This Cartoon is No Longer a Joke

Dream, dream away
Magic in the air, was magic in the air?
I believe, yes I believe

— John Lennon, “#9 Dream”

If I am not listening to my iPod in my CR-V,  I often make the mistake of listening to local Los Angeles sports talk radio.  In their endless obsession with everything Laker, or NFL football, baseball becomes one of the tangents the local sports guys dabble with, when they’ve run out of things with which to praise the local misogynist basketball hero.  And this season, with Angel owner Arte Moreno’s stubborn determination to lock down every one of baseball’s purported superstars who don’t play in New York, the din amongst the locals had become overwrought and anguished as it became increasingly clearer that the Halos might not be going to the post-season.

So, in their frustration, not only were a number of Angel fans calling into AM830 Angel Talk, or KSPN, the ESPN radio affiliate in Los Angeles, but several of the Angel Talk moderators were even turning their fire onto the Orioles, in utter disbelief that Arte’s attempt to buy a division title was being upset by the collection of misfits and screwballs in Baltimore who wouldn’t get out the Angels’ way as the Anaheim-based team furiously tried to rally its season to try to grab one of the two league wild card sports.  In their minds, these Orioles also had the temerity, by virtue of having allowed more runs than they had scored for much of the season, to win 93 ballgames and take the Yank-mes down to the final series of the season for the division title in the American League’s Eastern Division.  How untoward!

But even more upsetting to Angel Talk listeners had to be the miracle run of the Oakland Athletics.

Here was a team who actually managed to chase down and catch the Texas Rangers for the division title. And they won the division title not by overpaying the superstars from some MLB Network highlight reel, but by finding help within their own organization.  Like the Orioles, who used roster construction and their own minor leagues to address big league needs, the Athletics were even more self-sufficient with their own talent base, and restructured their team to hunt down the Rangers–something the local LA sports intelligentsia were convinced the Angels would do way back in December, when the Orange County-based team signed Albert Pujols and pitcher CJ Wilson, or mid-season, when the Angels acquired Zack Grienke from the Milwaukee Brewers.  Even with the transcendence of rookie Mike Trout, the lesson to be gleaned from the 2012 American League pennant race was the simple and basic notion that even if your team has a roster filled with players that appear on winning Fantasy baseball teams, the team still has to play 162 games.

“You can’t sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”  —former Oriole manager Earl Weaver

Being an Oriole fan for 42 years has taught me all I needed to now about the fickle nature of a team’s fortunes.  Growing up in the early 1970s, the team was a perennial contender, with 7 division titles, 5 World Series appearances, and 2 championships by the time I had graduated from college.  But the string had played itself out by the time 1984 had rolled around, bottoming out in 1988, after the team lost its first 21 games of the season.  Starting in 1989, the team improved enough to be somewhat of a factor in its division, finally forcing its way back into the playoffs in 1996, and coming within 2 games of a World Series appearance in 1997.

But then the bottom fell out, and the franchise descended into what seemed like the 7th circle of hell.  Baseball season essentially began to last for about 6 weeks for me each season, until the Orioles typically fell on their faces by mid-May or early-June, thus freeing me up for any number of summer activities that didn’t require me to follow major league baseball.

Don’t worry, the fans don’t start booing until July. — former Oriole manager Earl Weaver

You learn to appreciate the temporary and fleeting nature of success when and where it might happen when you root for a team that had become synonymous with failure.  But the team’s early success eventually began to manifest itself into something real, even if unbelievable.

I became hooked, such that even when the season appeared to be reaching free fall, marked by a loss to Minnesota on July 17th that left the Orioles only 2 games above a .500 record and 10 games behind the Yank-mes, I tried my best to restrain my creeping sense of doubt.   Despite having a team on the brink of becoming its usual self, the team instead began to man up.  Management retooled the Oriole rotation and lineup with minor league veterans, major league cast-offs, and along with near-failed prospects.  Then the team shored up its shaky infield defense by calling up its prize 20-year-old rookie shortstop (to play third base) Manny Machado.  Even while losing the team’s leadoff hitter, Nick Markakis, and its putative #1 starter, Jason Hammel, to injuries over the final weeks, a magical season remained so as the team closed out the second half of the year by going 47-25.

As a fan of a team languishing in baseball’s wilderness, you become appreciative of the small successes, and even in the middle of what was becoming a legitimate playoff run, I still clung to the understanding that all I wanted to hope to see was a team that could win 82 games.  Finally, when the Birds beat the A’s in Oakland on September 16th, for the first time since the tortured end of the 1997 playoffs, I could, at last, call myself a fan of a “winning” team.

I told myself at that point that anything else beyond win #82 would be gravy.

And so the Orioles won 11 more games, and on September 30th, a year and one day after ending the Red Sox’s own dream of making the 2011 baseball playoffs, the Orioles completed a sweep of the Bosox, and coupled with, ironically, a loss by Arte Moreno’s Angel not-so juggernaut, the Orioles themselves were now a playoff team.  Ultimately, the playoff position would mean a single wild-card elimination game against the Texas Rangers in Texas, but it meant I would be doing something I had yet to do all year–actually sit down an watch an Oriole game.

All season long, I had followed the club via text messages, fan mailing lists, newspaper links, and Camden Chat.   A $14.95 investment into MLB.com’s iPad app, meant I could get recaps and game highlights after each game.  It got to the point where I was as tuned into the team as I could get, without actually having had to work through an entire game.  Even if I wanted to watch a game, since no one took the Orioles’s season all that seriously, the MLB Network would often choose other games of interest over the misfit toys in Baltimore posing as a playoff contender.  I contented myself in using those alternate ways.

But in terms of watching meaningful October baseball, last night’s wild card game was different.  Win or lose, I needed to watch it.

A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings. – Earl Wilson, MLB pitcher for the Red Sox, Tigers, and Padres

Packing the kid off to an early bedtime, and with the wife at an Admin conference, it meant I could watch the game via DVR uninterrupted.  With Boston Terrier by my side, the nervous time began…

But, let’s be honest, on a drizzly night in April or a humid afternoon in August, who really cares that much? However, in the playoffs, tens of millions of us become temporary baseball fanatics. Almost every fall, the game pulls us toward it, reveals its richness and reminds us why it has been around so long and yet keeps its power.
Thomas Boswell, Washington Post, October 15, 1997

Once upon a time, my mom would have sat with me watching a game like last night’s Wild Card game, rosary beads at the ready.  Then, at some point during the game, I began to think about an old acquaintance from the Oriole mailing list, and a diehard Birds fan himself.  Later, after the game, other Oriole fans reminded each other about former Oriole pitcher and team executive Mike Flanagan, whose suicide last year was partly attributed to despair over the team’s failures over the past 14 seasons to that point.   (It’s sad to note that the team has played nearly 200 games since his death, and that the team has won at a .570+ clip since.)

Thusly, there was not going to be any shortage of potential spectral unseen hands at work to bring last night’s win home.  But the ultimate highlight was in simply watching something come together both wholly unexpected and psychologically stunning–a Baltimore Oriole team was still playing October baseball. In a season of statistical improbability, the impossible was happening…

As a kid, I used to expect such things.  As a young adult, I accepted it when it happened.  But as the years have passed, I, at last, came to understand the sense of what each season truly means as it came to their ends.  The Orioles’ 2012 season might well be the exception to the statistical rule, but it’s the one that happened to play itself out.  Those callers, along with the talk radio hosts, who wailed about unfairness on Angel Talk broadcasts over the final weeks of this season failed to understand the idea that “deserving” had nothing to do with winning baseball if you didn’t earn your place in the big dance to begin with.

I became an optimist when I discovered that I wasn’t going to win any more games by being anything else. — Former Oriole Manager, Earl Weaver

There is an old joke about a Baltimore resident who is sent to Hell for his behavior.  While I’ve never been to Charm City myself, I am told that the weather can be quite intolerable and, indeed, upon his arrival Satan immediately isolates his new inmate and begins to try to find an appropriate eternal punishment.  He raises not only the temperature, but also the humidity, only to find, to his frustration, to see the Baltimorean relaxing and wondering why people seemed to dismiss Hell as such a terrible place.  Vexed, Satan immediately drops the temperature, lowering it to below freezing, with snow and ice.  He leaves to attend to other business, only to be called back shortly thereafter by one of his minions to come immediately over to check back with the Baltimorean.  Satan is stunned by what he encounters when he glances in on the man.

In the midst of a near blizzard, the Baltimorean is jumping around and screaming:  “The Orioles have won the World Series!  The Orioles have won the World Series!”

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