In the fall of 1997, I was a 10-year-old boy vacationing with my father in Maine, while my favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, battled the Cleveland Indians for the American League title. On October 15, I watched with as much anxiety as a 10-year-old can possess as Jose Mesa closed out game six, ending the series for the Indians in a 1-0 win that took until the 11th inning to decide. The season was over.
The exciting year of watching my childhood favorites Brady Anderson, Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina, Randy Myers and more was put to an abrupt halt. It was the second appearance in a row for the Orioles in the American League Championship Series, and as fans commonly do, I looked forward to more success and the possibility of a World Series Championship the next year. Little did I know as I sat dejected on my motel bed, that my optimism and excitement would soon turn into years of disappointment and disgust.
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Fourteen years have passed since that day in 1997. Fourteen seasons have come and gone. I am now, at nearly 25, a conditioned and seasoned fan of a perennial loser. The highest win total in that span has been a mediocre 79, four games under .500. In the last five seasons, the once-proud franchise hasn’t even reached the 70-win mark, and has maintained a death-grip on last place in the American League East for four of them. Six different coaches have started seasons as the O’s skipper, each producing similar results. An endless list of failed free-agent experiments have come and gone, each tainting the Oriole-way in their own manner. It’s an organization that for decades boasted great character and premium players such as Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and more. Faces of the franchise were easy to come by for a long time. Bringing in players like Albert Belle, Sidney Ponson, Tony Batista and David Segui, however, slowly made the Orioles franchise a tough one to be passionate about.
Possibly the best ballpark in the majors is consistently empty. Fan attendance has been plummeting for years, with the only sellouts tending to come on opening day, or during series against the Yankees or Red Sox, when mass invasions of overwhelmingly irritating bandwagon fans are guaranteed to defile Camden Yards with their loathsome presence. Camden Yards used to be sacred. Devoted Baltimore fans flooded the yard, O-R-I-O-L-E-S chants were guaranteed to drown out any visiting team’s fans, and the Eutaw Street grills blazed, emanating an aroma that cast fortunate noses into states of euphoria. It was a baseball sanctuary, with each element combining into a perfect puzzle that sounded, smelled like and felt like everything baseball should be.
That euphoria has since been tainted as the urge to pull out my already thinning hair increases year after year. Confounding front office moves and on-field decisions leave me speechless at times. A prime example is Kevin Gregg. This sterling individual was allowed to continue as the closer for nearly the entire 2011 season, in spite of being the proud owner of a 4.37 ERA, allowing 58 hits and walking 40 in 59.2 innings. Former player and current announcer Jim Palmer could only give him the credit that “he doesn’t give in.” He also doesn’t throw strikes. A closer with almost as many hits and walks as innings? Pathetic. Gregg, exhibiting his flawless character, even blamed one of his numerous blown saves on a botched fielding play by young third basemen Josh Bell. Never mind the fact that he started the inning by giving up a hit, then hitting the following batter. The pain one must endure while witnessing this circus is unimaginable.
Each year, the only consolation is the addition of more high draft picks. Years of horrible win-loss records have allowed the Orioles to stockpile high picks, producing the appearance of a sparkling future. This was to be the year when some of those prospects mature and give the franchise a much-needed step in the right direction. Instead, they regressed. Jake Arrieta finished with an ERA over five, Chris Tillman was horribly inconsistent, moving up and down from triple-A, and franchise hopeful Brian Matusz finished the year with a 1-9 record and a comical ERA of 10.69, apparently being courteous enough to give each opponent extra batting practice. The leading ERA for an Orioles starter this year was a bloated 4.33 posted by Jeremy Guthrie.
Now what? All these high drafts and these are the results? The Orioles finished with the best record in the AL East after the All-Star break in 2010 after Buck Showalter took the reigns, then came out and belly flopped this year. Witnessing this debacle each year is depressing to say the least, and has left me feeling lost. The last few years of drafting high has not produced the results the Orioles’ brass hoped for, and, now, the light at the end of the tunnel may be more years away.
These 14 years have been difficult for me. It has tested my patience, proven my loyalty and given me appreciation for the little things an Orioles fan must look for in order to maintain any type of positive outlook. I was not born with the gene many people possess that enables a person to change the teams they favor. While I am a native of Alexandria, Virginia, I will never be a Washington Nationals fan. The Orioles were the only team growing up, and they will always be the only team I will be emotionally attached to. It is a relationship, and you don’t just leave your spouse if things get tough. She used to be beautiful, our dates were passionate and we never fought. Now she has let herself go, we don’t go out and disagreements are commonplace. But I remain faithful, in hopes that one day she and the relationship will return to its old state of fiery passion.
There will come a day when the Orioles will be great again. They’ll be in the playoffs each year, display outstanding pitching, and the character of the players will exemplify what it is to be an Oriole. When that day comes, I will be there. I will stand and cheer along with a population of fans that have been through hell and back with their team. I will share embraces, most likely cry, and know that all the years of suffering were worth it. I will be there alongside other loyal fans in a packed Camden Yards the day the Orioles celebrate their first World Series title since 1983. And I’ll know that while it’s only Baltimore, it’s the closest thing to an Earthly heaven.