I was born in New York. But as a baseball fan, I was born in Baltimore.
After having lived in four other cities during the first five years of my life, my family moved to Baltimore County in the fall of 1977. I attended my first Orioles game the following spring.
The only memory I have of the game is this: My family was seated in the lower bowl of Memorial Stadium. In my mind's eye, at least, we were about 15 rows behind home plate, a little to the third base side. During one of the middle innings, a gentleman sitting behind us tapped my dad on the shoulder. "Hey, you know who that is sitting across the aisle, right? Al Bumbry. Maybe he'd give the kids an autograph."
The Birds' speedy centerfielder happened to be on the disabled list at the time and was taking in the game from the stands. (Impossible to imagine a big leaguer doing that today.) Bumbry obliged my sheepish request and signed my game program.
My baseball memories from the next few years are pretty fuzzy. Although I don't remember any of the 1979 World Series specifically, I distinctly remember hating the Pirates after they came back from a three games to one deficit to beat our Birds. Hating them and their stupid pillbox-style caps. And hating their stupid adopted theme song, Sister Sledge's "We are Family."
Despite that Series loss, I was hooked. Beginning with the 1979 season, when I was seven, the Orioles would finish first or second in the AL East for five consecutive years, and for all I knew, this was how it worked: The Orioles would, at worst, always contend for a division title. My confidence was reinforced by a page that appeared in the game programs they sold at Memorial Stadium during that era. (We always bought the programs so I could keep score. Most of them, ticket stubs stapled to the covers, are still in my bedroom closet at my parents' home.) As I recall it, the page bore the bold proclamation that the Orioles had been the most successful team in pro sports over the previous 25 years, which to me might as well have been forever. More wins than the Yankees over that span. A better winning percentage than the Oakland Raiders. And so on.
My family would make it to Memorial Stadium for a handful of games each season, baseball gloves in hand in case of a foul ball. At every reasonable opportunity, we'd listen to Chuck Thompson -- and then Jon Miller -- calling the games on WFBR. I remember hearing Cal Ripken's first hit on the radio, and thinking he might turn out to be OK. Listening to Tippy Martinez's three-pickoff inning against the Blue Jays in 1983, and to John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke, Terry Crowley and Benny Ayala come up with clutch, game-winning hits, seemingly every game. Don Stanhouse making things interesting, seemingly every time he pitched, before getting a few key outs. Eddie Murray being unstoppable.
I remember, while playing catch in the backyard with my friend Andy, mimicking the pitching motions of Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor (well, a right-handed version), Dennis Martinez and Mike Flanagan. Clipping a photo from the front page of the Sun of my friend Adam holding a "Go O's" poster at a big game. The disappointment of the Game 163 loss to Milwaukee in 1982. Meeting Sammy Stewart at my doctor's office -- his autograph on a piece of lined notepaper instantly making me feel better after I had blood drawn.
I remember seeing -- in person at the stadium -- Mike Boddicker's virtuoso pitching in the second games of the 1983 ALCS and World Series. And sitting on the sofa at the home of our friends, the Kramers, while watching Cal snare the line drive to bring the championship to Baltimore.
All of which is to say: To me, the time between my seventh and 12th birthdays in Baltimore didn't seem like it was a golden era for Orioles baseball; it just was Orioles baseball. For those of us who grew up in Baltimore then -- and are now in our late 30s and early 40s -- I guess living in baseball heaven just seemed normal.
That experience, somehow, is what's imprinted into the wiring of my brain all of these years later and I suppose that's why I feel compelled to pay such close attention and root so hard for the first meaningful late-season games the Orioles have played in 15 years. It's why -- now that I'm living in Los Angeles and can't watch most of their games on TV -- I'm glued to my computer as sports websites and Twitter posts describe the disposition of each pitch. Even if the game lasts for 18 innings—five and a half hours of beautiful, torturous promise. Five and a half hours more distance between Baltimore's baseball team and all of those 90-loss seasons they slogged through during the past decade and a half.
This is why watching the Orioles this year feels exciting, yes, but also comfortable, and normal. Why it makes sense that, in the past few weeks, Endy Chavez and Taylor Teagarden and Ryan Flaherty and Nate McLouth have seemed to routinely summon impossibly big hits in impossibly big situations. That Chris Davis, an outfielder-DH-first baseman, would pitch two scoreless innings for a victory in one of those ridiculous extra-inning games. That a preternaturally talented rookie infielder, Manny Machado, would play as though he were a grizzled veteran playing in his seventh or eighth pennant race. That an opposing team isn't able to score the game-winning run on an errant throw by an Oriole infielder because -- get this -- the ball somehow hits a first base coach and stays within the reach of Mark Reynolds. That with only a few games left in the regular season we -- yes, we -- found ourselves more than 20 games over .500 and battling the Yankees for first place even though we had given up more runs than we had scored. (The O's finally reached positive run differential on September 28.)
This is why "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" sounds a lot sweeter this year -- whether we're hearing it in the seventh inning of a game or the 14th -- and why "Orioles Magic" all of a sudden makes sense again. Why it seems right that the goofy, grinning cartoon bird logo, last seen in '88, returned to the team's caps this year. And this is why, whatever our Orioles accomplish in the playoffs, this is the most fun I've had watching baseball since I was a kid.
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