Against all odds, I became a bit of a seamhead this summer. In my Maryland youth I was a diehard O’s fan, for the O’s of the ’70s and ’80s and middle ’90s were run the way a team — any team — ought to be run. But the ruinous Reign of Angelos the past 15 years rendered me a refugee from the diamond. And in truth, I also became grievously disillusioned by chemicals’ intrusion into, and bastardization of, our national pastime. It wasn’t just that O’s management presided over lots of losing; they didn’t seem much to care. And baseball didn’t just cheat and cheat rampantly; it seemed not much to care that it was.
But more recently the sport appears to have cleaned itself up, and the magical 2012 Baltimore Orioles have brought me home again. They are a vagabond outfit of meager to middling batting averages and unproven arms, but Christ they come to the park every night and play their guts out. I’d grown weary of being underwhelmed by the zillionaires wearing our crests in this region for a good many years, and so what the O’s have done this spring and summer and early fall has awakened the essential, primal fan in me. You look up and down that lineup and you can’t imagine their being competitive with the big money clubs in the American League East, but here they are, well past Labor Day, and they’re perched in first. First! You want to label them overachievers, but doesn’t nearly 160 games fairly prevent that? It all seems so miraculous to me.
The Yankees were in Baltimore last weekend for a big series, with first place on the line, and Camden Yards, oh so iconic Camden Yards, was filled. But not filled as has been customary the past 15 years with Yankees fans. Instead, Camden Yards was a Sea of Orange. Orioles’ players in recent days have described their reinvigorated home as resembling a college football stadium on a Saturday with the big rival in town. 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of this legendary ballpark; perhaps this anniversary has cast a spell of prosperity over its tenants. I feel 15 again following this team.
For me, this is the best of all possible sports stories — redemption, renewal, Magic, the favorite club of my youth not just returning to long-lost winning in my middle age but winning precisely the way it did during its Glory Years — the Oriole Way.
In my youth I experienced Magic on 33rd Street in Charm City; it’s returned, in force, this summer, down by the Inner Harbor. Over a summer during which every expert forecast had the O’s lodging again in last in the East they’ve battled through a litany of injuries — key ones — relied upon a legion of no-name callup contributors, gotten consistent heroism from the ‘pen, and somehow assured themselves their first winning season in . . . 15 years.
And comparatively speaking, they’ve done it on the cheap. The New York Yankees of course have baseball’s highest payroll, an unfathomable $197,962,289. Shockingly brutal Boston this season has baseball’s third highest payroll, at $173,538,938. The two greatest stories in baseball in 2012, the O’s and the Nats, come in at 19th and 20th, respectively, in payroll, a little over $81 million each — well less than half the tally of the big boys.
Both clubs have drafted well, have sagely developed their promising young talent, and been especially infused with energy and difference-making this season by precocious talents: Manny Machado for the O’s, Bryce Harper for the Nats. What a thought: the Capital region was a baseball wasteland less than 10 years ago; in six weeks’ time it might host the entirety of the World Series. That’s big-time dreaming, of course, but it’s been that kind of summer here.
Washington has had a marvelous baseball season, but the Nats’ success is only slightly elevated over what was generally forecast — most who follow baseball knew of the marvelous quality and depth of their starting rotation. Davey Johnson, an Oriole at heart, has masterfully guided the Nats, and I’ve greatly enjoyed his near nightly quizzing of the postgame press for Orioles’ scores. He, too, is caught up in the miracle-making up North.
The Orioles are a preposterous 27-7 in one-run games this season, a prosperity percentage that should it be maintained over the final three weeks of the season would know no rival in the history of the sport. These O’s are seriously clutch.
When Nick Markakis got shelved with a busted up thumb this past Saturday night I accepted it as a sign that this Miracle Fate for the O’s had met its match. Markakis isn’t just the Orioles’ heart and soul, but he’d moved up to the leadoff spot after the All Star break and solidified the club’s weakest position. So naturally in their first series without Nick the O’s swept the quality and contending Devil Rays.
I have had some debate this summer with the permanently-scarred-by-Angelos set. They’ll get no lecture about forgiveness from me; I harbored their principled invective for Angelos for 14 years. They have every principled right to feel still as they do. But the magic of this Orioles’ baseball season is that it’s managed also to wholly distract me really from that disillusionment and divorce. Each time I’ve passed through the Camden Yards turnstiles this season I’ve lost myself in the ballpark’s original charm (more anniversary spell?), risen up from my seats from thrill from the on-field drama and pride at the no-names carrying it off, and rekindled so many magic-thrill-feelings from my youth. And then there’s the added allure of the Yards this season: a new center-field, general admission party deck whose limited seats are hoarded fully two hours before each first pitch. It is a glorious view of a glorious ballpark there. There seems almost a beer tap for every patron at the expansive saloon there, and during downpours hardly anyone leaves his coveted seat.
All season long the Orioles have surrendered more runs than they’ve scored, and yet somehow managed to carve out a rate of winning that’s pushing toward 20 games over .500. I can only conveive of one explanation for this glaring discrepancy: Magic. I’d waited patiently all summer for the dean of baseball writers, the Post’s Thomas Boswell, to chime in on the Magic settling in about Eutaw Street, and he did so yesterday, making the wait most worthwhile, as I knew he would. “The O’s,” Boz wrote, “are a team held together at times with spit and string.”
“These are magic moments again in Baltimore,” he added. “Don’t be quick to think they’ll end.”