Thursday, September 4, 2014
Scott McGregor, 1982 Fleer #172
I feel like I've been sounding some variation on this theme for much of the past three seasons, but this is alien territory for me. The O's did not play a single meaningful game in September for 14 years. The Orioles were overpaid, over-the-hill losers in 1998. They were anonymous, nosediving losers in 2002 (4-32 after August 23!). They were regressing-to-the-mean, malcontent losers in 2005. They were overmatched, laughingstock losers all through the Dave Trembley years of 2007, 2008, and 2009...he was gone by the summer of 2010, replaced by Buck Showalter (following the near-endless interim tenure of Juan Samuel) and leaving behind a gruesome 21-59 aggregate record in September.
Rooting for the Orioles seemed futile and hopeless more often than not in the first dozen years of this century, but never moreso than in September. Winter and spring brought pie-in-the-sky, best-case-scenario daydreams. The first half of the season was a small enough sample size for even the most wretched and raw clubs to scrape together a few good weeks here and there and maintain respectability. But by the season's final month, the grind of 130-plus games seemed to beat both fan and team into submission. Five months of constant travel, accumulated aches and pains, and the ascendancy of superior competitors took their toll. The lack of roster depth in the Birds' organization would be laid bare, night after ugly night. With school in session and football in season, crowds dwindled away to nothing. I'd turn on a game, or more rarely drag myself out to Camden Yards, and watch faceless scrubs get pounded by all comers. It just seemed inevitable.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of players who appeared in Baltimore's starting lineup in the team's season finales from 1998 through 2011: Lyle Mouton, Eugene Kingsale (twice!), Jesse Garcia, Mike Figga, Fernando Lunar, Rick Bauer (also twice!), John Stephens, Carlos Mendez, Jack Cust, Jose Morban, Eric DuBose, Bernie Castro, Walter Young, Sal Fasano, Fernando Tatis (this was 2006, not 1999), Chris Gomez, Brandon Fahey (God help us, also twice!), Raul Chavez, Tike Redman, Luis Hernandez, Scott Moore, J. R. House, Freddie Bynum, Brian Burres, Michael Aubrey, Lou Montanez, Jeff Fiorentino, Felix Pie, Josh Bell, Alfredo Simon.
If that was hard to read, imagine how hard those games must have been to watch. It might seem unfair to include 2011 (by way of starting pitcher Alfredo Simon), but the warm and fuzzy end results don't change the fact that the desiccated corpse of Vlad Guerrero batted cleanup that night.
2012 will always be the ultimate "is this really happening?" season for O's fans. That team wasn't expected to be adequate, much less a 93-win postseason entrant. But that team also needed every one of its 20 September and October wins to squeak by the Rays and the Angels...all of that just for the privilege of playing a sudden-death elimination game on the road against Yu Darvish and the powerful Rangers. There was no time to catch your breath, no chance to look ahead and count down and make plans.
So here we are. 81 wins (that number alone was unreachable for years). 57 losses. Nine and a half games up. 24 left to play. 16 away from clinching the division. Two back of the Angels for the league's best record, and with it home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I'm as superstitious as the next baseball fan. I worry about jinxes and overconfidence and setting myself up for disappointment. But if you can't enjoy the tale that these standings tell, what hope is there for you? So I'll keep hoping, projecting, dreaming, and counting down.