On Facebook the other day, after another late-night, extra-inning win, an old work friend who I haven’t seen in 10 years posted this: “My life these days is waiting for the next Orioles game.” I understand, this autumn of 2012, the sentiment, though I had nearly forgotten. It’s been a while, around these parts, but, unbelievably, there’s a pennant chase on. Unbelievably, the Orioles matter, and it’s like not having Christmas, not having it, hearing about it, hearing about it, not having it, and then, one year, a tree appears in the living room.
It’s true, what they say about the pennant chase, that there’s nothing like it in all of sports. It’s a daily shot of strong coffee, a daily dive into the cold mountain lake, the daily business of caring, deeply, about what happens on a particular patch of downtown grass, or on two of them. It’s the business of hoping your team just wins, no matter how,and that the other team just loses, possibly terribly, so that their pitchers dread their work, so that their hitters cry. You want your team to win, for themselves, for your dirty, strange, beautiful city, for your friends sitting at the bar at The Dizz, on Remington Avenue, for the detailed coverage in The Sun, for yourself.
The last time a pennant chase happened to me, it was the fall of 1992, and it wasn’t the Orioles and the Yankees but instead the Pirates and the other team from New York. The ways we gathered our scores were different, back then. There was radio, but only sometimes. There was TV, but only rarely. Mainly, there was “Sportscenter” at 11 o’clock and if you missed that, there was, the next morning, the Cumberland Times-News, and if you missed that, I don’t remember how you kept up.
That season, staying up late with my brothers to catch “Sportscenter,” we cared about the Pirates and little else. We didn’t care about the Red Sox or the Dodgers or the Tampa Bay Rays, who didn’t yet exist. We didn’t care about football or tennis or any kind of car racing. We didn’t care about Bill Clinton or the first George Bush. We certainly didn’t care about school. Maybe we cared about girls. Our days pivoted on that one thing. How’d the Pirates do? And did the Mets lose and did they maybe, by chance, all break their legs in a plane crash? All else faded while that one daily game, like a sponge in water, swelled to double, triple its size. If the Pirates won, sleep came warm and easy. If they lost, the world outside the bedroom window turned gray, and mean, and uncaring.
For a while that fall, the world was warm. The Pirates won the division, and everything looked good until Sid Bream of the Atlanta Braves slid into home in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the championship series. My dad, saying nothing, switched off the TV and said “good night.” I didn’t say anything, because the warmth had gone and it was suddenly cold. After that, the Pirates disintegrated, and I didn’t care about a baseball team, not really, for another 20 years.
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But here come the Orioles, of Baltimore, of Charm City, my city, and so much like this bruised, honest town on the Chesapeake that I can’t help but love them. These Orioles are not stars. They just lost their leadoff hitter for the year. Their starting second baseman is an automatic out. But they’ve been winning. They keep winning. They can’t lose in extra innings. They win the close games. Their closer is all jerks and gracelessness but nobody can hit him. Their designated hitter is 42 years old. They have no business, in other words, battling the Yankees for the division crown. I know it’s the oldest sports cliché around—the scrapper challenging the power—but I can’t help it. I’m hooked, cliché or not. I’d give a hundred bucks to see the Orioles go to the playoffs. Two hundred. Name a figure. I’d consider it.
We’ve got a TV but we get only a handful of channels, and so I’ve gone back, these past few months, to the radio. The broadcasts come in tinny and there seem to be only three advertisements which they cycle through every half-inning, and it’s tough not knowing if a fly ball is a moon blast or an easy out. But my new broadcaster friends update me about every change-up and slider, about the hot dog wrappers flying around Fenway, about the 6-4-3 double plays, about game-winning doubles off the right-field wall at that brick-and-steel stadium downtown.
And though, by the time of the last, victorious out, there is often snoring happening elsewhere in this apartment, lately I’ve been clapping, loudly, just once, before turning off the little radio. And lately, when the sleep comes, it comes warm and easy, because of the winning but also because I’m beginning to love this team, and I, falling asleep, suspect that in some small, never-to-be-proven way, this team, whose name I know but which does not know mine, is beginning to love me back.