Last fall, when the revived Baltimore Orioles made their first journey to the playoffs in fifteen years, I was contacted by Sports Illustrated and asked if I had anything in the way of an essay. As a matter of fact, in the closing days of season, with the O’s on the heels of the hated Yankees for the division title, I was about ready to open a vein. What follows appeared in the October 1, 2012 edition of the magazine, which featured a cover shot of the Oriole outfielders jump-bumping in celebration of a victory. I was a proud fan indeed, though terrified as well that I had provoked the dreaded SI cover jinx.
In any event, the deep-seated fear in the hearts of all Baltimoreans — that 2012 was a one-off and the O’s would transform back into pumpkins and mice the following spring — seems at this point to be unwarranted. They are again contending in the AL East and still playing a smart, fresh brand of baseball. Therefore, this essay is no longer curse-vulnerable and its re-publication here on this site now will serve as a reverse keine hora. Those who understand a little Yiddish know that in saying so, I am cleverly removing any residue of bad juju and flipping it over onto the Yanks and Sox.
This is reprinted with the kind permission of Sports Illustrated, which does not ordinarily offer its content on the internet to non-subscribers. But there are times when all good and true men must endeavor to stand with Baltimore, Maryland. And in that spirit, the SI editors have graciously sidestepped their policy. From Birdland, I thank them.
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THEY DRIFT ON YOU. THEY DO.
One minute, they’re belt high and shading their eyes with a Rawlings mitt, brows furrowed at the green of the field, listening intently as you explain how the infield fly rule gathers the shards of an otherwise broken universe. Next minute, they realize that girls have a fundamental purpose, and they’ve parsed their last box score for a decade or so. Next moment after that, their minds are racing down deeper, wooded paths of their own choosing, and the batting splits for Wieters or the merits of trading for another corner outfielder cannot possibly matter when, say, the fearful symmetry of Monk’s chord voicings are to be admired, or the macroeconomic to- and-fro of Keynes-Hayek waits to be argued.
My son was born in 1994. Three years later, long before he could buy me a Natty Boh and bring it back to my bleacher seat, the Orioles went to the playoffs for the last time. I’m not sure I remember what happened with that. Something about some kid in the stands, Maynor or Maier or whatever. I don’t want to talk about it.
For a decade or so, he waited for our turn, and—as kids still do—he planned for the moment when it would be his turn as well. A southpaw, he’d heard me joke often that if he could get some movement on the ball, I wouldn’t have to pay for college. So he was out in the yard all the damn time, making his mother catch him when I wasn’t around. Once, when she told him not to throw so hard, to try to control his pitches, he shook his 10-year-old head in fierce disgust.
“Mom, don’t patronize me. I’m trying to do this for a living.”
Life was Ripken and a cast of thousands, and a wait-til-next-year mantra that began to rival anything ever heard in Brooklyn. But then, at 15, he had a cellphone and Facebook and, finally, a girlfriend. It was over. He had grown up in a losing town, with a losing team, and there were other passions in this world.
A month ago, as the Orioles were still strangely late for their summer swoon, I drove him to college in Boston. August slipped to September, and two weeks ago, finding myself pumped and alert at two in the morning, I pulled out my cell and fired him a text:
O’s win again on a run in bottom of ninth. Still tied for first.
The Apple phone made that hopeful air-foil noise as it sent the news north. Day after, nothing came back on it. Next game, I tried again:
Ok I need you to focus. O’s win today in the 14th. Thirteen extra inning games in a row they’ve won.
I waited an hour or so. No response. Then I walked down to the harbor and the nearest jersey shop, where, still, Ravens gear was selling better than O’s swag. I bought one of the cartoon-bird caps—glad they’re back; the ornithologically correct Oriole takes some of the blame for our long years in Babylon—and an Adam Jones jersey. I shipped them both with a note: “If you come home a Sox fan, you’re out of the will.”
It was pathetic and cloying, I know.
* * *
AS A MATTER OF RANK EXPECTATION, this is supposed to be the man-in-the-street piece, the return- of-the-pride ramble in which the long-suffering, bone-weary common folk of a second-tier, rust-belt American city are brought to life again by the winning antics of their no-name baseball franchise. The grime and pain of losers and also-rans are washed away with each magical success at the ballyard. The metropolis begins to believe in itself again, to greet the new daylight with small glances upward toward the heavens, with laughter and newfound kinship among rowhouse neighbors, who regale each other with last night’s on-field heroics as the children tumble into the street and head for school in a seaflow of orange-and-black ball caps and jerseys. Fathers come home from work, drop briefcases and grab mitts for a catch with sons, then adjourn to the den for a Talmudic reading of the latest box scores. Fresh graffiti is scrawled atop the RIPs and gang tags in the heart of the toughest Westside neighborhoods: orioles magic. fear da bird. And come the night of the big game, the mayor leads the rally on the steps of City Hall, flicks a switch and lights the ornate dome orange. A city rises as one.
Well, it’s been sort of like a montage from Major League IV, only not so much. For one thing, we weren’t entirely ready for this when they cued the song and the cameras caught us. The Orioles have been so bad for so long that our eyes weren’t exactly fixed on Camden Yards from the outset, and as the one-run and extra-inning wins began to accrue we were still nurturing past resentments—over Angelos, over the Jon Miller banishment, over the Albert Belle contract and the Schilling-Finley-Davis trade and a dozen other miscues. We were wise to these charlatans, and our hearts were held in reserve as they are every year, waiting not for a pennant race but for the opening kickoff and the arrival of purple jerseys and real possibility.
Three weeks to go in the regular season and the Orioles pull near-even with the hated Yankees and are actual favorites for a wild-card slot. And yet, good seats can be had at the Yard. With a rare Thursday day game on the television set in a South Baltimore diner, my cellphone rings and I find myself harangued by New York cousins, uncharmed by any Cinderella story. They’re watching the game as well, and they’re looking at empty seats along the baselines.
“Pennant race. September. And you can’t fill the box seats? Don’t even talk about Baltimore being a great baseball town.”
Through the phone, I can smell the arrogance, the entitlement. These are the people who used to outnumber us in our own ballpark, who could, on a bad day, drown out the locals with “let’s go Yankees” in the late innings. Once, writing for a television show, I conjured a story line in which a man was murdered at Camden Yards during a ball game. Stadium authority officials and Orioles execs shook their heads. Why would we let you show a murder at the stadium?
“A Yankees fan is the victim.”
They were intrigued enough to venture a second question:
“Who kills him?”
“Another Yankees fan.”
Still, this is a blood relative. I try to reason with the sonofabitch. Eschewing the usual small-market inequities and hypocrisies, I don’t even bother bringing up elephantine cable television contracts or those $1,500-a- night box seats in the Bronx that are just as noticeably empty on the baseline camera pans. I go instead to the practicalities of a postindustrial blue collar town:
“This isn’t New York. People here work. They can’t get off for a day game.”
“You guys are a half game out! The seats are f—— empty!”
“You’re drawing from what, 19 million? You know how many people are in the Baltimore metro area? Maybe a sixth or seventh of that. . . .”
“Sad, cuz. Pathetic.”
“Bite me, O pinstriped whore. “ I hang up, turning to the television in time to see the Orioles’ bullpen hold the line for yet another inning. I look around at the diner. Eight or nine people, a couple of waitresses, the cashier. All of them watching the television, quiet, pensive. No cheers, nothing demonstrable, but not a word of conversation either.
* * *
FACT IS, YOU ASKED THE WRONG GUY FOR THIS LITTLE ESSAY. For one thing, I’m not generally known as a glass-half-full kind of guy. I’m the fellow who writes all these dystopian sociopolitical dramas from whatever dark corner of the American experience offers the best chance for grievous tragedy. I’m not even a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I’m more the glass-broken-over-the-end-of-the-bar-and-used-to splay-the-jugular- of-whichever-character-stood-up-and-dared-assert-for-human-dignity-two-scenes-earlier guy. I’m that kind of guy.
So when Nick Markakis breaks his thumb in the season’s last month, I’m supposed to see that as foreshadowing. And when the O’s drop two of three to Oakland, I’m supposed to run with that as my leitmotif. As it ever was, as it ever shall be. Somewhere a 17-year-old urchin with bright eyes is sticking a needle in his arm. Somewhere, a misinformed Marine officer is calling an air strike on a civilian ville. Somewhere, a wry, humanist street musician is getting shot in the face.
For Sports Illustrated to call the bullpen of Baltimore writers and ask for Simon to get loose is a twisted little joke. What about John Waters? I mean, Hairspray, that opening number? Good morning, Baltimore! Or Taylor Branch, an O’s fan who chronicled the entire civil rights movement in prose. Talk about uplift. Talk about eyes on the prize. Or Barry Levinson, for chrissake. Levinson would be perfect for this. I mean, never mind that last, saintly home run in the The Natural—did you see his short flick on the Colts’ marching band? Dude had people crying real tears over the halftime band.
My wife, a first-rate novelist, grew up here. She’s the one with Brooks Robinson memorabilia scattered across her office. She’s the one who knows all the words to the World of Orioles Baseball song. She’s the one who met Ron Swoboda and actually told the man she was still aggrieved by 1969 and The Catch.
“It’s been 35 years,” he said. “You need to get over it.”
No,” she replied calmly. “I don’t.”
This could have been done right and proper. Instead, the plan is to squeeze warm blood and nostalgia and little-engine-that-could optimism from The Wire guy.
And it’s worse than you know because, honestly, I’m not from here. And I grew up hating the Orioles. Hating them more than a tetanus shot. Hating them way more than the Yankees. In my childhood the big bad birds from Baltimore were forever coming to town and stomping the very humanity out of the team that I truly loved. The Robinsons. Boog. Belanger. Palmer. McNally. Cuellar. What those guys did to my youth is harden me for a lifetime of writing unhappy endings.
I am from Washington. And I was born a Senators fan.
Does the darkness make sense now? Does it? You sick bastards.
* * *
IT IS APRIL 1988, and I am pretty much living inside the Baltimore Homicide Unit, a newspaperman who has finagled his way into a year with the murder police in a town ripe with bloodletting, hoping to write himself a book. In one interrogation room, Bunk Requer is writing up a witness statement on a Morrell Park cutting, and in the larger Box, I can hear Kincaid yelling at some 17-year-old prodigy who shot and killed a man over a three-piece chicken combo outside the Kentucky Fried on Fayette Street. I’m in the main squad room, trying to watch the ball game on the office black-and-white. Constantine plays with the rabbit ears, working to solve the insubordinate vertical hold. And the O’s are losing. Again.
It is wondrous, actually. Amazing. The dominant baseball franchise of my youth is on its way to ending the whole season in April, losing its first 21 games. The rest of the detectives are abject and disgusted, cursing the owner, the coaching, the players, the fates. One of the guys has a share in a season-ticket package and looks as if he’s ready to pull his .38 and fire five into the television, saving the last one for himself. A uniform walks in with a transport, another witness sent downtown from Kincaid’s crime scene. He hands off paperwork, waits a moment, watches Larry Sheets ground into a double play.
“Christ. Losing again? What’s the score?”
“This is worse than getting the clap from your sister.”
Constantine grunts a laugh. Good one, kid. An inning more and the TV is shut down. The detectives drift away. Me, I say nothing to anyone, of course, but from deep within, I can feel the shrunken Grinch-heart of a Senators fan growing. In fact, I can feel love everlasting. The O’s are really awful this year. They’re so bad, so desperate in fact, that I can once again devote myself to a baseball team.
I got to Baltimore in ’83. Even went to the first game of the World Series when someone laid a ticket on me. Watched impassively as the O’s beat the Phillies for their last title. Ripken, Murray, the Demper. But they weren’t mine. They were still the Visigoths who had raped and plundered their way through old RFK Stadium. But now, this exquisite misery, this Homeric run of failure that reminds me of Howard and Epstein, McMullen and Brinkman and Casanova, that gently fingers the broken part of my baseball soul.
I came aboard in ’88. Six years later, when my son was born, I was still waiting for what we all assumed would be a return to the power and the glory, to The Oriole Way. It never occurred to me that Ethan might grow up as I grew up, and that he might go away without the two of us sharing so much as a winning season.
* * *
A WEEK AGO, I SAT UP LATE, watching that 18-inning epic in Seattle. The game ended magnificently, and of course, I wanted to be around other people. Baltimoreans. Fans.
It was four in the damn morning. Still, I was wired. I walked down to the 7-Eleven for I don’t know what, hoping against hope. The aisles were empty, but a twenty-something kid was stumbling, half lit, around the register, trying to pay for a Big Gulp. He’d come from a house party, he told me. They’d been playing poker, but then the ball game got good, and instead of dealing cards, they sat around drinking, hearts in their hands, waiting for the Orioles to sneak away with another one.
“Even the guys who aren’t from here were into it. You gotta love it. I mean, a different hero every night. Taylor f—— Teagarden!”
“You from here?”
“All my life. I never seen a season like this. Have you?”
Not for a long while, I allowed. I wandered home, thought about texting my son, but no, this all comes too late. Too many years late.
Except the next night at 7:08 p.m., my phone throws out its little tone, and I see a text from an 18-year-old university freshman, who is with a childhood friend also in school in Beantown:
Sitting atop the Green Monster with Thomas Bottomley. Yelled “O” in the anthem. Now fearing for my life.
I thought of my son at Fenway, draped in that Adam Jones jersey, bird cap crowning him at the jauntiest of angles, surrounded by rows and rows of embittered Sox fans for whom this September is dry, empty death.
You go, brah, I texted him. Die like a commando.
The kid stays in the will. If he makes it back to the dorm, I mean.
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