By 1979, when I was nine years old, I had made at least three trips to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. I went once for back treatment, and twice, if not three times, for procedures related to my bowed legs, common among people with my type of dwarfism. During one trip, from a window high up in the hospital, I saw the lights of Memorial Stadium in the early dusk twilight.
As a young boy, I didn't want to go to Baltimore to deal with the medical issues. But when the Orioles emerged as American League East Division Champions in 1979, I felt a connection as a result of those trips. I also felt the connection during the playoffs when I watched an Oriole player round third base and fall on to, rather than slide into, home plate. It was a gritty play. I could identify with gritty.
Looking back, I like to think of myself as an Oriole fan in 1979. But I wasn't. With a strict curfew, my parents sent me to my room, where there was no television, at eight o'clock every weeknight. Except for weekend contests, I was asleep by the end of every World Series game. I didn't know the outcome of Game 7 until the next morning when my mother told me the Pirates overcame a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship.
I didn't mourn the Baltimore loss the way I collapsed after the Chicago Cubs 2003 implosion at the hands of the Florida Marlins. In 1979, I didn't watch the Orioles lose a two game lead in stunned silence the way I watched the Cubs lose six consecutive playoff games in 2007 and 2008. In 1979, I didn't know how to be a fan. But the 1979 Orioles helped me learn.
After the series, in the large grassy backyard of my Grandparents home in Dekalb, Illinois, I mimicked Oriole Third Baseman Doug Decinces as my grandfather threw me grounders. At home in Madison, when my brother and I practiced our double play technique by chucking tennis balls back and forth, I pictured myself as second baseman Rich Dauer.
Despite my connection to Oriole players, my allegiance to Baltimore was brief. Perhaps because Baltimore traded away Decinces in order to make room for Cal Ripken, Jr., I became a Cub fan, following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. I didn't care when the Orioles won the World Series in 1983 and I didn't care when they made their play-off runs in the 1990s.
I still follow the Cubs, but at times, when I consider the futility of being a fan, I try to find another team to follow. I tried again this year. During a game at Wrigley Field early in the season, while Kerry Wood struggled to throw a strike and the Cubs fell behind, my friend and I studied the out of town scoreboard. Commenting on the Orioles' early success, my friend said "Someday Baltimore is going to wake up and remember that they are the Orioles."
Around that same time in the season, I looked online at baseball scores and standings. Reading about a Baltimore game, I saw the Orioles had gone old-school, reverting back to the cartoon bird, a logo the organization hadn't used consistently for years. Looking at the logo, I thought of the 1979 team. I remembered the 1979 the World Series as a nine-year-old. Inspired, I watched footage on YouTube. As I watched the old videos, anxiety bit at my stomach. I knew the outcome of the games. But it was as if, while I watched these 33 year old clips, I thought Baltimore had a chance, like the games might turn out differently. Very unlike 1979, when I slept through the games, I felt the pain of a team letting a championship slip away, losing after leading the series three games to one.
Reconnecting with the Orioles, I started to follow the 2012 team. On days Baltimore won, enthusiasm inspired me to learn Oriole history. I read about the good teams that didn't make the playoffs in 1980, 1981, and 1982. I checked the 1983 roster to see who from the 1979 team experienced the joy of a championship. I checked up on former players, learning that in 2011 Doug Decinces paid more than $2 million to settle a dispute over insider trading. The same year, Hall of Fame Pitcher and 1979 Cy Young Award Winner Mike Flanagan took his own life. The histories were devastating and tragic. But they strengthened my feelings for the 1979 team and built my connection to this year's team.
Despite the connection, from what I read earlier in the season, no one believed the 2012 season would be different from any season since 1997, the last year the team won the division or finished above .500. But by the All-Star Break, the Orioles were still in contention. Nevertheless, articles written soon after the All-Star Break predicated the Orioles would fade. The sportswriters cited a negative run differential, a lucky knack for winning one-run ball games, and talent that didn't stack up to other teams.
Throughout July, the Orioles struggled to win consistently. They dropped back in the standings a little bit. The stress of a loss reminded me of how frustrating it is be a fan, when a baseball game, something over which a fan has no control, determines the temperament of the day. Like I did many times with the Cubs, I nearly gave up on the Orioles. In late July, after the Orioles let a game against Oakland slip away, I imposed a moratorium. I avoided sports websites, ESPN television and the sports section of newspapers. I gave in after just one week. Soon after the moratorium, the Orioles went on a run, building their record and keeping pace with the other play-off contenders.
At first, success didn't win the Orioles many fans. In a late August series with Chicago, attendance at Camden Yards peaked at just over 13,000. Sportswriters were still skeptical. An article by Cliff Corcoran in Sports Illustrated Online over Labor Day weekend gave the Orioles a less than 4 percent chance of winning the division and less than 25 percent chance of taking a wild card spot. According to the same article, the Yankees, the team with which the Orioles were tied on September 4, have an 89 percent chance of winning the division.
But people started to believe and the Orioles haven't gone away. In a recent weekend series at Camden Yards against the Yankees, attendance for the Saturday game was over 46,000. As of September 18, the Orioles were a half game behind the Yankees for first place and held a three game lead for the final wild-card spot. From my seat in Chicago, this Cubs fan believes. As the 2012 season moves into the final stretch, I will pull for the team with the cartoon bird logo. The logo inspires memories of my time at John Hopkins, memories of the 1979 World Series, memories of the players who made me proud to be gritty.