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.