How do you enjoy a bad ball club? Orioles fans desperately need to know. Advice from an expert is essential. Someone who spent 15 years delighting in all developments pertaining to the atrocious Washington Senators. Like me.
Not only can a horrid team give considerable pleasure, it can do so with little emotional risk. (Plus plenty of comic relief.) In fact, lousy teams can be almost as much fun as good ones; but it takes a knack to know how to do it. Anybody can get high on a winner; it requires true fanmanship to extract joy from a loser. When you grow up adoring teams with slogans like Off The Floor in '64, you learn all the tricks.
First, repeat after me: "It's only a silly game." Sure, you knew that. But two dozen years of pennant contention can make you forget. Everybody tends to identify with a winner, which can be painful. For instance, some Boston Red Sox fans are still missing, locked in small rooms all over America, afraid to face life again; now that's identifying. With a loser, it's wiser merely to root; that's milder and safer. If the Nats, er -- Birds, win one, that's nice. Cheer. Feel good. If they lose, laugh or boo. And feel good.
Verily, they may be defeated, but we cannot be. That's how it's supposed to be, by the way. We pay 'em, remember. To entertain us. To help us pass the time. If ballplayers want to be taken seriously, let 'em win the pennant. Otherwise, they shouldn't nag us about how we find our pleasure. If you lose seven in a row to the Brewers, at least learn to take a joke.
Now that we've relaxed and discarded our game faces, what next?
Start by isolating the Orioles as individuals. Don't think "team"; that's where madness lies. You'll end up hating 'em all. When you identify with a team, you're stuck with all 24 players, even if some of them make you crazy. You feel you have to pull for every Tom Niedenfuer because of the uniform and the sacred pennant race. Well, that's history now. If you like Ray Knight or think Mike Griffin could use support, then play favorites. Conversely, if you feel like informing some $500,000-a-year worthy that "Your ERA just hit 7.00 -- time to sell," then please feel free.
The essence of enjoying bad teams is finding players you esteem within the larger mess. Don't ask why a child would scream for Julio Becquer or Tex Clevenger. Or why, when he's an adult, he'd yell for Ed Stroud, Lee Maye and Casey Cox. But it happens.
In the case of the Orioles, the ore is ridiculously rich. No Senators fan since the Depression had a player as good as Cal Ripken Jr. or Eddie Murray to adopt. The last Senators pitcher as good as Mike Boddicker might've been Walter Johnson; okay, so maybe Camilo Pascual. When did they have an outfielder who played in nine all-star games, like Fred Lynn?
In light of the Orioles' present pitching rotation -- Murdered Row -- it might be wise to select one Baltimore starter of passable skill, such as Dave Schmidt, and focus on his games.
If you're the tender-hearted type, these are the days for you. At least 10 Orioles are real lulus -- folks who one day may be compared with Herb Plews and Joe Grzenda. If you were lucky enough to see Rene Gonzales' only career homer, don't forget it. This could be the decade when Mike Kinnunen gets that elusive first big league win.
While we focus on the Orioles as individuals, we should treat the other team -- especially if it's good -- as an entity. The Orioles are not sufficiently gifted anymore to prevent the Yankees from being the Yankees. So get into it. Watch the onslaught as Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Gary Ward and Mike Pagliarulo stride to the plate in succession -- each certain that every pitch he sees will be within his ability to pulverize. Against bad teams we get to see why the top teams are so good. Remember how mercilessly the Orioles once ground down the American League West? There's instruction to be gained in watching the process in reverse with the Orioles in the role of cannon fodder.
The Orioles are accidentally entertaining. They can score runs and blow leads with anybody. No deficit is safe. And any lead is in mortal danger.
There's one exception to these rules. On days when Boddicker pitches we can still watch the Orioles in the same ways that we have for a generation. We can appreciate precision, intelligence, craft and gumption. With Boddicker on the mound, the current team often looks a great deal like the old Orioles.
As longtime lovers of bad baseball learn from experience, anything can be endured so long as the wound is not salted constantly with hope.
Now that we've had our attitude adjustment, let's add a few practical tips. First, don't attend too many games. You'll just encourage them. When people insist on watching bad teams in person, you end up with the Chicago Cubs. Don't just show up out of habit; pick the opponent or the starting pitching matchup you want.
Instead, concentrate more on TV games. Then, you're in control. Watch the first two innings. That's often when you find out if a bad team is going to play a good game. Regardless of Orioles fortunes, the first two innings are fun, anyway. You get to watch the first six or seven players in the opposing batting order -- the stars. Do a nice half-hour study of them, then, if it crosses your mind, flip the TV on again two hours later. Maybe there'll be a ninth inning worth watching -- like Niedenfuer's homer-homer-homer squander in Detroit.
The crucial lesson for watching bad baseball is that you must never build an entire evening around a game. The Orioles can fall behind by 13 runs and depress you; or they can blow a 12-run lead and depress you even more. These days, the Orioles are a plate of hors d'oeuvres, not a main course. Pick out what's a pleasure, but don't stuff yourself with the whole thing. You'll only get heartburn.