These are the true dog days of summer. Football teams are in training camps, sweating the sweat they hope separates them from the other teams who are sweating equally in another city. Baseball teams have come to the conclusion that they’re contenders or they’re not. The haves are getting players from the have-nots.
Being from Baltimore, this is usually the time as a kid when I would have a passing interest in what the Colts were doing at Goucher College in between checking the box score of the latest Oriole game. The Colts are long gone, and the Orioles aren’t even a shell of their former self. Summer is no fun when your team isn’t in contention. Now I know what those Royals fans felt like for all those years.
For about a twenty-five year stretch starting in the mid-60’s the Baltimore Orioles rivaled the Yankees, the Canadiens and the Packers as the winningest franchises around. The Orioles won pennants, won World Series and when they weren’t winning, they were contending until the last week of the season. All that’s changed. And how.
But some parts of it are still the same. Go to Camden Yards and there are legions of knowledgeable fans in the ballpark, paying customers, now getting to know the new names, numbers and faces of the players wearing the Oriole uniform. It is the uniform people follow. The organization, the tradition, the pride of a team “belonging” to their city.
There was always an “Oriole Way.” In fact, they wrote a book about it. It came down to very simple things like how to hit the cutoff man, how to start the double play, how to execute a sacrifice bunt. All basic, but all the “right” way to do things. Players liked it. I know, now you’re saying “he’s old school.” But even players now like it. Look at B.J. Surhoff’s reaction to getting traded to the Atlanta Braves last week. Surhoff was going to a team in contention from a team without a chance. He didn’t pack his bags and go running. He cried. He bemoaned leaving Baltimore, the city, the people and the fans.
There is something special that bonds a player to a city like that, something akin to what happens in St. Louis. That’s why it was doubly appalling to hear Will Clark say how exciting it was in a Cardinal uniform after being traded there from the Orioles.
Baseball is different from other sports. You don’t have to be 7 feet tall or 300 pounds to play it. Everyday, normal looking guys excel at the game. The rituals of spring training, the excitement of opening day, the long season, the home stands and the road trips, the history of the game all separate baseball from everything else. It’s a marathon with its own rhythms. The season has its highs and lows. A team that wins six out of every ten games dominates the league. A batter who is successful just three out of every ten attempts is a star.
Fans come from all over to see a game. They already know the players. And they know just about everything about him. Batting average, slugging percentage, hometown, and minor league history, none of it gets past a baseball fan. Some make it to one game. Others are there, night after night, checking to see the small things that can make a difference.
So how did Baltimore fall from grace and into the pack of Brewers, Royals and Rangers? Ownership. An owner sets the tone for his franchise. When Peter Angelos bought the Orioles, he brought his own brand of brash leadership to the organization. Did I say leadership? Angelos’ self-styled ownership has taken the Orioles from a once proud position as an organization to the near laughingstock of all of baseball. Win now, or else has been his edict to all who have worked for him. That’s not how you win in baseball! Even George Steinbrenner finally figured out that your baseball people need to run your baseball team. The Yankees have nurtured players like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams through their organization, making them the backbone of winning.
Angelos doesn’t understand any of this. I’m still checking the box score everyday; I’m still waiting for Cal to return to the lineup. I’m still wearing my Orioles hat and each day somehow is a little brighter after an Oriole win. But for the first time, I’ve thought twice about going to a game. Put money in Angelos’ pocket?
I’m sure I will at some time.
But I wish somebody would bring my Orioles back.