View from the press box: The Intern’s Farewell Column

(quick disclaimer that the following column is a reflection of my thoughts and mine alone.  It is not to be  associated with Britt, orioles.com or MLB.com)

   It was one of the happiest days of my life up to that point. Sunday, Aug. 24, 1997 -the Ironman’s birthday and the day my dad got him and I seats a few rows back from the O’s dugout to see a 1:35 p.m. game against the Twins.

I don’t recall if Cal patiently appeased throngs of autograph-seeking fans before or after the game, but that evening I went home with a big smile on my six-year-old face and a signed glove from my childhood idol.

But like that signature which sits in a display case on my shelf at home, my love for the Orioles has faded. And, as I’m sure you know, it’s not just me. The floundering Baltimore franchise –overshadowed by a more successful football team- is in danger of losing an entire generation of fans.

When I took the internship as an “associate reporter” (let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s a euphemism for intern) a lot of people asked me how I would be able to cover the Birds without an inherit bias from growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, going to Camden Yards and rooting for the team.

I told them the truth -that not being a fan while covering the team would not be a problem.

As a kid, the O’s were an essential part of any Baltimore kid’s sports allegiances. My friends and I wore Orioles apparel, religiously kept track of the ’96 Wild Card race and I still remember Reisterstown Elementary holding “Orioles Day” once a year (not sure if they still do it).

But as my generation transitioned into the high school years, Baltimore baseball largely went the way of Pokemon cards, N64 and generic boy bands (which, for the record, I hated). With the exception of the first half of the 2005 season, the answer to the fleeting question of Hey, does anybody know how the O’s are doing? was almost always answered with Who cares? They still suck.

The names that helped developed my Orioles fandom; Ripken, Surhoff, Bordick, Anderson, Baines, Erickson, Alomar, Mussina, left a void that was never filled.

I can hear some of you now: What a fair-weather fan! A real Baltimorean supports dem O’s through thick and thin, hon!

And honestly, it’s some of these seasoned curmudgeons in the Orioles fan base and media circle that have got it all wrong.

Yes, I understand the O’s were an incredible team 20 years ago. Yes, I understand that Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Rick Dempsey were like gods in Baltimore when they played. But you have to understand that those years are over.

My generation never experienced those heroes of Memorial Stadium and to hold the current Orioles to that standard will bring you nothing but disappointment.

This video of Earl Weaver’s last game is incredible. The packed stadium, Wild Bill Hagy leading on the crowd, Weaver nearly moved to tears for the team he loves and Howard Cosell describing it all on what I would assume to be a national broadcast.

If it weren’t for the home uniforms, I would have a hard time believing that this was baseball in Baltimore.

I’ve never been in a full Camden Yards or seen a manager moved to tears by a city that loved him because that’s just not the brand of Orioles baseball I know. But to throw up your hands and say Well Zach Britton isn’t Jim Palmer, J.J. Hardy isn’t Cal Ripken and Buck Showalter isn’t Earl Weaver so this entire organization is a conspiracy is foolish at best.

Stop living in the past.

I’m not going to rehash all the losing statistics from the past decade because they are well known by now. It’s no secret that the Orioles are, and continue to be, a losing team. The men that take the field tonight in Los Angeles won’t make a run at October or remind you of those historic squads that lay claim to several spots in the Orioles Hall of Fame, but I’ve come to realize that isn’t an excuse to stop caring about this team and the steps that need to be taken towards improvement.

The Orioles have found solutions at catcher, center field, right field, shortstop and either third or first depending on where Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis are played. Aside from left field and second, what’s that leave? Oh right, pitching.

This season the O’s had two consistent arms in Jim Johnson and Koji Uehara. Other than that, the pitching staff with the highest ERA in the majors had trouble finding consistent quality starts and a solid rotation. Troy Patton and heck, even Willie Eyre have shown some potential as solid relievers, but what Buck really needs is starting pitching that can give the team a chance to win.

We’ve seen what Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman are capable of, but if they can’t string together those quality outings consistently, the Orioles are rolling the dice every time they take the mound.

So what are some feasible steps the O’s can take towards improvement?

1) Make Adam Jones the face of the franchise. Not only is Jones a guy that makes up 80% of the Orioles highlight reel, but he’s also a player who genuinely cares about whether the team is winning. His Twitter account is constantly conversing with fans and the Gold Glover’s words, both digitally and verbally, reflect what he is feeling and not what he is supposed to be saying.
2) Stop wasting money on large, short-term contracts to sluggers past their prime and put those dollars to an ace starting pitcher -a No. 1 starter in the rotation who is a rock, a guaranteed quality start and teacher to the young arms. His presence will pay dividends not only on the field, but off the field for years to come with the raw, unrefined talent already in Baltimore.
3) Win back the hearts and minds of the city (sound familiar, right?). As I just ranted about for some time, Charm City needs to rediscover baseball. Obviously winning would be the most effective way, but there are other things that can be done. Baltimore is in a unique situation where, unlike the Florida Marlins, it’s capable of filling the Yard and getting fans interested in the team. To do this, the Orioles could try and market themselves alongside the other Birds in town. Although it might seem desperate to piggyback off the more-successful franchise, the Orioles aren’t really in a position to puff out their own chests.

It’s been an incredible experience covering the O’s for a few months this summer. I won’t bore you with the details, but just know that I learned a lot about journalism –both through my successes and mistakes (thanks to the commenters for pointing those out, by the way). Continue to stick with Britt –she sort of knows her stuff. From here I’ll be writing columns on Indiana University men’s basketball for the student newspaper over there, The Indiana Daily Student. I wish you all the best and please don’t plan a mass suicide with cyanide-laced orange Kool Aid.

-Avi Zaleon

2 Comments

Great article Avi. Being an Orioles fan for as long as I can remember (I’m 32), I mostly remember losing. All of your points are spot on. It’s hard to watch O’s games now. Hell, it’s been hard to watch the past 13 years. Error after error, injury after injury, year after year, I should be questioning my sanity for still loving this team. I keep telling myself, when we finally start winning, it’ll make all those losing seasons almost worth it…

I’m a transplanted O’s fan, 52, and grew up with Brooks, Palmer, and Davey Johnson – and I can’t stop caring. They tear me apart every summer and I can’t wait until the Colts’ season (sorry, still love’em). Nice article, and I’ve enjoyed reading your articles.
Norm

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