Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

After 40 years of loving TV baseball, I've tuned out thanks to the Orioles and MASN

After 40 years of almost nightly TV viewing of major league baseball, I’ve tuned out. I think it’s for good — and for the best.

What bad teams and sometimes terrible telecasts in Milwaukee, Detroit and Dallas couldn’t do as I moved through newspaper jobs, the Baltimore Orioles and MASN have accomplished this spring: getting me to walk away from what had been one of the greatest pleasures in my adult life.

It isn’t that the Orioles stink on the field this season, or that manager Buck Showalter seems to have nothing but his same-old, same-old bromides about how hard it is to play the game at the major league level. I have faithfully watched plenty of bad baseball teams over the decades.

My issues with the O’s have been building since I reported on the eve of Opening Day that the Orioles, for the first time ever, were not allowing any of their games to be seen on broadcast TV this year. It came to a head last week as I screened a MLB network mini-documentary titled “The Other Streak.” It featured the 1988 O’s and their 21-game losing streak at the start of that season, and it made me realize just how badly this franchise is treating fans who showed it so much loyalty over the years.

After breaking the streak on the road, the O’s came home to Memorial Stadium not knowing what to expect. After all, their record of dubious achievement had become a kind of national misery watch, with updates on NBCs “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” and jokes by late night comics.

But instead of shame or scorn, what they saw as they took the field were thousands of fans packing the stands and cheering every pitch and swing as if it was a World Series game.

If you are a lover of baseball, you couldn’t watch without getting a little choked up and thinking what a special breed of fan they had in Baltimore. I grew up in Milwaukee with the Braves, who had fans dancing down Wisconsin Avenue in 1957 after their World Series win, but even I had to admit the fans in Baltimore were better.

And how were those die-hard Baltimore fans repaid by the team 30 years later for such stalwart support and unconditional love? They were told in 2018 essentially to come up with the money for cable or forget about seeing the O’s on TV.

And I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched that MLB documentary how many of those fans who came to Memorial Stadium that day in 1988 to give the O’s some love are seniors now on fixed incomes who might have a hard time affording the cost of a cable upgrade.

I did try to get past my issues with O’s TV and settle into my routine of 40 springs and summers of coming home from work, eating dinner, walking the dog, answering emails and phone calls and then finally sitting down and letting myself drift off for an hour or two into the soothing rhythms of the games and the voices of announcers.

It used to work the way I expect a glass of wine, a cold beer or a dry martini works for folks who had a little alcohol at night to take the edge off the day. Or maybe meditation for those more spiritually focused.

But not this year with the Orioles. I couldn’t get the thought of the people who had been satisfied with just the 20 or so games they got to see on WJZ being denied even that. The worst was denying those fans access to Opening Day, which is as much a civic and seasonal celebration as it is a sporting event.

By watching, I felt that I was in league with and somehow approving of MASN and the O’s as they shut part of the community out of this shared civic experience. This is how you make people feel alienated and disconnected.

I don’t want to get cosmic here, but we have more than enough separation between haves and have-nots in this country, and as far as I can tell, it is only getting worse. I do not want to be on the wrong side of this history. Even if the O’s get on a run and start playing winning baseball, I won’t be back in front of my TV with MASN.

In April, a woman from Baltimore County wrote to me about her family’s tradition when she was a child of getting together at one of the family members’ houses to “watch our O’s play.”

When she married and had children, she continued the tradition.

But now, she wrote, “because my cable lineup doesn’t include MASN, I can no longer host the get-togethers.”

She went on to say that she is on a fixed income, and it “sickens” her to be faced with the decision to either “feed her family” and buy needed prescriptions or upgrade her cable to watch the O’s.

As angry as she is about the decision to take the O’s off broadcast TV, she added that she is “still thankful for my fond memories of the O's, especially the great times at 33rd Street.”

That’s the kind of longtime, loyal fans who are left behind by this decision.

Others wrote to say they have just moved on to livestreaming other forms of entertainment as a result of what the Orioles did this year — and they are enjoying the experience.

“I miss watching the Orioles, but maybe Angelos did me a favor,” an O’s fan from Hampstead wrote this week. “I would have been seriously depressed watching the worst team in the league find many different ways to lose. Instead, I've become a fan of commercial-free streaming on Netflix and Amazon.”

(The Peter Angelos family owns the Orioles and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.)

As I did for my reports in April, I reached out this week to MASN and the Orioles for this column, hoping to get an explanation of the TV decision to share with their fans and viewers — as well as a sense of how they are feeling about the decision today. They have yet to respond.

I grew up playing baseball on youth league travel teams and went to college on a baseball scholarship. But just as I moved on from playing, now I have moved on from watching.

I had some practice at that thanks to the way the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL mishandled Ray Rice’s assault of his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, and the issue of domestic violence in general during the 2014 season. That was obviously a far more serious matter than whether the Orioles are on broadcast TV. By the time of the Super Bowl in January, 2015, I wrote that I was done with the NFL after a year of propaganda, spin, lies and puppet-dog announcers kissing up to and shilling for Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners like Steve Bisciotti.

I did not watch a second of that Super Bowl. I now only watch the NFL when I am reviewing Ravens telecasts for The Baltimore Sun.

I know from the TV ratings last season that I am far from the only person who has a hard time trying to stomach the hypocrisy of the NFL. And I know from the weeknight games I watched earlier in April from Camden Yards that I am far from the only fan who has lost interest in the Orioles.

I still sneak in a few innings with other teams on the MLB channel some nights. But my wife has decided that there is still hope for me even at this advanced age and has stepped in to fill the TV viewing void with a crash course on foreign films. (Actually, I think she’s been waiting 40 years to launch this cinematic blitz.)

Instead of mapping my TV week by teams the O’s would be playing on a West Coast swing through Anaheim and Oakland, it’s now titles like “The Seventh Seal” and “Sansho the Bailiff” that define my nighttime viewing.

Those two titles were earlier in the week. Now, it’s on to “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “Last Year at Marienbad.”

What can I say? There aren’t a lot of great foreign films about baseball.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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