Monday, March 21, 2011

The Evolution of an O's Fan

By Ben

I was born in Boston in the fall of 1986 right in the heart of Red Sox Nation.  I was born two weeks after the infamous play that would define Red Sox Nation until 2004.  As an infant I did not know left from right or up from down, but I did know that I did not want to be a Red Sox fan.  When I was 6 weeks old my family picked up and moved to New York City where I was dropped right into the eye of a hurricane.  Yankees fans to my left and Mets fans to my right, here I am stuck in the middle of HELL.  We lived in the Big Apple for two years until salvation came in the form a job offer for my dad in Northern Virginia, the heartbeat of the DMV.  So the young Kaplan family moved again and my baseball fan-hood was on the cusp of its formation.

The Baltimore Orioles were the DMV’s adopted baseball team.  The Senators left D.C. in 1971 and there were no other baseball teams in town, so the DMV turned to the Baltimore Orioles to cure their baseball fever.  When my family settled in Virginia, the Orioles were the team that was on Home Team Sports (HTS) 162 nights of the year. The booming baritone of Jon Miller echoed on the radio, and the silky smooth color commentary of Al Lowenstein came out of the T.V. set. This was the team who had beat writers working for the Washington Post, this was team who was covered locally and was considered the HOME team.  In 1992, my father took me to my first Orioles game; it was played at the newly opened Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  With a hot dog in hand, we finally found our seats on the third base line.  I was a young ball player with a season of T-ball under my belt, (.980 avg. 15 HRs, 30 Rbis in 11 games. Those numbers could be skewed but I feel like they are fairly accurate) and baseball was hands down my favorite sport to watch and play.  My dad put his arm around me and pointed out to the shortstop position and said, “Son, that’s Cal Ripken Jr.  He is the Orioles best player and one of the best players in the league.  That’s the guy to watch.”  For nine straight innings I watched Cal’s every move.  I watched how he set himself before the pitch, I studied his batting stance, and I memorized how he fielded the ball on defense and effortlessly slung it side-armed across the diamond.  Cal quickly became my favorite player and I even emulated his assortment of batting stances in my little league games.  The starting pitcher for the Birds that game (and for most of the other games we attended until 2000) was the young right hander Mike Mussina.  “The Moose” became my guy and I would do his patented “dip” when holding runners on base in my little league games.  In fact during on foe my more dominating performances (3 IP, 1 hit, 5 K’s, and 2 unearned runs) one of my pal’s dad turned to my dad and asked, “Who does he think he is? Mike Mussina?” To which my pops responded, “You’re damn right!”  I hitched my cart to the Orioles bandwagon and watched this team explode onto the scene during my formative years.
Mike "The Moose" Mussina
Cal Ripken Jr.

My fan-hood with the Orioles has been compared to an all-American marriage.  It started out hot and heavy, the love was true.  Then the honeymoon phase kicked in and even though there were signs of bad times ahead, they were pushed to the back burner because the good times (albeit were in the past) seemed so likely to emerge again.  In 2005, a new sexier and sleeker team moved to town (The Washington Nationals) and even though I developed a wondering eye, my heart still belonged to my first love.  Thirteen straight seasons of finishing with a losing record (which can be equated to 13 years of a sex-less marriage) did not help, but this marriage was strong and a little bit of spice was waiting just around the corner.  A new manager, a strong young nucleus, and an off season for the ages have done for this fan, what a new sexual awakening can do for a middle aged marriage.   Good times are ahead, and here is a little more elaboration so I do not sound like a raving lunatic.

The Hot and Heavy Stage:  This was when I first became an O’s fan.  Guys like Cal, Brady Anderson, the Moose, Mike Deveraux, and Joe Orsulak were the foundation.  I watched every game every season and I could not get enough even though the O’s could not crack the playoffs.  Then came the 1996 Baltimore Orioles.  Through a series of shrewd trades, and key free agency signings, not to mention the hiring of World Series Champion Manager Davey Johnson, the 1996 O’s were ready to compete and make serious noise in the Major Leagues.  The additions of Robbie Alomar and Raffy Palmeiro strengthened the right side of the infield, and trades for Bobby Bonilla and Todd Zeile filled the holes (off the field as well) in the Orioles’ lineup.  Key contributors also included B.J. Surhoff, Chris Hoiles, and everybody’s favorite first round pick…Jeffrey Hammonds.  The starting rotation was top heavy with Mike Mussina and the sinker ball extraordinaire Scott Erickson a.k.a. Mr. Lisa Guerrero.  Our third starter was a younger and slightly svelter David Wells, who didn’t do much for us but eat innings like it was the post game spread.  The bullpen was lights out with set up men Alan Mills, Arthur Rhodes, and a young hot-headed fire baller named Armando Benitez.  The closer was none other than Randy Myers who nailed down 31 saves that season.  Unsung hero of this bullpen was 87 year old (actually 41 in 1996) Jesse Orosco.  This was a quality ball club that knocked off the Cleveland Indians team in the ALDS thanks to a little controversial home run heroics from Robbie Alomar.  In the final week of the season Robbie got into an argument with the home plate umpire and “allegedly” spit in the umpire’s face.  Alomar would be suspended by the MLB, but appealed it in order to play in the playoffs and have his suspension start at the beginning of the 1997 season. 
After casting aside Rick Vaughn’s squad, the Orioles engaged in an epic ALCS vs. the bitter rival, the New York Yankees.  Game 1 of the series showed that this series would not go the Orioles’ way simply because the umpires did not want to see the O’s win.  I’m not getting into it, I’ll just let you watch this and let you be the judge...

The 1996 season ended in a bitter and unfair fashion, but the 1997 Orioles were motivated and empowered by that nasty taste in their mouth.  This was the “Wire to Wire” season, which simply means that O’s were in first place in the A.L. East from start to finish.  Essentially the A.L. East was fresh fish in prison, and the Birds were big and strong cellmate. Ya dig? David Wells and his size 88 pants were sent packing and was replaced by the crafty vet Jimmy Key.  This was addition by subtraction in the rotation and there was more food in the locker room after the games.   The lineup remained intact with the additions of smooth fielding shortstop Mike Bordick (Cal moved to 3b for the betterment of the team), and Eric Davis replaced Bobby Bo as the token brother and resident Pimp McSwag in the locker room. The weak link for this team was Armando Benitez.   He was notorious for blowing leads and would be the reason the Orioles would lose the 1997 ALCS to the Cleveland Indians.  The O’s took game 1 behind the strong pitching of Scott Erickson, only to see Armando blow a 4-2 lead in the 8th inning of Game two when he surrendered a 3-run bomb to Marquis Grissom.  Game 3 was in Cleveland and summed up Mussina’s career as an Oriole.  He pitched his butt off and received no run support.  Mussina struckout 15 Indians and left the game losing 1-0.  The O’s tied it up at 1 only to lose in the 12th inning.  Moose took the mound in game 6 with the O’s down 3-2 in the series.  With their backs up against the wall, the Moose turned in another amazing effort only to exit the game with the score tied at 0-0.  In the Top of the 11th, Armando Benitez strolled to the mound and the O’s faithful collectively dropped their heads.  Armando quickly gave up the game’s first run by giving up a home run to Tony Fernandez who had amassed 94 homers in 17 full big league seasons.  Translation: Benitez sucks.  This signified the end of the Orioles’ 1997 season and also the end of an era of winning.  

Matrimonial Rutt:  After the 1997 season, the reigning A.L. Manager of the Year Davey Johnson was fired by owner Peter Angelos for reasons known only to Angelos; this would be the 156th mistake in a long line of terrible decisions by this horrible excuse of a man.  Angelos also refused to pay pending free agents Roberto Alomar or Rafael Palmeiro the money they so clearly deserved and both left via free agency.  Albert Belle was brought in to replace the massive hole left by fan favorite and cancer survivor Eric Davis.  Let’s just say that did not go well (Angelos mistake number 237).  The Orioles began racking up losses and Cal, Moose, Brady, and Mike Bordick were surrounded by turds.  The 2000 Season would become one of the most disheartening Orioles’ seasons in recent memory.  Mike Mussina was in his final season under contract and it became very clear Angelos would not be opening his checkbook to one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.   When the July 31st trade deadline rolled around, the O’s were at a crossroads and the notorious “fire sale” took place.  Orioles veterans and fan favorites (Bordy and Surhoff) were traded away for minor leaguers who never amounted to anything.  This would be like if a truck owner turned in his hemi-motor and got back used brake pads, a used timing belt, and a girdle for his grandmother.  It was not a complete waste of a season because Cal did get his 3,000 hit.  However, when the season ended I watched my guy Mike Mussina sign with the New York Yankees.  He has 30 other big league teams he could have signed with and he chose the Yankees.  As a young eighth grader I contemplated jumping off the Warehouse in order to splatter my remains on Eutaw Street.  But some smooth talking southerner named Buck advised me not too…more on that later.

2001 would be the final seasons of Cal Ripken Jr. and Brady Anderson.  Cal announced early in the year that this would be his last season and thus embarked the Birds on the Cal Ripken farewell tour. The season ended with Brady striking out while Cal watched from the on-deck circle.  This ended the era of the Orioles I grew up watching, and ushered in an abysmal decade of losing teams.  There were more bad front office decisions (signing Javy Lopez over Pudge, bringing back Raffy Palmeiro instead of Derek Lee, and refusing to offer Vlad Guerrero one more year on his contract) and there were poor managerial choices (yes I’m looking at you Leo Mazzili and Sam Perlozzo).  Do yourselves a favor and compare Pudge’s 2003-2005 seasons with Javy Lopez, and check out Derek Lee vs. Raffy Palmerio from 2003 on.  Vlad emerged as an MVP with the Anaheim Angels.  It was a disheartening time for sure, but then the Orioles actually started developing “prospects”.  First came the “can’t miss” pitching prospect Matt Riley. Ever heard of him? No? Well I guess he did miss.  Then came Adam Loewen who ended up blowing out his elbow and is trying to make the Blue Jays as an outfielder.  Awesome.  

A new Awakening: Marriages find themselves in ruts in the bedroom, but the strong marriages can have awakenings in the bedroom which can breathe new life back into their marriage.  That is what is happening with the recent versions of the Baltimore Orioles.  General Manager Andy MacPhail has been the marriage counselor here between the Birds and their fan base.  MacPahil has been the architect of some outstanding drafts, key free agent signings, and shrewd trades that have gotten the O’s finally back on track.  Young players such as Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Adam Jones have formed the new nucleus of a squad who is out for blood.  Older Orioles vets such as Brian Roberts, Luke Scott, and Jeremy Guthrie are elder statesmen who are the calming voice of this young bunch.  They are led by their manager, the charismatic and no nonsense Buck Showalter (more on him later…he’s getting his own article).  This offseason had two key trades in which the Orioles traded for 3b Mark Reynolds and SS J.J Hardy; both coming off down years and have a lot to prove.  In a spirited attempt to make up for past mistakes by Peter Angelos, Andy MacPhail went out and signed Derek Lee and Vlad Guerrero.  This 2011 Orioles squad is a great mix of young-on-the-verge talent with professionals who have chips on their shoulders, and a good sprinkling of veterans who will hope to turn this franchise in the right direction. 

In 2005, the Washington Nationals came to town and many passionate Orioles fans jumped ship.  I however, did not.  I root for the Nats and definitely pull for them, but my heart belongs to the Birds.  I’ve endured some of the worst seasons in professional sports, and I ain’t going anywhere.  The town of D.C. needs the Nats to be successful because there are some die hard baseball fans in the DMV.  However, there are pockets of us who still remember when Cal Ripken Jr. played his 2,131st straight game, or when Eddie Murray hit his 500th homer, or when the Moose took a no-hitter vs. the Indians into the 9th inning, or even when Jeff Reboulet played on a Sunday to give Roberto Alomar the day off.  There are those of who remember Jeffrey Maier and the brawl and this reminds us why we absolutely hate the free spending and arrogant New York Yankees and their fans who invade our beautiful Camden Yards for every Yankees series.  Most importantly…there are those of us who still believe in a little Orioles Magic.

The leader for the New Era.

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