Last Saturday was this writer’s first trip to an Orioles game since the Nationals showed up in D.C. last year, a nostalgic return after a two-year hiatus to the same Camden Yards stadium that had become synonymous since its opening with my deep and abiding love for the game of baseball and rooting for the home team.
To many loyal Oriole fans, of course, I’d become a traitor, so readily transferring my allegiance at the mere arrival of a new team 15 minutes from my doorstep. It’s always been the downside of Oriole baseball for me that those of us from Northern Virginia have to endure ridiculous rush hour traffic on the Beltway to get to night games. It was not by chance that my return last weekend was for a perfectly-timed 4:30 p.m. Saturday start time.
As teams, the Orioles and Nationals have a lot in common, including their difficulties winning games and their mix of older and much younger, untested players. There seems to be more reliance on very green rookies in the majors this year, especially on the pitching mound. For example, rookie pitchers have won more games for the Milwaukee Brewers in August than have ever before for the same team in the same month in the history of the game.
A huge percentage of the Tampa Bay line-up is fresh off the farm, led by its starting pitcher for Saturday’s game, Jamie Shields. Over half the Rays’ roster is composed of players born since 1980.
The Orioles went with a near rookie on the mound Saturday, as well, but otherwise their line-up was seasoned by some weather-worn veterans who stole the show with stellar defensive plays. They included a throw-out at the plate and diving catch by left fielder Jeff Conine, a fine toss for an out at home by third baseman Melvin Mora and some considerable glove magic by shortstop Miguel Tejada. Ramon Hernandez, a fourth-year player, drove in the winning run with a two-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth as the Orioles won, 3-2.
Tejada, the cagey and silky-smooth veteran, contrasted dramatically to his Rays counterpart, a skinny, rosy cheeked switch hitting Ben Zobrist, recently out of Dallas Baptist College, who played his first ever major league game only a couple weeks earlier.
It was a solidly-played game with some spectacular defensive plays and an exciting ending. To the casual observer, it could just as easily have been played by any two pennant contenders as by two struggling franchises.
As different as the veterans were from the rookies, so were the post-game interview styles of the winning Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo and the Rays’ losing skipper, Joe Maddon.
Perlozzo was careful in his choice of words not to suggest that one good game might change the fortunes of his team. He singled out the efforts of particular players, and noted that his starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, got the job done despite having only average stuff that day.
Maddon, on the other hand, commandeering a much younger team, was more like a high school coach. Even in defeat, he was optimistic, he said. He spoke less about individuals than about the spirit, attitude and progress of the team, overall. He saw the game as a signal that his team is “getting it together” and playing well. He cheered on his boys, saying “good effort,” and promising better times to come.
My most interesting observation, however, concerned the 28,000 or so Oriole fans that filled about half the park (a far cry from the nightly sell-out crowds of days gone by swelled by the thousands who came daily from in and around D.C.)
I concluded that the hidden blessing in losing such a large chunk of their fan base to the Nationals is the fact that the Orioles are now fully and completely Baltimore’s own team.
Baltimore as a city has a very distinct personality from D.C., and it’s reflected in its fans. They cheered lustily for the between-innings hot dog race on the jumbo-tron TV screen and really got into every electronic prod to cheer louder or sing. Not at all like the sophisticated D.C. fans who observe the Abe-Teddy-George races, and related off-field antics at RFK Stadium, with relatively mild amusement.
Blue-collar Baltimore fans can now fully embrace their Orioles without having to temper their enthusiasm by sharing their boys with what many of them might consider hoity-toity bureaucrats from around the District. I am happy for them.