Touching Base with the Fans:
Battles along the Beltway
Earlier this week, Rockies no.1 starter Jeremy Guthrie told the Denver Post he wouldn’t be surprised if the Rockies kicked him off the team, saying, “If I don’t make another start here, it wouldn’t surprise me.” Alas, Guthrie has nothing to fear, as his $8.2 million contract and the continuing ineptitude of Dan O’Dowd and Jim Tracy will all but ensure that he continues to take the mound every fifth or sixth day.
At this point, it looks like new Orioles GM Dan Duquette just out-maneuvered Dan O’Dowd in an area where Duquette has had plenty of success as opposed to O’Dowd’s well-documented failures.
While we scribes at the BSB desperately try to come to terms with the disastrous trade, it might behoove us to take a closer look at the Orioles instead, and see how they’ve gone from worst (69-93 last year) to first (32-25 this year) and see if we can’t learn something.
Much like the Rockies, the Orioles never seem to get any respect. Eastern media bias in baseball coverage (and most sports) is a given (although Texas certainly gets a lot of attention too), partially explaining why the Rockies now field two under-the-radar, all-star caliber outfielders.
In the case of Baltimore, they’re in a division with the two wealthiest baseball franchises (Red Sox and Yankees), along with those perennial contenders from Tampa Bay, and that always-competitive Canadian club. At first glance, Baltimore doesn’t seem to stand out from the rest of the division in any way, other than the fact they haven’t had a winning season since 1997.
But after getting Buck Showalter to manage the club halfway through the 2010 season, he quickly stirred things up by hilariously deriding the sacred eastern institutions of Derek Jeter and Theo Epstein in spring training. The Orioles still stunk that year, but ended their horrible 2011 season in style: a come-from-behind, walk-off win over Boston on that unbelievable final day of the regular season. They went 5-2 against the rival Red Sox down the stretch, in what should be known as the Schadenfreude Series.
I think part of the Orioles success this year can be traced to the thrilling way in which they ended last season; instead of going out with a whimper and talking about rebuilding for next year (Rox went 3-11 to end the season last year), they put their best lineup out on the diamond and ended the season on a high note (finishing 11-3). Getting that winning feeling and keeping it going is hard to do at any point in the long season, but it’s even harder to keep that momentum going from one season to the next.
Our man Logan’s “Buck Showalter Theory” just might have something to do with it, too. But the most interesting thing about Baltimore is that they’re proving the old Aristotelian sentiment that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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After a three-week hiatus at home in Denver, our cross-country tour got back on track as we headed for Baltimore to see the first of four games out East.
Strolling through the downtown area of Baltimore, on toward Oriole Park, the city felt remarkably still. Not a lot of traffic, human or otherwise, and lots of boarded up buildings and offices for sale or rent. Granted, it was Mother’s day, but the whole town emitted a sleepy vibe that carried over to the ballgame.
Camden Yards is generally considered to be the first throwback ballpark in the contemporary era (a category in which Coors Field also falls into), opening its gates in 1992. The large, brick warehouse beyond right field provides a sturdy, old, working-class backdrop to the new stadium, much like many of the brick buildings surrounding the ballpark in Denver.
The more modern hotel protruding upwards behind left-center field, however, is simply an eyesore. As one Baltimore sportswriter put it, “the big, antiseptic convention hotel…looms over Camden Yards…(and) has blocked out the best part of the Baltimore skyline.” Thankfully, the Denver skyline around Coors Field has yet to be plagued with such an abomination.
Entering the park, Camden Yards employees were handing out bright orange gardening hats for all the females who arrived early enough on this hot and sunny Mother’s day. Thus, Anne and my sister had plenty of time to stroll around the stadium in their new headgear before first pitch.
Wandering the stadium grounds – open-air promenades and covered concourses alike – a Carlos Pena batting practice home-run ball almost hit us, bounding away down the concrete path. I waited around for the next bomb which came shortly thereafter, got a good read on it, ran to my right into a crowd of Orioles fans, jumped like Adam Jones, and felt it graze off the tip of my finger. Damn! Should’ve brought my glove. Still the closest I’ve ever come to getting a ball of any kind at any game, ever.
We took our customary seats in the upper deck, right behind home plate, ($18 each) and were immediately drawn into the hushed, almost solemn silence that settled in over the crowd in the upper deck at first pitch. The highly touted “pitching duel” between James Shields and Jake Arrieta felt a bit like a stretch when I read it advertised as such in the pregame scorecard. But the fans cheered loudly at called strikes, louder at strikeouts, and loudest of all at good defensive plays (and at home runs of course). Refreshingly, there was not a lot of PA noise in Birdland. Goofy songs and stunts were kept to a minimum (except for that tiresome war salute), and there was no organ or standard sports ditties between pitches or batters, giving space for the fans to take center stage.
Listen along with this at-bat, as Jake Arrieta pitches to Carlos Pena in the top of the 1st, with two outs:
|4||94||Fastball (Four-seam)||Swinging Strike|
With the exception of that glorious blowout we saw in Denver, every game on our road trip had been close and competitive; a testament to the relative parity now achieved among most major league teams. Baltimore’s surprising first place standing, along with the Rays pursuing them in second place, seemed prime examples of that.
Yet, when the Tampa Bay Rays jumped out to a 7-1 lead going into the bottom of the sixth, the hometown fans in Baltimore already seemed to be dozing off on this lazy Sunday, and the game looked out of reach. We even got suckered in to buying nachos in the jumbo mini-helmet to get things moving (our bowels, mainly).
Baltimore actually had the most liberal food and drink policy of any stadium we went to: fans are allowed to bring in all their own foods and beverages, even if they’ve already been opened (although they did take a whiff of our water bottles).
But the nachos in the batting helmet did the trick. The O-birds rallied for three runs in the sixth and another two runs in the seventh inning to make it a 7-6 ballgame. The Rays got back-to-back homers in the eighth only to see the Orioles get a run back in the bottom half of the inning. The home team then scored again in the bottom of the ninth. Trailing by one run with the tying and winning runs on base, their star catcher Matt Wieters anticlimactically grounded out to end the game.
Final Score: Rays 9, Orioles 8.
Neither team had a starting player with a .300 + batting average, yet the two teams managed a combined 17 runs off 14 hits, including four homers, while the Rays stole four bases off the gold-glover Wieters.
Seeing as how the Orioles took the first two games of the series, it seemed unlikely – in this age of parity – that Baltimore would sweep this solid Rays squad. But that sense of doubt, accompanied by reason, which we all felt for the first two hours, disappeared by the late innings as a wave of idealism and joy rushed through Camden Yards causing everyone to hold their breath and think, “could this be the year?”
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Which brings us back to that endearing sense of optimism that Orioles teammates and fans must’ve felt at the end of last season. That Schadenfreude Series win endowed Birdland with the confidence to compete in the high-rolling AL East, and with a 5-1 record at Fenway this year, they’re proving they belong at the top.
As optimistic as we’ve all tried to be here recently at the BSB with regard to the Rox, it’s probably safe to say that none of us are holding our breath for 2012. Let’s just see if we can hold our own against the AL West teams coming to town this week and possibly get some of that all-star attention directed toward our well-deserving outfield.
Touching Base with the Fans (TBWTF): For the first seven weeks of the season, Kevin Kroh traveled across the country — from big city stadiums, to small town sandlots — chattering with baseball fans all over the nation on everything from the cold, hard facts of the stat sheet, to the utopian fantasies of community ownership models. With his trusty audio recorder and baseball-loving girlfriend at his side, he’ll be posting unique perspectives from around the horn, and bringing it all back home to the Rockies in this year’s “Pro Baseball Partnership Tour: cross-country conversations in the Year of the Fan.”