Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Enjoying this Magical, Memorable Orioles Ride of 2012

What a story the 2012 Orioles have been.

All the elements are there:
Surprise  - really? we’re good this year?
Excitement - Best winning percentage in one-run games in the history of Major League Baseball.
Suspense - is this really happening? Can it continue?
Hope  - This feels good!; and, hopefully
Joyous Resolution  - no comment

Those who have followed the team at any level know the major plot points: Storied franchise known for winning and doing things the right way - The Oriole Way - falls on hard times to the tune of 14 straight losing seasons. Not just losing seasons mind you, but dreadful, interminable and seemingly pointless exercises in futility.

A revolving door of managers and general managers attempt unsuccessfully to right the ship. A generation of fans loses interest. Caring about the Orioles becomes, for the most part, uncool. Baltimore becomes, fully, a football town, immersed unapologetically in its Ravens, whose swagger and comparative success are completely foreign to the new Oriole Way. 

The 2012 Orioles season begins with modest expectations. Sure, the confident manager, Buck Showalter, has had success in the past - particularly in his second full year with a club. But no one is expecting much out of these Birds.  Their leadoff hitter and arguably best player, Brian Roberts, remains out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. The starting rotation appears thrown together haphazardly – someone’s No. 3 guy here, an unknown Asian import there. And the team’s top position players - Wieters, Jones, Markakis, Hardy - all seem to be a click or two below elite.

Here we go again.

But slowly, methodically, the 2012 Orioles play respectable, winning baseball. Buoyed by a  stingy bullpen of all things, they reach the All Star break five games over .500. But rather than feeling optimistic for the future, the fan base awaits inevitable collapse. We’ve seen this act before.

Undaunted by relatively sparse crowds, the team keeps on winning as the calendar flips to August. A rookie makes a spectacular debut and provides a spark. And now it’s September and the beat of a magical, memorable summer goes on. A team that has called upon not less than 12 different starting pitchers finds itself neck and neck with that most hate-able of enemies - the New York bleepin’ Yankees. And now, after all this time, there can be no question - the 2012 Baltimore Orioles are for real. 

I don’t know that there is some larger lesson to be learned here. One could argue that perseverance pays off; or that a team that has lost for so long is bound to win at some point, etc., etc.  Will we look back on this season as the one when the Baltimore Orioles turned the tide and returned to winning baseball for years to come? Or might it just be a blip; a statistical outlier in an otherwise orderly series of losing campaigns.

Who knows? Does it matter? More than anything what I am personally trying to do as a fan of this team is enjoy the moments, enjoy the ride.

There was that night back in July as I watched the game lying in bed with my son Ethan, who is 8, both our heads propped up on pillows.  After putting on PJs and brushing teeth, our summer routine often included watching Orioles baseball for a few innings together. On this night, the Orioles were down three runs late in the game. J.J. Hardy was up at bat; and I said aloud to Ethan, “we need a 3-run homer right here.” And on the next pitch, damn if J.J. didn’t launch one of his signature line drives clear out of the park. My son stared at me for an instant, mouth agape and eyes wide - “you called it dad!” - and then we high fived and hugged and rolled around on the bed together, celebrating one of those magical surprises that can only be delivered by a clutch three-run homer on a warm summer night.

Those moments, these opportunities, are what’s kept me into it all these years. For reasons having to do with obligation or inevitability, I’ve passed on the love of the game to Ethan and his younger brother Alec, who is 5.

We talk standings and statistics. We look together at averages and discuss the difference between a major leaguer and minor leaguer. We go to the games as a family and scream “Charge!” and buy ice cream.

And who am I kidding? I’m not just happy for them. I’ve invested a lot of time following some seriously bad teams. I have a few friends with whom I text nearly every single game talking about the minutia not just of wins and losses, but of individual plays and at bats all season long. Here, right now, is the payoff for caring. Something Oriole fans thought might never happen again is happening right now. I think it’s worth caring about. I hope my kids can think back on this 2012 Orioles team like I think about the ’79 Os, who went all the way to the World Series when I was 9. I vividly remember that team, those games, and those feelings.

Baseball is a game of failure. Most of the time your favorite player doesn’t hit a home run, or even get on base. I won’t be the first to point out that life is a lot like baseball in that it’s often about suffering; but also striving and enduring, which makes moments of glory and success all that much sweeter. It’s why I can’t stand the entitled attitude of Yankees fans, who don’t seem to take pleasure in small victories – they seem to care only for the big ones. 

But us Oriole fans? We have spent a decade and a half in the baseball wilderness, forced to celebrate only the small victories – like the occasional win against the Yanks or Red Sox when our stadium is filled with their fans. Even during one of those recent 69-93 seasons, there were moments of glory and success, but they were fleeting moments against a backdrop of hopelessness.

Here in 2012, however, we have an entirely new and hopeful script. Each game presents an opportunity for success of a type that has everyone who cares about baseball, never mind just the Orioles, paying attention.

How about those Baltimore Orioles?” they say on ESPN and write in The New York Times. Can they keep it going?

We can only watch and hope.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Maryland at Duke, the (probably appropriate) End of a Tradition

Maryland will play at Duke this afternoon, and it will be the end of a long era, one in which the teams have faced each other, home and away, each season, since the formation of the ACC in 1953.

When Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, followed by Boston College in 2005, the ACC did away with the round robin format to the basketball season and introduced an unbalanced schedule. Prior to the league's expansion, the ACC featured nine member schools, a number that now seems quaint in the era of the super conference, when every team played every other team, home and away, every season.

Then when the ACC became a 12-team league, the conference created a system whereby each team had two 'primary partners' that they'd play home and away every year, and then rotate playing once or twice per year against the other teams. I personally hated the change because it replaced what was a perfect system -- you got to play each team on your court and on their court. But that's ancient history and not worth discussing. With the mid 2000s expansion following shortly on the heels of the Terrapins rise to the national championship in 2002 - and, more importantly, some truly epic battles with Duke during the Juan Dixon era - the ACC made Maryland a primary partner to Duke and UVa.

Over the years, Maryland had some great games with Duke, but none arguably more memorable or important than the ones in the late 90s and early 2000s, with both teams in the top 10. While Duke has maintained its excellence among the nation's elite program since that time, Maryland has been much more up and down, with a few very solid seasons interspersed with some very average, forgettable ones (Travis Garrison anyone?)

There were, of course, the stinging chants of "not our rival" from the Dukies when Maryland would visit Cameron Indoor, a chant meant to indicate that Duke's one and only true rival is and was North Carolina, a program that Maryland replaced at the top of the ACC pecking order for a short time, but not anymore.

And, so, where are we now? With Gary Williams retiring last year and the hiring of Mark Turgeon, Maryland has entered an entirely new era. And, perhaps fittingly, so has the ACC. This is the last year - and today is the last game in the series - where Maryland will play Duke twice a year, every year. Starting next year, the Terps' new primary partner is not Duke or even UVa, but Pitt, a team Maryland has absolutely no history or tradition with - but a very good program that's been among the nation's elite for the past decade under coach Jamie Dixon. Pitt is slightly down this year (15-9, 4-7 in the Big East), but has been to the NCAA tournament the past 8 seasons and hasn't won less than 25 games since the '04-'05 season.

As a Maryland fan, there are two ways to look at this new primary partner. One is to feel slighted by the powers that be in the ACC. After all, the Terps have been a part of the conference since its formation, so why are we the partner to one of the newbies? Is there not one school that we've developed a rivalry with worth preserving? Sadly, or perhaps just interestingly, the answer is "not really." I don't think any Terp fan gets particularly fired up to watch Maryland play UVa (and UVa is a natural rival to Va Tech), and who else was it going to be? N.C. State? Wake Forest? Nah, better to give Maryland and its new coach a new rival, one altogether worthy of respect, and, hopefully over time, the source of a kind of hatred reserved only for teams that it feels so good to beat.

Today, of course, there is the matter of Maryland at Duke. A rebuilding Maryland program without its point guard has little chance to beat the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor, but one never knows. Perhaps Terrell Stoglin has a career-defining 40-point explosion of a performance in his system, it wouldn't shock me. So I'll be watching. And, while I initially felt that losing the home and home with Duke every year would hurt the Maryland program and its fans, I now feel like it's the right change at the right time.

It will be a good change for the program to stop thinking so much about the Duke games, and more on building the kind of team and program that goes to the tournament every year and competes for the league title. Kinda like Pitt. No use fighting it, bring on the Blue Devils today, and bring on the new era under our new coach next year. Go Terps.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 17 Games In, 2012 Season Preview

Hola my friends, it's been a while. I'll spare the excuses for not prolifically filing reports about the young and 'developing before our eyes' 2011-2012 edition of the Maryland men's basketball team. Heading into tonight's contest at Florida State (9 p.m. on ESPNU), Mark Turgeon's Terps are 12-4, 2-1 and a win could get people talking about Maryland as a possible bubble team. Right now they are on no one's list, largely because they haven't really beaten anyone good, got clobbered by, um, Iona, and pulled out a series of a single digit, nail-biting victories over the likes of Mount St. Mary's, Florida International, Radford, and Alabany. I am not even making up that list of schools in such a way that would indicate Maryland has played a bunch of softies, those are among the schools Maryland has played against, and they almost lost to all of them.

Ah, but before we get all hyper-critical like an angry Ravens fan calling a sports talk show to complain about Joe Flacco's completion percentage, let's give these Terps a break, huh? They lost their big man, Jordan Williams to the NBA's New Jersey Nets (where he's appeared in 6 games and scored 6 total points and appears to be the last man on the bench... ) their designated foreign 'fundamentally sound guy,' Haukur Palsson to professional ball in Europe, and several decent roster fillers to graduation or the end of their eligibility or whatever it is happens when a college basketball player completes 4 years in a row of competition at an institution of higher learning. (Hey - side note, did you know that former Terp Cliff Tucker, who made that one game-winner against Georgia Tech, walked on the football team at UTEP? It's true. I don't feel like surfing and linking to his bio, but I think he had 2 or 3 catches.)

Anyway, where were we? Full admission, I have watched about 2/3 of the Maryland games this year and don't feel quite as 'plugged in' as I did in the past when I actually covered the team and/or made Terps games appointment TV or attended most home games.

However, I do feel qualified to now provide a journalistically questionable analysis of the top 5 or 6 guys on this years Terps, plus the new coach:

Let's start at the top with that whirling dervish of a two guard, Terrell Stoglin - Put it this way, you WOULD NOT want to have to try to guard Terrell in a pick-up game. He would destroy you and 3 other guys and score basically, all the points. Only problem is that in this made-up game that will never happen, the other guys on Terrell's team might not have a ton of fun watching him do his thing while they, well, watch him do his thing. He's not exactly a big sharer of the basketball, but man can he score. Stoglin leads the ACC in scoring at 21 points per game and without him, Maryland probably loses to Cornell, Albany, Mt. St. Mary's and few others. He's Maryland's only truly legit player, who would likely start for any other team in the ACC.

OK, moving on then, we have Shawn Mosley, the 34-year-old senior small forward from Baltimore, who is the Terps' what? Glue guy? Team leader? Insert cliche about pretty good but not great senior forced to stay for four years here? Mosley works hard, seems to do everything well, nothing great. Players like Mosley are very nice to have on your team if you have 2-3 stars and he can be content to be in the background, but if he's your guy, well, you aren't that good.

James Padgett - power forward. High energy. Leads the ACC in offensive rebounding at over 4 per game, but only gets 2 on the defensive glass. I don't understand this statistic. Padgett sometimes looks like he can take over, sometimes disappears, not sure what else to say here.

Pe'Shon Howard - when he came back from a toe injury about 10 games in to the season, Maryland had a breath of fresh air - a pass first point guard. Like his name, Pe'Shon is flashy, loves the spectacular or difficult pass and can hit an open shot. He is very entertaining and I'm guessing the coaches would say he's playing his way into game shape and will only get better. I like Pe'Shon.

Alex Len - So when Pe'Shon came back from the toe injury, the Terps also gained the services of Alex Len, a 7-1 center from the Ukraine who had to sit out 10 games because, in the eyes of the NCAA, he did something he shouldn't have, like accepted a few bucks for playing basketball.

Len plays a lot like you'd hope a 7-1 center from the Ukraine would play. He's not just gigantically tall, he's athletic, blocks shots, has a good court sense, and seems to be really enjoying himself. On the down side, big Alex isn't exactly the second coming of Patrick Ewing, or even Uwe Blab for that matter. He's a bit thin and got lost in the recent Georgia Tech game, where he scored only 0 points, but got 9 rebounds. Let's hope there are lots of double-doubles in store for this guy - Terps really need him to play well to be a good team.

Off the bench, Maryland gets thin fast, with Ashton Pankey playing a serviceable power forward and another skinny tall foreign white guy, Berend Weijs at center. Also serviceable. Another role player who shows flashes of serious talent is Mychael Parker, but he also seems inconsistent.

Wait, I'm forgetting Nick Faust, the athletic 2 guard from Baltimore's City College high school who started the first 9 games before Howard came back from injury. I think Faust was a bit overwhelmed at first and was shooting like 25 percent through his first 10 games or so but is probably better suited for a role off the bench right now. From what I've seen, he moves gracefully around the court, can make the three, but forces shots and makes plenty of bad decisions. Faust has the potential to blossom into a very good player but he's not exactly an impact guy who can throw his team on his back. The only guy Maryland has in that category is Stoglin.

And last, let me just throw out a few words about the new leader of the Terps, Mark Turgeon. From what I can tell, Maryland basketball is in very good hands. Turgeon not only works hard, coaches hard, recruits hard, he is brutally honest in press conferences. He says things like, "we need to grow up as a basketball team" and has pushed Stoglin with some tough love, including sitting him out to start a couple of games and chiding him for not passing the ball more.

I'm sure it's not easy to coach a guy like Stoglin, a player who can score like few others, but might not exert maximum effort on D or share the ball as much as he should. So far, so good, for these young, improving Terps. A win tonight at Florida State would be a great stepping stone, and might just get Maryland moving toward something more than just a rebuilding season.

Go Terps.