I don't think anybody ever hated the Orioles.
Oops. Subconsciously, I just put the Orioles in the past tense, as if they don't exist any longer.
Which, of course, they don't.
I promise you, I didn't set that up. I didn't say to myself, I'll be real cute. I'll sit down and type, "I don't think anybody ever hated the Orioles," and then I'll fake discovering that I used the past tense. No, I just wrote it that way—and that's the saddest part of all. Somewhere, deep in my mind, I've buried the Orioles for this season and, I suspect, for a lot of seasons to come.
September 20, 1987
Nonetheless, when the Orioles did exist, I don't think anybody ever hated them—as so many people have hated the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Celtics and the Lakers and the Canadiens and the Monsters of the Midway and all the other teams that have kept on winning for years at a time.
Of course, the inverse was also true: It wasn't common for anybody to love the Orioles passionately, in the same way some folks live and die with the Yankees and the Celtics and all the other institutional bullies. In fact, for a long time, until Mayor William Schaefer got Baltimore to believe in itself, not even it dared to love the Orioles. Hardly anybody came out to see them play. Baltimore was sort of embarrassed by the affiliation; the team was too good for a city with an inferiority complex.
Baltimore could love the Colts easily enough because football is only, played on weekends and is more like a holiday or a night out. But baseball is everyday, like grocery shopping and traffic jams, marriage, school and that sort of stuff. It was very intimidating to Baltimoreans that the Orioles won most every day and were hopelessly accomplished.
Besides, although the Orioles certainly were not cold fish, they were never particularly colorful, either. Maybe Boog Powell would try to liven things up by sneaking around giving hotfoots, but mostly the Orioles were just proficient, high-achieving, upwardly mobile, middle-class guys.
The real hallmark of the Erstwhile Orioles was not their attack and not even their celebrated pitching staff, but their fielding. Fielding is proficiency, consistency...and beauty. And not just Brooksie. But Blade at short, Blair in center, F. Robby in right. Players were taught that everything was to be done the Oriole Way from the day they reached Class D on up. The first time I ever knew a rookie named Eddie Murray existed was not when he poked one out. No, it was when a friend called me up and said, "You should see this kid work the 3-6-3 double play." That was the Erstwhiles.
When I heard the Incumbent Orioles were throwing to the wrong base, botching cutoffs, I knew the era was over. I didn't have to look at the GBs or the ERAs. Then I heard even Murray had taken to standing at first base, arms folded, one foot in front of the other, like he was waiting for a bus. Then the past tense indelibly formed in my mind. I should have known the Orioles couldn't go on forever. Someday there had to be a past tense. Even Joan Collins volunteered under oath that she knew her days were numbered. I don't even care much who loused up the Orioles. The experts can do the autopsy on the Erstwhiles and release the findings. So what? The Erstwhiles are just as much history as John McGraw and Wee Willie and the Old Orioles.
You may have gathered this has not all been said dispassionately. I grew up in Baltimore. When I was a little boy my father took me to see the smoldering ruins of Oriole Park the morning after it burned down, and, ten years later, I was in Memorial Stadium the April afternoon on which the Orioles returned to the majors. For a couple of summers I sat right next to the Oriole dugout, working the tarp. You got in for free, plus they paid you a dollar at the end of the game—and another buck if it actually rained and you had to jump up and roll out the tarp. Sports journalists are supposed to be hard-bitten and not root for anybody, but, for goodness' sake, who could ever forget his first home team?
Now that the Erstwhiles are finished, it's something of a relief, because I no longer have to stay up late to get the scores or comb the agate in the Sunday paper. This is good, I've decided. It gives me more time to read great books, make lists and otherwise imitate what adults are supposed to do. You see, when your team wins all the time, you don't really grow up. I'm 30 years behind a lot of guys my age—especially the poor slobs in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
Still, Lord, I'll miss the Orioles. There was so little left in this world that you could depend on. The Old Orioles of the 19th century were remembered as clever rascals, short-cutters, and now we can forever recall the Erstwhile Orioles as perfect examples of the other extreme. The Orioles were as good at doing a day's work as any team ever.