Catching and Dying from Oriole Fever

Where the Orioles Roost: Camden Yards, 20 years old today...the template for the Retro design movement for many of the newer ballparks.

First day of Spring Break, Baseball’s Opening Day for my Orioles, and given that both the wife and child are at their respective schools and I am off, I can enjoy the free preview of MLB’s Extra Innings with which to stoke my ancient loyalty for the Birds.

Last week on a rare night out with Amber, the spouse of our dinner guest asked an inevitable question that I often get:  “The Orioles?

Naturally, I wind up with the sarcasm back, along with Amber’s spousal rebuke;  they don’t quite understand the promise I made to myself way back in 1969 that in choosing the Birds as my favorite team, this was a “forever” move.  And so it’s gone.  Early on, the choice was easily defensible:  World Series appearances in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979, and 1983; 2 World Series titles in 1970 and 1983 to go with the earlier win in 1966; 7 AL East titles during that same time.  Then there were the players:  Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and, finally, Cal Ripken, Jr.  And there was the manager, Earl Weaver.

It’s not for nothing that I own autographed baseballs from many of the Oriole Hall-of-Famers:  Ripken, Brooks, Murray, Weaver, Palmer.  (I also have one from Mike Mussina, but given his late-career decision to sign with the Yank-mes, I’m still trying to reconcile that, especially given Moose’s recent induction into the team’s Hall-of-Fame.)

And for my non-existent mancave, I own substantial Oriole knick-knacks to fill its shelves:  bobbleheads, Matchbox cars, caps (including the f-ugly grey crown from 1995), and pennants.  (I once had the temerity to walk up to a souvenir vendor in Fenway Park back in the late 1970s and bought an Oriole pennant.)

Oriole HOFer Cal Ripken, Jr. The face of the franchise for nearly 2 decades, his retirement virtually erased any specific significance that the franchise once held in baseball.

But with that 1983 championship, the bottom gradually fell out, then cratering after a 0-21 start to the 1988 season.  The team’s sustained excellence in its division was but a memory.  The Orioles became a perpetual underdog in the AL East, as first the Blue Jays, and then the Red Sox, Yank-mes, and, finally, the Rays, all moved past the Orioles in terms of their importance, the false spring years of 1996 and 1997 notwithstanding.  Still, claiming Oriole fandom didn’t seem as peculiar, especially when your team’s star was Cal Ripken Jr.  But upon his retirement, the team was left grasping.  Albert Belle was signed for a time, but had to retire with degenerative injuries.  Then both Miguel Tejada and Rafael Palmeiro became implicated in the steroids scandal while at the same time, the quality of play on the field became worse and worse.  For instance:

I feel sorry for the fans. You pay that much money to see a game, you expect to see professionals play… We walked 14 people today. We pitched like a bunch of 12-year-olds. We had a guy get picked off when we’re six runs down….If you want any more stories, go out in the clubhouse. They’re the ones making all the money. Have them explain how they did and how they performed in front of 47,000 people. That’s all I have to say.

Ray Miller, Oriole manager, after an Orioles 11-10 loss to the Oakland Athletics. The Orioles started the 1999 season with the third highest payroll, and the worst record 4-14.

All this time, additionally, the team has had to deal with Peter Angelos as its owner.  The team’s fanbase has grown fed up with him.  Also, with the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers, thus ending Frank McCourt’s temporary tenure as baseball’s worst owner, talk has re-emerged that “The Peter” should sell the team.  Facebook pages have emerged along that theme, and it’s even got The Baltimore Sun engaged in the conversation:

But what is undeniable is that for too many Orioles fans, the feeling they want to get from following their favorite team now eludes them. Fans want to believe that this year, there’s a chance. And that the people in power — the people lucky enough to own a baseball team, or assemble one, or manage one, or play for one — are doing everything possible to make winning happen.  [Local anti-Angelos fan leaders] were all very, very adamant about how much they still admired and rooted for the players. To varying degrees, they believe Buck Showalter is a strong manager, and are willing to give Dan Duquette a chance.

But they’ve lost faith in Angelos.

Oriole Friday Night Alternate Cap

As I noted at the end of the 2011 season, the Orioles haven’t seriously mattered to baseball at-large since the 1997 season.  Subsequently, even the team’s adoption of an alternate cap with the team’s initial “O” was questionable, given their struggles.  So my own team loyalty has been trying, to be honest, and mostly goes into hibernation for huge chunks of the season.  I knowingly joked to my teaching colleague last week that the Orioles’ typical exits from playoff contention each season usually means I can focus upon Cal football that much faster.

I remain an Oriole fan however.  Bent, yes, but not yet broken.

I muse over this because of the machinations of Arte Moreno as the Angel owner trying to cut into the Dodgers’ fanbase.  I began to consider that he honestly believes that he can make loyal Dodger fans become loyal Angel fans by “winning”.  (Grow the fanbase, yes.  I don’t question that. Yet that growth would come from those who are casual fans looking for the entertainment vibe, no?) The flipside of that strategy is, of course, about what happens to those fans if Angels struggle or start to lose, especially if their recent free agent player signings don’t pan out over the long term, as I suspect they might not.

Moreno is predicating a fanbase growth strategy by appealing to the fickle nature rather than the loyal.  By claiming that Orange County IS Los Angeles, he wants fans to betray deeply held fan devotion, but without thinking that once switched, it can switch elsewhere just as easily.  Consider, for instance, how Los Angeles hasn’t really missed out on an NFL franchise.  People have just gone elsewhere, or found other ways to get their football fix.  He might grab Angel fans by raiding Dodger fans, but now that Frank McCourt is gone, many Dodger fans are coming right back to the team, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson notwithstanding.

It has never crossed my mind over the past 15 years to consider changing my team loyalty.  Knowing a few loyal Dodger fans as I do, they’re not likely to consider switching either.  The point of being a loyal fan is to enjoy those moments of success when it happens, as it did for the Angels back in 2002, when long-suffering fans of that franchise could truly appreciate the end of a legacy of frustration.  It reminds me of a sign I saw while watching hockey’s New York Rangers celebrate their Stanley Cup win in 1994, after 54 years of failure. The image has stayed with me, even though I’m not a hockey fan.  Simply put, the sign, held by a fan, said “I can die now.”

With elegant simplicity, those four words sum up what it truly means to be a devoted fan.

Arte Moreno wouldn’t get that sentiment.  He might even had tried to make that fan an Islander fan the following season…

Meanwhile, back in the now, on the TV, I watch my Orioles win their Opening Day game against the Twins in Baltimore this afternoon.  Starting Pitcher Jake Arrieta and Rightfielder Nick Markakis help stake the team to a 4-0 lead, and even though Troy Patton and Jim Johnson give some of that lead back in the top of the 9th, JJ finally nails the win down.  The Orioles are now 1-0 on the season.  Hope springs eternal.

They’ll, at least, finish the season 1-161.

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