Thursday, August 25, 2011

(2)800 Words: Confessions of a Fair Weather Orioles Fan

October 9th, 1996. It’s all I need to say to any Orioles fan before they know exactly what’s coming. But for the rest of you, here’s what happened:

Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. From the American League East - then as now Baseball’s hardest division - the 1996 Orioles eked out the Wild Card berth on the 2nd-to-last day of the season and became the first Wild Card team in Baseball History to win a Division Series. I was there on opening day, and I was there at the third game of the first Division Series. On both days, the Orioles won. I braved eight years of fanatical baseball fandom to await the day when the Orioles would go to the postseason. We had a new owner, Peter Angelos, who hired the best general manager in Baseball - Pat Gillick. And one of the legendary managers in the game's history - Davey Johnson, who happened to be a former Oriole second-baseman with a career-long ambition to manage our team. The names of our 1996 lineup still ring in my ears: Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff, Chris Hoiles, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Mike Devereaux. A rotation that included Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, David Wells. Jesse Orosco and Alan Mills in middle relief and Randy Myers as the closer. Even the names of the subs; Billy Ripken, Jeffrey Hammonds, Luis Polonia, Todd Zeile, Tony Tarasco, Gregg Zaun, Pete Incaviglia; still ring out for me. It was a very good September.

But then came the night of October 9th - the night I almost threw my parents’ television out the window. It was the night I lost baseball. It was the night I realized that I’d wasted my time following a game that could be as fixed as wrestling. It was the night a 12-year-old Yankee fan stole a Derek Jeter fly ball which Tony Tarasco would have caught, and pulled it over the right field wall. The umpire, Richie Garcia, was a mere ten feet away. Yet he called it a home run. The Orioles were winning in the bottom of the 8th, 4-3. Jeter tied the score and the Yankees won in the bottom of the 11th on a Bernie Williams home run. In a life as full of bad days as any which an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from the Baltimore suburbs can have, I still remember it as one of the worst. It was the day I lost Baseball.

The Washington Post called Jeffrey Maier “The symbol of Orioles Futility.” Even the picture of his catch made him look like he was mocking us. But Jeffrey Maier was two years younger than me. He was an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from the Jersey suburbs. This kid got to sit behind the Yankee dugout for the postseason’s duration, he got to appear on David Letterman and Rudy Giuliani presented him with the Keys to the City. All I got was the satisfaction of knowing that I didn’t destroy my parents’ TV.

In retrospect, the real villain was Richie Garcia. I think anybody who knows baseball knows why. Umpires wanted to take a stand against the Orioles, and weren’t above anything to make it. They, like many fans, were angry at the spitting incident thirteen days earlier. Roberto Alomar - the greatest second baseman since Joe Morgan and otherwise legendary class act - spat on umpire John Hirschbeck after he disputed a bad call. During a heated dispute, Hirschbeck used a certain six-letter word against Alomar. Alomar, long rumored to be gay, responded by spitting in Hirschbeck’s face. Alomar was quoted the next day, saying that Hirschbeck’s personality had changed since the death of his son. Hirschbeck responded a few hours later by accosting Alomar in the Orioles’ clubhouse. We'll never know if the Jeffrey Maier home run was related. But to my thinking, the call was merely the cap to one of the ugliest incidents in Baseball History.

But regardless, it was the home run that made me stop following baseball. Some years afterward, I would still ‘follow’ it. Some years I would tune in for a division championship or a World Series and play catch up with the developments of the year. But never again did I have a passion for this sport or any other.

Baseball was my sport. It was my only sport. I’m sure that in another lifetime I could have developed a passion for basketball or soccer. But it took twenty-five years of my life and a season as the worst JV lineman in the history of high-school sports to admit to myself that I hate football with the heat of a thousand suns. To me, football is a particularly American form of barbarism. Only Americans could love a sport in which people have to cover up their taste for violence with safety padding.

Like every other sport, I was truly terrible at baseball - even by the standards of my 90% Jewish little-league peers. When I was nine, there was a little league game in which I struck out three times with the bases loaded. I told my Dad I never wanted to play little league again, and he didn’t utter a peep to discourage me. But all the same, Baseball was my passion. I probably watched or listened to 85% of every inning of every Oriole game between the years 1990 and 1994. I went to the library at least once a week to memorize statistics in a baseball encyclopedia. I begged my parents to either buy or take out every book on baseball I could find. I read up on baseball strategy, history and business. We didn’t have cable at my house, so I would occasionally beg my parents to let me study at friends’ houses just so I could watch Baseball Tonight.

And it was this knowledge of baseball that probably saved me from a certain level of social periahdom. To be sure, I was a drooling nerd and picked on after the fashion which stupid cool kids have preferred from time immemorial. But I was rarely beaten up, never dogpiled and generally given a level of preferential treatment among nerdly outcasts. I, a socially awkward violin geek who preferred Beethoven to Michael Jackson and Nirvana, was the baseball expert of my school. So whereas other nerds had nothing to save them from bullies’ worst excesses, there was at least one reason why they wouldn’t accost me. If the cool kids ever had a fight about whether Harmon Killebrew had more home runs than Willie McCovey, who would they ask if they were too mean to me?

The era of my childhood was nearly the most innocent in Baseball History. There were neither major scandals, nor landmark records broken, nor inquisitions into foul play. From 1989 to 1994, only two troubling thoughts which loomed.

1. Why couldn't the Orioles ever break the 90-game barrier?
2. Why is there always talk about a strike?

The talk was incessant for my entire childhood. Players could make as much as $5 million a year. Teams could take in nearly $100 million a year in revenue. Yet neither was satisfied. The players claimed that they were acting in the interests of rank-and-file players. But the minimum a player earns is $400,000 a year. That seems impressive until you realize that Alex Rodriguez makes $32 million this year. The owners claimed that they were acting in the interest of small market teams. The average team made a revenue of $197 million last year. Again, this is impressive until you realize that the New York Yankees made $441 million in revenue last year.

To wonder if the deregulation of baseball is a symptom of a larger problem is not mere fancy. Like it was at every stage of 20th-century history, the health of Baseball marks the health of the country. It should come as no surprise that Free Agency developed in 1973, and with it came salaries run amok. It was exactly the same year as the Arab oil crisis. which led to the American capital crisis whose effects we feel today more than ever. The parallels between Baseball and America run together with an invisible thread. Baseball IS America, and its decline is as much America’s as its own.

I can’t say I was particularly surprised when I found out that my favorite Oriole was accused of steroid use. Nobody was more excited than I when Rafael Palmeiro came to the Orioles. Even when he was on the Texas Rangers, he was a favorite of mine. Watching Raffie, I could imagine what it must have felt like to watch other teams - teams that won. Like everybody, I loved Cal. But Cal was all character - win or lose, he was ready. But with one stroke of the bat, Palmiero reminded us that winning was an option.

In 1996, the O’s set the all-time record for home runs by a team. The record they broke was the legendary 1961 Yankees of Mantle and Maris. Summer camp friends from New York assured me that the O’s could never do it without steroids. But I really did believe that our scrawny ne’er-do-well left fielder, Brady Anderson, could hit 50 home runs purely on the power of Orioles Magic.

Anybody who remembers the Baseball World of the late 90’s will remember all the talk of a ‘juiced’ ball. According to this conspiracy theory: it wasn’t steroids which caused the massive home run uptick, it wasn’t a corked bat, it was the ball itself. It was reasoned that the owners must have conspired to renovate the baseball into a ball that was more aerodynamic. A baseball that traveled further would entail more home runs. More home runs would entail more attendance. The speculation wasn’t quite as weird as all that. Before the 1920 season, in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, it was decided that a livelier ball would be used so that players, particularly Babe Ruth, could hit more home runs. The home run saved baseball from ruin many times.

But it was not a juiced ball. It was juice. It was injections of anabolic steroids which could move players up ten shirt sizes from year to year. It’s difficult to imagine how blind we must have been to not see the difference, but winning is powerful stuff. There is nothing that activates the will to remain in denial like success.

But even if Brady and Raffie were on steroids, there was something about that 1996 playoff that feels cruel. Until that catch, momentum was on the Orioles’ side. But who could ever survive such a humiliating downturn in Yankee Stadium? It was yet another yank at the intestines of a town that had yet to find a replacement for the departure of our beloved Colts in 1984. All my Yankee-fan friends (yes, I have some) like to say the same thing, the series would have ended the same way regardless. The Yankees would have handed the Orioles their asses on a platter, with or without Jeffrey Maier. Perhaps they're right, but we’ll never know. No matter what happened, Yankee fans of my generation must always deal with the fact that the greatest dynasty in Sports History was resurrected because of help from a 12-year-old.

This is not only the plight of the Orioles. This is the plight of small market teams around America. This is the plight of every small market city in America. In America’s Golden Age, the playing field was more or less level. A factory worker, businessman or baseball player from Baltimore or Pittsburgh could have the same opportunities and benefits as a factory worker, businessman or baseball player from New York or Philadelphia. Even in the best of times, the advantage goes to larger-market cities. But in earlier eras, there was more hope for competition - even if it was false hope. That day is gone. Yankee fans of my generation like to point to the ‘Moneyball’ example of the small-market Oakland A’s being competitive in the generally unimpressive AL West division. But Oakland is the exception that proves the rule. If Oakland is an example to the rest of us small market cities, why has no one followed it?

With all the disappointments of the steroids era, everybody was affected. There is not a single baseball fan whose heroes were not tarnished. But there is an argument to be made that nobody got tarnished like the Orioles. We hadn’t had a winning season since 1997, but 2005 looked to be the year things would change. Raffie and BJ were back to close out their careers and we started the year hot. The experts said we’d cool off, but nobody thought it would be another sub-500 season.

Raffie was back in town for his 500th home run and his 3000th hit and he announced that he would go into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole. It was the year we looked hopeful again. After seven losing years, it was beginning to look safe to go to Oriole Park. But we didn’t count on the one thing that could bring spirits down. The steroid hurricane was about to hit baseball, and Rafael Palmeiro would be its most mangled victim.

Palmeiro was the first high-profile player to be subpoenaed by congress. No one had any way of knowing yet how serious the investigation would be or how deep the coverup went. As odd as it seems to say this, perjury seemed like a viable option for ballplayers in mid-2005. And so Palmeiro was the only player to issue a complete, finger-wagging denial of steroid use under oath. And by doing that, he ruined his chances for the Hall of Fame, the morale of the 2005 Orioles, and contributed to the demoralization of every subsequent Oriole team. Raffie was the great blessing of Orioles past, he is the curse of Orioles present. Palmeiro may be elected to the Hall of Fame in the far future. I certainly hope he does: if Barry Bonds can get in, Raffie deserves it too. But we can be sure that of all the marquee players of the Steroid Era, he will be the last.

We Oriole fans have joked about the source of our misfortune for years. Even when we were a good team we had jokes about it. Boston had the "Curse of the Bambino," we had the "Curse of Frank Robinson." In 1966, the Cincinnati Reds owner Bill DeWitt decided that Frank Robinson was ‘an old 30.’ So DeWitt traded him to the Orioles for the Orioles pitching ace, Milt Pappas, and two unknowns. Pappas was never the same, but 1966 was the year Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown (lead the league in batting average, RBI’s and home runs) and lead the Orioles to their first ever World Series victory. Since Robinson, the Orioles never seemed to execute a trade that was anything but abysmal.

Bad trades are only one of many, many sources of misfortune . But even if the current Orioles were excellently run. Even if they weren't owned by one of the most incompetent and micromanaging owners in the history of American sports, they wouldn’t do much better than they’re doing now. The cards are stacked against teams like the Orioles. In a world where competition is dominated by half-a-dozen teams, the smaller markets can’t compete. They can’t even come in second.

In the wake of the strike, there was a golden opportunity to change everything about baseball. We could have seen revenue sharing, salary caps, an agreement to give fans a break on ticket prices. Major League Baseball could have won America back by making Baseball a better game again. But rather than take the simple steps to improve baseball of regulating revenues and salaries to establish fairer competition, the powers that be chose another way to bring fans back. They turned a blind eye to steroid use - ruining the subtlety of America's most perfect game and replacing it with a bunch of grotesque pituitary cases who turned the only American game I love into a cross between the testosterone-laden simple-mindedness of football and the spine-tingling excitement of golf.

It’s now 2011. Davey Johnson and Pat Gillick are working in the same jobs. Only they’re 40 miles south, trying to do for the Washington Nationals what they should have done for the Orioles. To me, the very existence of the Nationals is yet another nail, perhaps the definitive nail, in the Orioles’ coffin.

The Orioles used to be a large market team. A full one-third of Orioles' attendance was from the Washington Metro Area. Two major cities supported the O’s and one lacked either football or basketball. But how could the Orioles possibly build such a community today? Every year I listen to the ritual of Oriole fans telling themselves ‘Maybe this year will be different.” And it never is. Fans have stopped coming to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Oriole revenues are as low as revenues get in Major League Baseball. The day may come when an owner decides that the team can make more money in a city with better fortunes than Baltimore’s.

Today came our ultimate nadir. Oriole Legend Mike Flanagan committed suicide. Flanagan was a legendary pitcher, coach, broadcaster and general manager of the Orioles. Many people clamored him to be the O's manager. He was a beloved figure in Baltimore and an all-around nice guy. But he apparently killed himself today because he thought people blamed him for the woes of the present day Orioles. Experiences in sports do not get lower than this.

At this point, the Orioles' departure wouldn’t be a tragedy for me. I lost the Orioles fifteen years ago. But that would be a tragedy for people I love - particularly my brothers. For fifteen years, I’ve watched Jordan and Ethan watch the Orioles. While I read or listened to music, they'd watch the games and argue about all the same statistics and strategy which I used to give them 1-hour-histories of on request (and sometimes not on request). They’re forever optimistic about the O’s. If the O’s don’t win this year, there will always be next year. And they continually assure me that there will always be a next year and that one day we will all be able to take our kids to see the O’s: win or lose. I really, really want to believe them.

1 comment:

  1. When you read off that lineup its not hard to see why that 96 team was great