The risks of wishing for a winner

September 20, 1996|By Mike Littwin

YOU SAID you wanted a pennant race.

You said you understood the risks.

You said you knew a pennant race is like a love affair. You said it, but did you mean it?

As I sit writing, in a city gone quiet, the Orioles have lost to the Yankees again. In this love affair, all hearts and flowers just a few days ago, it's 2 a.m., it's raining and he won't even come across with cab fare.

They're starting the second game of last night's doubleheader, and each man, woman and child is asking himself the same question: Do I have what it takes to keep watching?

Pathetic, huh?

Sure it is.

There is, by definition, nothing more pathetic than a fan. And in mid-September, with the Orioles in a pennant race, with the hated Yankees in sight, everyone is an Orioles fan. It's like a disease. As they used to joke, "Pennant fever -- catch it. And die."

People who don't know David Wells from Orson Welles are glued to the set.

People who don't know an RBI from the FBI are critiquing Cal's base-running.

People who don't know anything about the game (in other words, like the typical caller on sports-talk radio) are demanding somebody's -- anybody's -- head.

The once-proud Orioles haven't made it out of the regular season since 1983, and the citizens are starting to get just a little restless.

I'll tell you a true story. I'm watching the first game of the doubleheader yesterday at work because, well, like, you know, I've got time on my hands. The Orioles are losing 8-0 on the way to a 9-3 defeat. I'm waiting to see who wins the pool on when Jim Palmer first mentions how long the game is taking. There's not much else to root for.

(Oh, there is one thing. There's that Volvo commercial -- you know, the one with the yuppies smooching as the piano falls from the building toward the lovers, who would be crushed, even in a Volvo. Eventually, I begin rooting for the piano. It isn't just me either. When the piano misses, once again, just like it did between the third and fourth innings, the guy sitting next to me mutters: "Maybe next time.")

And it's at this moment that the most pathetic fan walks in. Some fans get hostile when their team is losing. You see these guys at the ballpark, their guts spilling from their pants, venting their anger at some athlete because, mainly, he's young, rich, talented and can still get a belt around his waist.

Other fans -- like this guy -- are moony-eyed losers who check their brains at the door.

This guy says, "When we (pathetic fans dependably say 'we' as if he and Raffy and Robbie and Cal are teammates) come back and win this one, it's gonna break the Yankees' backs."

I tell him, as gently as I can, realizing that he's vulnerable, knowing that he's in a state of denial, "You're a complete idiot."

This same guy spent his entire evening Tuesday watching the Orioles-Yankees rainout, including the canned feature -- this is true -- about the players who posed with their dogs for Milkbone canine trading cards.

Baseball is a game of memory, the pundits are fond of saying. (As if to prove the point, Bob Dole, while on the campaign trail in California, said he was going to throw a no-hitter like Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo. The Dodgers, as you may recall, left Brooklyn some 39 years ago. Maybe if Dole becomes president, we can invite him up for a Baltimore Colts game).

Anyway, baseball is a game of memory, and my earliest memories are all of the Yankees beating the Dodgers, my first love, back when they were in Brooklyn. I can remember my father throwing a shoe at the television after Don Larsen threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. If only Elvis had been there, he would have shot up the TV.

The Yankees have fallen on hard times in recent years. All New Yorkers have had to keep them going are restaurants and theaters and symphonies and museums and libraries that are open seven days a week. And coming into this series, the Yankees looked so vulnerable.

The Orioles have fallen on hard times, too, as they try, in vain, to put together a team worthy of Camden Yards. But, coming in to this series, they seemed a team rich with possibility.

There are certain teams in certain towns where losing is romantic, particularly when the losing is dramatic and it's someone with names like Bucky or Mookie breaking your heart.

As an example, the Boston Red Sox lose romantically. The Chicago Cubs lose romantically.

The Orioles don't have romance. They've got a 13-year-old losing streak and a city in distress.

It's almost enough to make you turn off the set as the second game of a doubleheader begins.

Almost.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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