It was somewhere around the time when J.J. Hardy came up to bat with two outs in the top of the 9th inning in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series trailing Kansas City 2-1 while also behind in the best-of-seven series, 3-0, when it occurred to us that the Orioles might actually lose this thing. They did, and we instantly knew who and what to blame.
It was, of course, the endless airings of the Chrysler commercial featuring Miguel Cabrera which quotes liberally from "Casey at the Bat," the Ernest Lawrence Thayer poem that baseball fans practically know by heart about a home run king and his moment of failure. In Chrysler-world, the rewritten ending (after a Rocky-like montage of workouts and practice) is a Cabrera home run. Baseball fans know the game doesn't work that way. Naturally, the Orioles, Major League Baseball's biggest power hitting team, which swept Miguel and his Detroit Tigers in the divisional series, had to be swept themselves with a lack of punch when they needed it most. Thanks, Chrysler, thanks a bunch.
Baseball is, at its pitiless heart, a game of failure. The team with the most wins in a single season — the Chicago Cubs of 1906 with 116 — also lost 36 games and the World Series that same season. Hitting a baseball is the only human endeavor, as Ted Williams so famously observed, where you are considered a success when you fail seven out of 10 times. It's a game designed to break your heart, to quote former Commissioner Bart Giamatti, who also noted in the same essay — and pay attention to this line, Orioles fans — "how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another."
We will leave it to the sports writers to dissect the reasons the Orioles came up short, but the casual fan watching at home (and suffering through an endless loop of that stinking Chrysler ad along with those stinking ads for drugs to treat erectile dysfunction) saw in the Kansas City Royals a team that appeared blessed by the baseball gods. Between the bloop singles and the diving catches, it seemed as if every bounce went their way. They weren't even punished for their un-baseball-like smack talk and Jeremy Guthrie's mocking post-game apparel choice, leaving Orioles fans with only the quandary, can we really root for these guys in the World Series?
We leave it to Baltimoreans to make their own choice in that matter. In many ways, the Royals are a lot like the Orioles, a young, small market team that wasn't expected to make it this far. A little more team speed, perhaps, but still an opportunistic group built on defense and a strong bullpen. Once the pain of Wednesday night's elimination dulls sufficiently, we might even think of them fondly.
Here's the only solace we can offer. If the devil had approached you in March and offered a deal wherein your beloved Baltimore Orioles, a team that hadn't won the American League East in 17 years and whose only playoff appearance since the Clinton presidency was as a wild card in 2012, would not only win the division but advance to the ALCS, would you take it? Wait, did someone actually take that deal? Because we can faithfully attest that nobody was picking the Orioles to advance that far aside from the players' own parents and possibly Buck "I like our guys" Showalter. Perhaps someone should check for any liens that might have been placed on Steve Pearce's immortal soul because his star turn this season was just as improbable as his team's.
Let's face it. It's actually much easier on the emotions to support a baseball franchise that is out of contention in mid-September. No heartache there, just a kind of easily-managed dreariness. By their nature, playoff runs stop suddenly unless you win the last game played. But who wants to go back to those forlorn days when the O's were never really in contention at all? Anyone? We thought not. Instead, we can consider ourselves lucky that the Baltimore Ravens are around winning NFL football games and sitting just a half-game back of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. Kansas City sports fans aren't so fortunate, as the Chiefs have a losing record with strong Broncos and Chargers teams ahead of them and the playoffs looking increasingly unlikely. Not to rub it in or anything.
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