Needling the fans

October 03, 2006

Even the most optimistic Orioles fan would have to concede that the team ended the regular season in a truly brutal manner. Not only did the O's lose 9-0 to the Red Sox on Sunday, but they finished the season 27 games back and their 70 wins were the fewest since 2002. And then there's the IRS agent's affidavit (reported this past weekend by the Los Angeles Times) containing relief pitcher Jason Grimsley's claim that three current Orioles have used anabolic steroids. Naturally, it had to be three of the team's top players: Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons.

The players say they are innocent, as do pitching stars Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, who were named in the same affidavit. Unless proved otherwise, everyone should take them at their word. Mr. Grimsley is an admitted drug user. The players have passed every drug test given them. But on top of other confusing revelations of possible drug-use by O's - particularly Rafael Palmeiro's testing positive for steroids last season (and suggesting his source, perhaps inadvertent, was shortstop Tejada) - an undeniable pall has been spread over the organization.

There was a time when the "Oriole Way" meant hustle, discipline and winning baseball. But when a team is so often associated with an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs, the term implies something entirely different. To be an Orioles fan was already tough enough - an iron grip on fourth place in the American League East, a decade of bad personnel moves and a dugout full of underachievers - and now this. Why would anyone complain about team jerseys that don't carry the word "Baltimore"? How much would the team charge to keep it off?

Fortunately, Baltimore sports fans are made of sterner stuff. This is the town that survived the Pirates and Sister Sledge, the loss in Super Bowl III, and Robert Irsay's moving vans. There may even be life after October. Steve McNair and the undefeated Ravens have demonstrated quite a knack for making comebacks. A trip deep in the NFL playoffs would be an ideal antidote to this latest bout of bird flu. Anticipating that reward may make watching baseball's divisional playoffs today almost bearable - at least until the next Orioles' drug imbroglio.

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