After years of futility, Orioles give us something to cheer for again
The author, a Baltimore native, has endured many years of Orioles heartbreak
Yes, O's had Cal Ripken Jr., but there also was Joe Orsulak and Glen Davis
As Orioles fight toward playoffs, diehards all waiting for their Lifetime moment
|David Simon in SI|
|David Simon, the award-winning creator of The Wire and a Senators-turned-Orioles fan, wrote this week's cover story on his now-beloved baseball team. His wife, Laura Lippman, penned an accompanying essay for SI.com. To read more of Simon's story and to purchase Sports Illustrated, go here.|
|Inside Sports Illustrated Podcast|
|Special guest David Simon, creator of The Wire and co-creator of Treme, joins the podcast to discuss his essay on the rise of the 2012 Orioles, whose run -- by any standard, empirical or metaphysical -- has been nothing short of a miracle.|
I cannot speak of this. I must not speak of this. Not that I'm superstitious or anything, but I went to one game at [Name Redacted] Park this summer and my team lost. I don't dare go back. There was a 4 o'clock game Monday, the first in a doubleheader, and I skipped it. The whole point of being a self-employed writer is going to afternoon games during the week. I check the standings late in the day, hoping to persuade the universe that I don't care. Hear that, universe? I don't care! When that dweeb on National Public Radio says my team is merely lucky, that some stupid stat proves they shouldn't even be in the hunt -- La, la, la, I can't hear you, although I am making fun of you on Facebook.
I live close enough to Ravens M&T Stadium to hear the cheers, if not close enough to realize that the crowd on Sunday night was chanting "Bull----, bull----, bull----" over an officiating call. The spectators at [Name Redacted] Park, while only a few blocks farther away, cannot be heard at my house. Some haters have said that Oriole fans are too polite, which proves we're not real fans. To be honest, I once attended a meaningless end-of-season game -- they've been meaningless for a long time now -- where the out-of-towners drowned us out.
But maybe it's quiet this year because we're holding our collective breath.
The Orioles were born in 1954 and I came along five years later. My family moved to Baltimore in 1965 and the Orioles won the World Series in four straight games a year later. I was seven years old. Of course I became a fan. Would I have been one if I had grown up with a less illustrious team? That can never be known. I grew up rich and, like most rich kids -- I'm looking at you, Romney -- I didn't realize how good I had it. Earl, Brooks, Boog, Frank, Mark "the Blade" Belanger, Andy Etchebarren. Those names come off my head natural, as we say in Bawlmer. True story: When longtime Baltimore peace activist Brendan Walsh asked me if I knew about the Baltimore Four, forerunners to the Catonsville Nine, I responded in all puzzled sincerity: "You mean McNally, Palmer, Cuellar and Dobson?" Four 20-game winners in one year. I grew up thinking it was going to be that way forever and ever.
And then it wasn't.
I hate fans who fetish-ize losing, who make a religion out of being cursed. I'm looking at ... Actually the fans of these particular teams scare me; I'm not going to call them out by name. But I hate them almost as much as I hate Field of Dreams, with all its mopey grandiloquence about baseball. (Field of Dreams, by the way, is not a baseball movie. Major League is a baseball movie. Bull Durham is a baseball movie. Mr. Baseball is a baseball movie. Even The Scout is a baseball movie. Field of Dreams is a Lifetime movie for men, to paraphrase one of the greatest lines ever written by Pauline Kael.)
Up and down, up and down, then just down. I have tried to find a way, an Oriole Way, of rooting for a team that has the odds stacked against it without being a bitter sad sack. This requires dignity and patience. Even my 2-year-old daughter, a toddler in every respect, knows that some things cannot be rushed. "Wait, wait, wait," she says, eager for pizza, pancakes, Pooh, the playground. "Wait, wait, wait." It's good preparation for an Oriole fan. Wait, wait, wait.
I have been waiting. I have kept my head down, trying not to get too invested in this season, so -- is no one talking about 1989? Do I dare, after indulging in my mini-screed about Field of Dreams, tell my own father-daughter story?
I guess I do.
In 1989, the Orioles followed the infamous losing streak of 1988 by going all the way to the final weekend, still in contention for the AL East. (No wild card in those days, children.) It was a season of improbable heroes. Yes, Cal Ripken Jr. was showing up for work every day, but Joe Orsulak had the highest team batting average at .285. The roster also included Curtis Schilling, Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley, who would be traded two years later for Glenn Davis. Glenn Davis! GLENN DAVIS! It's like my Niagara Falls. Slowly I turn ...
I'm sorry, where was I? Blah, blah, blah, something about dignity?
The player I remember from 1989 is Dave Johnson. A pitcher, low in the rotation. ERA of 4.23. Started only 14 games that season. Won four, lost seven. Came to the Orioles in a trade with the Houston Astros. He had begun his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team that ruined Sister Sledge for me. But he was a hometown boy who pulled out some improbable victories at Memorial Stadium.
The same summer that Johnson was brought up from the minors, I finally got hired by the Evening Sun, scrappy, underdog sibling to the somewhat self-important Sun, which happened to be where my father had worked since we moved to Baltimore. Also in residence was some hotshot cop reporter from the D.C. suburbs, although I didn't meet him for another two years -- he was on book leave, writing something about homicide detectives -- and we would not marry until 17 years later. When the Sun dubbed itself "One of the world's best newspapers," the Evening Sun adopted the motto: "One of the world's newspapers." The Sun compared itself to The New York Times. The Evening Sun, by contrast, once consulted H.L. Mencken's spirit via Ouija Board, the planchette powered by its most senior reporter and its most junior, which happened to be me. How long will we last, we asked Mencken. The board spelled out: TWO EDS. We thought it was two editions, but the Ouija Board -- invented in Baltimore, by the way -- might have meant two editors. If so, it was dead on the money and the Evening Sun was dead by 1995.
But this was all before me on the day in 1989 that I headed to my interview. I said to my father: "It's so hard, so nerve-wracking, trying to find a new job."
My father, an editorial writer and therefore cursed with the ability to see both sides of everything said: "Yes. And if you don't mind my saying so, it doesn't help that you're going about it all wrong."
Gosh, dad, who would mind hearing such stirring words of encouragement moments before a key job interview? Isn't this where you're supposed to say something like, How about a catch?
I tell that story only so people understand how much it meant to me when, after I landed the job and started making my way onto Page 1, sometimes scooping my snooty rivals at the morning paper, my father then said: "You know, you're the Dave Johnson of journalism. Traded by Texas" -- I had come from the San Antonio Light -- "and now a hometown hero."
OK, so that's my Lifetime movie moment. But at least I'm honest enough to call it that. It took me eight years to land a job in my hometown. The Orioles '89 season felt like a gift, a long-overdue reward. I've seen almost every baseball movie ever made. I knew how this was supposed to end.
Only it didn't.
The dream fizzled the last weekend of the season. I walked the streets of North Baltimore, dazed by how bad I felt. This was the price of fandom, something I had forgotten. From 1981-1988, working in Texas, I had enjoyed the Orioles from a literal and figurative distance that had muted the highs and lows. Now I was back and all distance was lost. I am tempted to quote a W.B. Yeats epigraph here, but that strikes me as whimsical, Field of Dreams-icle. Baseball is not poetry and it's not America and it's not a religion and it's not father-and-sons, or even fathers-and-daughters. It is, to quote the Kevin Costner film that gets baseball right, but women wrong, a very simple game that good-naturedly shrugs off all the metaphorical baggage we pile on it.
However, I will quote H.L. Mencken, writing in the Evening Sun because, yes, Baltimore's best-known journalist worked for MY paper. (Boo-yah! In your face, dad and husband! You get Russell Baker and J. Anthony Lukas, we have Mencken and William Manchester. We win, we win, we win. Not that my household is the least bit competitive.)
Mencken wrote in 1925: A Baltimorean is not merely John Doe, an isolated individual of Homo sapiens, exactly like every other John Doe. He is John Doe of a certain place -- of Baltimore, of a definite home in Baltimore. It was not by accident that all the peoples of the Western world, very early in their history, began distinguishing their best men by adding of this or that place to their names.
I am Laura Lippman of Baltimore and the Baltimore Orioles are my team for life. In dreams begin responsibilities. Damn, Yeats sneaked in here after all.
Laura Lippman is a crime novelist who has published 17 novels, one novella, and a book of short stories, most of them set in Baltimore. Once, in a fit of loneliness, she read husband David Simon's fantasy baseball magazines and told him to draft Dustin Pedroia for $1 in his rookie year for the Boston Red Sox. Her husband's team won. She didn't even get to hold the trophy. (Lippman's husband's first cousin, who is in a roto league with her husband, wrote to say that Lippman made this suggestion in 2007, whereas Pedroia's true rookie year with the Sox was 2006. The cousin is currently in third place in the league. Her husband is in first.)