitters.
Davis doesn't just hit home runs. He hits towering, jaw-dropping home runs. Davis hits the ball hard consistently and has helped make a lineup that was already pretty good one of the AL's best.
At 27 years old -- he made his Major League debut at 22 for the Rangers in 2008 -- Davis could have a nice, long stay in the spotlight.
Franchises don't do the things the Orioles have done the last two seasons without contributions from dozens of people, from owner Peter Angelos putting the right people in charge to former general manager Andy MacPhail doing a terrific job constructing the core of the team.
Showalter has proven again that he's one of the game's elite managers, and Duquette did extraordinary work shoring up the roster last summer. This first round of AL All-Star voting is a tribute to all of them, and to all those players and to the fans who are again fired up about their Birds.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less