Thursday, August 11, 2016

Grasping at Straws: An Orioles Fan Reflects

photo by Kim Klement for USA Today.
The worst part is, there's always hope. Sisyphus wouldn't roll that rock if he never saw the crest of the mountain.

Professional sports are littered with perennially moribund franchises. Look to the Cleveland Browns, the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, the Milwaukee Brewers. Teams so soundly rooted in mediocrity that their fans speak of them with the same rueful helplessness parents use when discussing their son's decision to pursue improv comedy as a career. What are you gonna do? These teams' woeful returns are dispiriting, but they offer a bizarre form of certainty. Death, taxes, a sub .500 season.

The Baltimore Orioles are not these teams. Or, at least, they aren't any more.

They were for a brutal stretch. It began roughly in the 1996 ALCS, when 12 year-old ne'er-do-well Jeffrey Maier reached into the field of play to corral a Derek Jeter flyout into the stands and umpire Rich Garcia, vested with the solemn authority of a league that had yet to adopt even the most cursory of replay systems, incorrectly ruled it a home run and set 20 years of Yankee fan insufferability into motion. A petty fan might note that Garcia had received a slap on the risk for gambling and was given the boot years later for, of all things, blowing important calls. The Orioles stumbled forward for one more season, then took a nose-dive for the next fifteen years, blowing through GMs, skippers, and talent as our free-spending division counterparts enjoyed the spoils of their expenditures. Hell, even the Rays clawed their way to the World Series in 2008. The Rays!

But then, in 2012, the winds began to shift. The previous season's highlight had been, in the tremendous spiteful nature of perpetual underdogs, a meaningless final game in which the Orioles were able to rob the promising Red Sox of a playoff berth. I mention this both to revel in our small-minded victory and to illustrate the size of the cloud in which we fans labored to find silver linings. The 2012 season also overlapped with my first full year living in Boston. As a Baltimore resident, the Orioles' bumbling performances made them easy to ignore in favor of schoolwork and other interests. I'd flip through the Sun's sports section on weekends, and grant the doleful baseball recap a grimace on my way to the comics. But a new job and city with few acquaintances left me with an abundance of free time. This, coupled with the bombast of Boston sports fans, caused my tribalist hackles to rise in defiant support of Baltimore's orange-and-black ambassadors.

And it was my (mis)fortune that I tuned in just as the O's began to find their feet. 2012 featured the introduction of Manny Machado and brief glimpses at Dylan Bundy, the two prize jewels in our dust bowl of a farm system. Buck Showalter, our erudite skipper, found his footing in managing a roster of free-swinging batters, inept starting pitchers, and wildly effective bullpen. After fifteen years of a broken record looping the same funeral dirge, that year jerked the needle off-track in a myriad of ways. A position player earned an extra-innings win over another position player. Their record in close games was miraculous. Their roster was composed of misfit toys, castoffs, and the smoldering remains of Jim Thome.

They arrived in the playoffs with all the gravitas of the Kool-Aid man and sent the Texas Rangers packing in the wild card game. The losing pitcher was Yu Darvish, a strikeout golem for whom the Rangers had coughed up 110 million dollars. We won with Joe Saunders, whose name and career ERA are both so unassuming one might have reasonably assumed he sold pretzels between innings to earn a little extra money. The postseason run was cut short in the divisional series, by a combination of the highest MLB payroll and a demonic possession of Raul Ibanez. But it was enough.

Improbable turns in sports are often dubbed "Cinderella stories," but the Orioles felt much more like an episode of Mr. Magoo. The charming, clunky way in which they eked out close wins and goofed around with one another gave Baltimore fans the worst possible feeling: hope. They'd conjured this season out of thin air - why couldn't they do it again? This optimism is the same strain that convinces people in quicksand that escape is just a matter of struggling hard enough and we huffed it like spray paint.

And so it began. 2013 saw the motley crew reassemble with a winning record, but less success. That year was dominated by the feel-great Red Sox, who rode a team-wide statistical aberration and the best sports quote in a generation to a World Series title. The Orioles finished tied for 3rd in the division, and the fans were disappointed but optimistic. Two winning seasons in a row? The MLB home run leader? Everything's coming up Milhouse! The enthusiasm caught on in the front office, where Dan Duquette jettisoned struggling young pitcher Jake Arrieta in the hopes that proven veteran rental Scott Feldman would be the firestarter that propelled the Orioles to their championship destiny. Feldman pitched passably. Arrieta was never heard from again. Picking the farm system clean for a shot at a trophy is a bit like robbing Future Peter to pay Present Peter, but the Orioles had 18 months of above-average play under their belts - the future was clearly now.

2014 was better, which meant it was worse. In keeping with the proud new tradition of unsustainable success, the Orioles' normally tight-fisted owner shelled out $50 million dollars for herky-jerk pitcher  Ubaldo Jimenez, whose starts had the same stolid consistency as a rabid pitbull. New addition Nelson Cruz provided fireworks and kept the home run title in Charm City for a second consecutive year, and the team's Jenga tower of wins convinced Duquette to ship top prospect Eduardo Rodriguez for a few months of Andrew Miller. The Baltimore faithful crowed as the Birds romped through the divisional series, then were forced to invent new profanity watching the Orioles lineups get mowed down by the eventual pennant-winning Royals bullpen. Of course, we reasoned, we had gotten unlucky. Manny Machado had been hurt. Closer Zach Britton had had an off-series. They'd figure it out in 2015.

They didn't.

2015 dropped them back into 3rd place, but the team acted as though everything but their record suggested they were in the catbird seat. Dan Duquette tried to scrounge a few more runs by heaving another top pitching prospect out the door for a one-season wonder. As Zach Davies enjoys a solid season with the Brewers, one wonders if the Orioles management remembers that developmental players eventually develop. Again we fans clung to the few bright spots like buoys in the ocean. "Kevin Gausman looks pretty good!" We'd reassure each other on chat boards. "Chris Davis won the home run title again!" We gorged on the morsels and convinced ourselves the next season would be The One.

And we're here, and it's the same song. We've got 23 year-old ace Dylan Bundy, who managed to overcome horrific injuries and more horrific organizational development to emerge as a real potential star. Manny Machado is in the MVP discussion. Another bargain basement hitter is providing big dividends. And for the fans, it's enough. Enough to forget that the farm system is a ghost town and even the tumbleweeds are being traded for marginal talent. Enough to ignore that our $168 million dollar first baseman is plummeting toward the Mendoza line like Slim Pickens. Enough to convince ourselves that wearing our Orioles hats backward, no, forward, no, backward, is enough to shift the cosmic tides. Maybe just me on that last one. Anything to reassure ourselves that we've left the barren days behind, that we're out of the woods.

And as we dip out of first place and watch as better run teams enjoy better success earned from better philosophies, the little victories are enough to goad us once more into the breach, to give that rock another push up the mountain, to hope. Christ.