No More O's? Ahhh!
By Jonathan Yardley
The end came officially yesterday afternoon in Toronto, but for those of us who followed the Orioles this summer much as Donald Regan's pooper-scooper followed the elephant, the real end came late last Thursday evening in Memorial Stadium; the three road games in Toronto were mere formalities. There at the Orioles' doomed old home park, before what was announced as a crowd of 38,958 -- many of whom, as the old sporting adage has it, came disguised as empty seats -- the Orioles went down to defeat by the score of 5-1, to the Yankees, of course, in a "game" that lasted three hours and seven minutes, of course.
It is impossible to imagine the season ending on a more appropriate note. Not merely did the Orioles manage to lose prodigiously during 1988; they did so in games that usually were over by the fifth inning -- last Thursday's actually was decided by the middle of the fourth -- but that for some reason both teams insisted on playing through to the legal limit, in the process subjecting the poor loyal customers to as much as two additional hours of feckless, pointless "play." Perhaps, in the long history of baseball, there has been a team that participated in more three-hour games than this year's Orioles, but I doubt it; not merely were the Orioles bad, they took their time about it.
All of which leaves open for debate the question that by now surely has crossed your mind, if in fact you are still awake: Why, on a chilly September night that offered any number of more interesting diversions, did I choose to spend four hours -- for that, in the end, is what the evening occupied -- watching the Orioles lose at home for the 46th time this year? Well, the easy answer is tradition: For each of the previous nine summers I had sat in on the closing of the Orioles' season just as I had the opening, and like Cal Ripken I wasn't about to break my streak. But the real answer -- the dark secret that for some reason I herewith divulge -- is more complicated than that: I went to the ballgame because I wanted a shirt.
Yes, a shirt. On this last home game of this most appalling of seasons, the Orioles' management decided to thank the team's fans -- who are known, variously, as "loyal," "long-suffering" and "fantastic" -- by giving them the shirts off the players' backs. That, literally, is what pregame publicity promised: At the end of the game the players and coaches, who will have newly designed uniforms next year, would give the shirts they had worn that evening to fans lucky enough to win them in a drawing at game's end. To make the occasion all the more festive, there would even be a drawing for a car.
I meant to be one of the lucky winners. When the drawing was announced several weeks ago I figured that there might be 20,000 fans in the stands on closing night, which meant my chances of winning one of about 40 shirts would be 1 in 500 -- vastly better odds than those offered by the Maryland lottery, at which I stopped throwing my money ages ago, and for that matter better odds than are to be found anywhere in Atlantic City. How could I lose?
The same thought must have occurred to about 15,000 other people, all of whom rushed out to buy tickets. So much for my odds, which zoomed northward in the general direction of 1,000 to 1. Yet still I had hope. All I wanted was either jersey No. 20 (Frank Robinson, ghost of Orioles past) or 52 (Bob Milacki, hope of Orioles future), and I probably would have settled for 28 (Jim Traber, the crooning first baseman) or even 39 (Doug Sisk, the one-man bullpen conflagration). So at game's end I stood eagerly at my seat, awaiting the good word from the announcers on the field who were shepherding us through the festivities.
I should have known better. Like most who pass through this mortal coil, I have never won anything and doubtless never will. Three decades ago, en route to Pennsylvania for a summer job, I stopped off at a slot machine emporium on Maryland's then-notorious Route 301; when I left, about three minutes later, not a penny remained of the $25 I had from my parents to see me through to the first paycheck. Two decades later my wife and I made our one and only trip to the Preakness, each with $50 to bet; hers lasted all day, mine was gone by the fourth race.
If Ol' Blue Eyes sang it true, the song would go, "Here's to the losers ..." It's the story of my life, and yet another chapter was written on Thursday night. The car -- hell, I would've settled for the car -- went to a 14-year-old kid who's too young to drive. As for jerseys Nos. 20 and 52, I don't know who got them -- I couldn't hear the names through my tears -- but it wasn't me. By a few minutes after 11, when the last of the 39 jerseys had been handed out, I was like the Orioles on a not-so-rare day in June, or July, or August, or September: Shut out, skunked, zilched. In a word, shirtless.
And thus ill-attired I shall go into what, in a rash moment, five years ago I called The Void: That long, dark season between late October and early March when the season called Baseball is on holiday. Five years ago I thought The Void was a terrible agony, and lamented it accordingly, but in 1988 a funny thing happened: Just as the weather went berserk, so did the seasons, for as any Orioles fan will tell you, what we've just been through certainly wasn't Baseball. What lies ahead between now and March of 1989 may not be Baseball either, but by contrast with what lies behind us it certainly can't be called The Void.
No, the truth is that this tired old Orioles fan -- this loyal, long-suffering, fantastic fan -- is looking forward to The Void as he never before has. Like a squirrel in October, I spent the summer stocking up: taping movies on television, mainly, and investing a few dollars in spectacularly remastered classic jazz on compact discs. Now, thanks to this foresight, I aim to spend my evenings with Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier, my afternoons with Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and Edward Kennedy Ellington.
For five blissful months there'll be no Orioles to send me moaning into the night, gnashing my hair and tearing my teeth. Sorry about that, guys, but I'm switching off Home Team Sports today; see you in March, Mel Proctor and Brother Low, have a nice Void. Oh, from time to time I'll flick a thought in the general direction of Bob Milacki and Pete Harnisch and Gregg Olson and Jose Bautista and Curt Schilling and Jeff Ballard and Ozzie Peraza -- talk about hope of Orioles future! -- but not ardently and not for long. No, sir. What I see before me is not Baseball but The Void, and it looks for all the world like Heaven.
© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company