For Baltimore's beloved Orioles, could there be a more miserable baseball year?
When they lost their first 21 games out of the box in 1988, at least Cal, the anchor, was still playing shortstop.
But for forlorn Orioles fans in 2010, the time has come to turn the page on the negativity swarming the city and understand the essence of baseball.
On Sunday, interim manager Juan Samuel won his first game as a big-league skipper, 4-3 in 11 innings over the hated Red Sox, breaking a season high 10-game loss skein. With the Yankees coming to Oriole Park at Camden Yards tonight, Bird lovers can only hope that Samuel's newfound focus on fundamentals will catch the Bronx Bombers napping.
The year 2010 has been so rough on the 16-41 Birds - the worst record in all of major league baseball - that the specter of Cal Ripken dished up the dominant Orioles storyline so far this season.
Forget the 2-16 start to the season. Forget that fired manager Dave Trembley ran through young pitchers like silly putty. Forget that sparkplug Brian Roberts went down early with the bad back. And forget the supposed digression of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Matt Wieters and Brian Matusz.
The big story for the Os so far in 2010 was the one in April that Cal tried to force his way into a front office role, only to be rebuffed by recalcitrant owner Peter Angelos. Going north of Baltimore along Interstate 95 toward Delaware, Cal's business and organizational acumen are apparent with his thriving IronBirds stadium and amateur baseball complex in his hometown of Aberdeen, MD. But Mr. Angelos reportedly snarled he would never bring Cal in and have the Hall of Famer to take credit for the team's eventual turnaround.
Owner Angelos, 80, who made his fortune litigating industrial asbestos cases from Baltimore's former Sparrows Point shipyard and steel foundry, has been a lightning rod for what is wrong with Orioles baseball. Thirteen consecutive sub-.500 seasons will do that -- as will slipping fan attendance, the refusal to spend on free agents, a constant shuffle of managers, and a cozy relationship with the Washington Nationals through the Angelos-owned MASN cable network.
Yet despite all that, and any failings Mr. Angelos might have in the way he has operated the club since taking over as owner in 1993, one of the more ridiculous notions surrounding the franchise and directed at Angelos is the "Free The Birds" movement -- the brainchild of one of the local Baltimore radio stations. While the campaign professes to lobby for "disenchanted Baltimore baseball fans ... to pressure the current ownership into treating the community and the franchise with dignity," you wonder if the effort simply amounts to a ratings and advertising grab.
In baseball terms, fans need to ask themselves is it really so bad having a big league baseball team in your city. Baltimore is a place where dads can still take their kids to the ballpark for the first time on a glorious Sunday afternoon.
Baltimore is a great, old line Eastern town. It lacks the big city persona of other East Coast titans New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but it is a real city. Sure, it often misses the mark on culture, society and institutions like the really big towns and can be quite parochial. But, as history tells us, without a Baltimore as a pillar of early American life there might not have been a USA. Indeed, there was someone named Lord Baltimore.
That backdrop is perfect for America's pastime.
But then you get a shill like the Free The Birds "movement" - so-called angry and disinterested Orioles fans who go to games in their Free The Birds T-shirts and walk out en masse in the middle innings. Then they complain all morning on radio and commiserate with one another on Facebook.
"We're trying to find the other disgruntled baseball fans who still care enough about the Orioles and Baltimore to speak up and have their voices heard," some of the vitriol goes. Calmer heads need to prevail. This is not world peace, civil rights or the Tea Party. It's just baseball, and we have baseball today in Baltimore.
Baltimore fans, let's see, that no matter how bad things have gone, this venerable city, unlike perhaps comparable mid-sized municipalities like Charlotte, NC, Hartford, CT and Nashville, TN, to name a few, has big league baseball.
Win or lose, Baltimore's summers since 1954 when the team came here as the St. Louis Browns are filled with the call of the game on radio, the crack of the bat, the bright lights of Camden Yards downtown, the marvelous history of Frank, Brooks, Palmer, Murray, Cal and Boog.
Is it really so bad? Careful, Baltimore, what you wish for.
In the 1970s fans complained about having to go downtown to support the NBA's Baltimore Bullets. They left for Washington.
"What this shortsighted Free The Birds movement doesn't understand is that baseball is a perpetual game. It is as much about the past and future as it is the present.
This Free The Birds nonsense claims that failing Orioles teams have damaged the city's psyche and the downtown business community. Sounds here like it is more of a marketing issue. Beer is nice, but you go to baseball games to watch baseball. Besides, Dundalk isn't downtown Baltimore.
Baseball is a game dependent on history, hope, statistics, lore, and tradition, Baseball in Baltimore is no different - like that day Frank Robinson hit the pitch clear out of Memorial Stadium or Eddie Murray knocking two home runs in a World Series game in 1983 versus the Phillies or 19-year-old Wally Bunker as a "bonus baby" way back when or the excitement of Reggie Jackson coming to Baltimore for a few months in a trade from the Oakland A's before going to the Yankees for big bucks or the four 20-games winners that year or. ...
You get the point. Baltimore has baseball. Charlotte, Hartford and Nashville do not.
As much as Free The Birds crowd will clamor about the baseball success of the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers, yes, you want to win and win every year, but mostly you would just rather have baseball.
Who cares about New York. It's the big town with the big bucks to pay A-Rod $25 million a year. That's why you go to New York -- to make your fortune. And Boston? Didn't the Red Sox go something like 100 years before winning a World Series. It's just baseball.
So calling Mr. Angelos the "Undercover Boss" just doesn't get it done. Any man who can make a billion dollars, you respect him. But whatever you think of his time as the owner on Baltimore's continuum of major league baseball, it will be the "baseball gods" that will ultimately judge him.
Bottom line: you want the game here for another 56 years when you are long gone.
As the ump says, "Play Ball."
- DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at DMA722Sports@gmail.com
Photos: Orioles logo, Orioles.com; Cal Ripken, AP; Free The Birds, WNST.net