One game, all the marbles

Will Baltimoreans tune in Orioles or vice presidential debate? Is that a serious question?

A high-stakes, but seemingly interminably-long, competition comes down to a single, nationally-televised moment between second-tier antagonists. That's either the vice presidential debate between Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence in Farmville, Va. or the Orioles-Blue Jays wild-card game in Toronto.

As it happens, both will take place Tuesday night about the same time. The difference? Please. One is simply of far greater consequence than the other.

We speak, of course, of the baseball game.

This has been a remarkable season for the Baltimore Orioles and the team's appearance in the playoffs defies common assumptions about the sport. Remember how the Orioles finished with a .500 won-loss record last season as fans bemoaned the rotation of so-so starters? The team's earned run average in 2016 is actually worse and the starters at least as unpredictable (and that's putting it kindly) as ever.

And it's not like the Orioles offense set Major League Baseball on fire either. The team wrapped up the season with six triples (the fewest in the majors), 744 runs (12th), and a .256 team batting average (just 6 points better than last season). Only in home runs were they exceptional — smacking 253 of them, the best in baseball.

That's made the Orioles a team that seems to have caught its hometown fans off-guard. The O's home attendance has averaged 26,819 per game, just 20th in baseball and about 4,000 fewer fans per game than last season when the city was still dealing with the aftermath of the Freddie Gray unrest. Fans have floated theories from ticket prices and continued worries about urban violence to the lure of the high-flying Washington Nationals, but none seems especially convincing.

Yet it's hard to believe that Baltimore, a city that has cheered for so many great baseball players and teams, is ready to abandon the Birds right now. The success or failure of the 2016 season comes down to a single game — under a change to playoff rules made just four years ago, the two wild-card teams in each league face each other for a one-game, all-or-nothing match to determine which one gets into the Division Series.

Vice presidential debates can be entertaining (the Sarah Palin-Joe Biden faceoff of 2008 got record ratings if only for gaffe-gazing — the equivalent of wreck-watching in NASCAR) but rare is the voter who makes an Election Day choice based on the undercard. The Orioles-Blue Jays game might actually produce a team capable of making it to the World Series as the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants both did in 2014. (In a welcome sign for the O's, the Giants won as a visiting wild card team and then beat the Royals to capture the World Series).

Baseball purists may be appalled that the sport's 162-game schedule can be rendered so meaningless that a team's season hinges on a single game but that's actually the nature of the nation's pastime. A pitcher can throw a near-perfect game but make just a few bad pitches to cause a loss. A hitter can miss a home run by a fraction of an inch and a game can turn on a single play — a stolen base, an error in the field, a well-timed hit.

Perhaps presidential elections are the same. Did Donald Trump lose a debate to Hillary Clinton because of what happened at Hofstra University that night (a decision to constantly interrupt or getting caught off guard by the complaints of a former Miss Universe) or was the 90-minute debacle simply a reflection of the candidates — with all their quirks and foibles — that have been manifest throughout the political season? And by the same token, can an underdog like the Orioles top a team that has beaten them six out of 10 times at Rogers Centre?

Baltimoreans who have ignored the Orioles this year have missed out. It is obvious that the players have a strong affection for each other and the season's top performers — Mark Trumbo, MLB's top home run hitter and Zach Britton with his miniscule 0.54 earned run average, best among MLB closers — are wonderfully unlikely success stories. Governor Pence or Senator Kaine might knock it out of the park at the podium Tuesday, but the odds are better for a Baltimore competitor, whose team will actually advance as a result — a prospect Charm City denizens can truly be happy about.

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