In baseball, you get disappointed a lot. There’s usually not much difference among the top half-dozen teams, so many people in several cities raise their hopes of a championship to the highest level. They do it realistically. The Orioles truly could have won the World Series this year. Baseball gives you more hope, but more heartache.
If you don’t enjoy the process of baseball, then you probably shouldn’t be a fan. If it’s just the result you’ve after, then the rewards aren’t going to be enough to hold you. If you invested yourself in watching the Indians beat the Orioles for the American League pennant, yet now feel cheated, then you probably shouldn’t re-up for another hitch next season. There’s no ride like baseball. But the destination is extremely uncertain. And, sometimes, unfair.
— Thomas Boswell, Washington Post, Oct. 17, 1997
The Orioles had just lost a painful American League Championship series to the Cleveland Indians in 6 games. 15 years ago. On my hard drive, an fellow Oriole fan has sent me archived copies of our fan base’s mailing list’s comments during that stretch run of a season that saw the Birds fall just short of the World Series.
It was pretty much the last time the franchise mattered to baseball at-large. Without even a single winning season since that year, with few exceptions, Autumn tends to be left for following college football. As an organization, the team has collapsed. A loyal fanbase remains, but it’s gone into deep sleep. When one my friends at school asked me the other day about the number of ball caps I own, I honestly answered that the Orioles caps were strictly for the month of April.
This year was supposed to be the beginning of a new paradigm. Energized by a new manager, promising young pitchers, and veteran players who appeared to have a bit left in the tank, the Orioles spent the first 9 days of the season atop the American League’s Eastern Division, ahead of the vaunted Yank-mes and Red Sox, as well as the Tampa Bay Rays, the division’s dark horse (and, in my opinion, the best team in the AL East) who had begun the season in a terrible funk. Then the Orioles lost 8 in a row, and struggled to keep within sight of the division leaders. This struggle continued for the bulk of April and into May. The team lost its lead-off hitter and clubhouse leader, its second baseman Brian Roberts to a concussion by mid-May, and then, finally clawing and scratching, they reached the break even mark again right around Memorial Day, the bottom fell out. The team was 10 games out of first place by mid-June, and then went 2-15 during a stretch from mid-June to early July that basically finished off the team’s hope of mattering, in any way. The young pitching was in a shambles. While Zach Britton showed promise, Jake Arrieta battled bone spurs in his elbow that he tried to pitch through before calling it a season. Brian Matusz, the team’s defacto ace at the end of last year, completely lost his mojo, partly because he didn’t pay attention to his off-season conditioning. Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman saw their stock nearly collapse.
Meanwhile, the hitting had its moments with centerfielder Adam Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and first baseman/third baseman Mark Reynolds all producing as it was hoped during Spring Training. Even catcher Matt Wieters, widely heralded when he arrived from the minors as one of the best prospects in baseball during the 2009 season, started to provide production as well. But the two veterans who were signed as stop-gaps and leaders for the young team, Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee, sucked up at-bats during an increasingly lengthy summer. Nick Markakis, the teams’ marquee player, struggled to hit with any authority for any stretch of the season. Even their best hitter last season, Luke Scott, went down with shoulder issues that put his season to an end–a season where he had exposed himself as a bonafide “birther”, questioning the President’s right to hold the office.
Despite making it a point to take Katelyn to her first 3 baseball games this summer, personally, I was now spending most of my time waiting for football training camp to open for my Cal Bears. I had pretty much weaned myself from following the team as regularly as I had planned, given how badly they were playing. It says something that their best pitcher, Alfredo Simon, had spent most of his winter and early spring, trying to fight murder charges in his native Dominican Republic.
Then came the suicide of a member of Oriole royalty, Mike Flanagan. A former Cy Young Award winner in 1979, 20-game winner, a member of the 1983 World Series champions, once one of the team’s general managers as well as a game announcer, Flanagan was a link to the teams that had won the hearts of so many Oriole fans a generation ago. He had been despondent for some time, and the rumors were rampant that he felt responsible for the franchise’s epic descent into failure. Whether true or not, his death was a symbolic nadir for the organization, especially coming in the middle of the team’s longest winning streak of the year in late August.
In my mind, this was a fitting insult to a year of only disappointment. Whereas the 2010 team was bad, it had the promise of youth. The 2011 team showed that the promise of the team’s young players had likely little backing in performance collateral. Now that a link to better times, Flanagan, had seen fit to end his association with the team in such a tragic manner, it only made sense to simply back away from the team, and lick wounds over the winter, hoping for the best out of bad situation.
To their credit, the team didn’t do that. From August 22nd to the end of the season, the Birds went 21-16, 15-13 in September, but, even more amazingly, 11-6 over the final 17 games of the season. Impressively, this final stretch of good baseball came against Tampa Bay, the Angels, Detroit, and, as witnessed over the past three days, the Boston Red Sox. While the Tigers had effectively clinched their division, the Orioles did beat up on 25-game winner Justin Verlander for one win in that series. They took 2 of 3 from Tampa, finishing the season series with the Rays at 9-9, thus making Tampa’s playoff run that much harder. And after the knuckleheads on local radio station AM830, the Angels’ flagship station in Los Angeles, had predicted an Angel sweep of Baltimore in their (ultimately futile) chase of the Texas Rangers, the Birds took the first two games of their 3 game series, giving Texas enough of a push to forge ahead to their division title.
But nothing could match what the Orioles ultimately did to the Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox, one of MLB’s (and ESPN’s) “flagship” teams, and a preseason favorite for baseball’s best team, the Red Sox had entered September trailing the New York Yank-mes, but with a clear 9-game advantage for the final playoff spot over the other American League teams not leading their division. The Sox, however, were stumbling, and collapsing. By the time the Orioles had reached Fenway Park in Boston on September 19th for a doubleheader, Boston’s once large lead had virtually vanished, thanks to a collapse of the team’s pitching and inconsistent hitting. The Orioles, having just embarrassed the Angels (and their Angel Talk followers here on AM830 in Los Angeles), took 3 out of the next 4 games from Boston. When this past Sunday rolled around, the Red Sox were now tied for the final playoff spot with Tampa. Boston had to go into Baltimore, while Tampa Bay had to play 3 with New York.
What went down over these past three days are easily covered in detail elsewhere. All I could add was that while others are convinced that the Red Sox blew it, the Orioles still had to show up and play those games. Not many are tossing credit to the manner in which the team held its own against Boston, especially how the Birds nearly won Tuesday’s nights game against the Red Sox’s relief ace Jon Papelbon and then beat Papelbon the following night after he had the Orioles down to their last strike and final out.
Truth be told, starting with the Angel series, I was suddenly following the team again. The Orioles were causing all manner of chaos with the playoff hopes of the teams hoping to advance. On Tuesday night, unable to watch the game while I sat with my little girl trying to get her to sleep, I followed the ninth inning of the eventual 8-7 Oriole loss on my phone. It was then I noted that the Orioles had made Boston’s Papelbon throw 28 pitchers, including ten in the final at-bat to Adam Jones. Somehow, I told myself, the long outing on Tuesday might pay off in spades on Wednesday.
So last night, hoping to follow the game again on my phone while Katelyn settled herself down, I discovered the game was on hold in the 7th inning due to rain and lighting in Baltimore. The long rain delay meant I had a choice to watch the game on TV, or choose the alternate path of following the comments on an Oriole fan website, Camden Chat. I chose the latter. Earlier this season, during the terrible stretch in May, I had turned on the TV to watch the Orioles and Red Sox play, only to see the Orioles blow a lead in the 9th and lose. I wanted to spare myself that fate on this night. So I chose the comment boards (which was a tactic I also used during the College World Series this past Spring during my Cal Bears’ wild run).
Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed. And neither was the team.
It’s a day later, and virtually 24 hours after last night’s win. The Oriole fan diaspora has quelled somewhat, as it seems that folks are coming out of fan lurkdom to share a measure of satisfaction at even the tiniest of triumphs. We’re all, more or less, proud of what went down the past couple of weeks, and really happy about the team making its mark in 2011 after such terrible events earlier this season. Nevertheless, the Orioles aren’t going anywhere this October; the playoffs are where they haven’t gone since 1997. Nearly a generation has passed since success has come to Baltimore, and there is a psychic cost involved with respect to what it does to those who choose to, in words I’ve even used, “catch Oriole Fever–and die.”
This afternoon, while taking a mental health break, I came across this blog post on Camden Chat. For all the nice words I received about the recent post about my mother, this post here, on the Oriole blog Camden Chat, is even more eloquent in the manner in which it tries to connect the generations…even the comments are heart rendering. But it encompasses what it means to be a fan, not just of the Orioles, but of baseball.
I had contemplated writing a post about why I was not going to see the film Moneyball, much in the way I shared why I was choosing to skip The Help. But I think the events of the past week demonstrate why Hollywood can never quite get baseball “just so” on the big screen. It needs to simplify its stories, by design. And the most interesting of these stories are never the same for every baseball fan, since baseball holds its attraction for so man of us in the smallest of details. Movies can’t capture that. Also, Brad Pitt can be the hero in as many films as he’d like, but how often will someone like the Orioles’ Robert Andino be given that same opportunity? I got more than my money’s worth of drama last night.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. — A. Bartlett Giamatti