Fun Times In Baltimore

There’s plenty wrong with baseball and with professional sports -probably more wrong than right, when I think about it. This year’s Baltimore Orioles team is what is right with sports. The team is full of guileless, wide-eyed, earnest players who, only a few seasons ago, were riding to rec league games in their parents’ minivans. Now, this fun-loving bunch of kids has a shot to unburden millions of fans of decades of disappointment. At this moment, baseball feels perfect.

In case you didn’t see it the other night, the O’s won their 100th game of the 2023 season, beating Boston 2-0 to clinch the American League East. The next night, the O’s won their 101st.

I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker; I’m buying what the O’s are selling. They’re a feel-good team with a ton of personality – something that’s still pretty novel to a sport that spent its first 140 years with a big stick up its ass. Like one of those old Monty Python animations, a giant cartoon foot would promptly squash anything that smacked of individuality or fun. Nobody smiled. Nobody was permitted to break any of the zillions of unwritten rules that made the game stodgy and conservative. I mean, sure, I’ve always loved it. But that kind of uptight, stone-faced, joyless baseball wasn’t going to survive much longer in today’s age.

And it’s not just Baltimore, of course. Players all over the league are having fun and letting fans see it. The Unwritten Code is fading away and allowing players to be themselves, rather than tobacco-spitting automatons whose second-biggest change since the 19th century came in the form of polyester uniforms. The biggest and most important change, of course, came a couple of seasons after World War II, when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers finally integrated the sport. Sure, the designated hitter, the players association, free agency – those were important. But they weren’t fundamental shifts in how we related to the game and its players.

The last few years, the Orioles could have been an HGTV show. In 2018, Mike Elias joined the O’s after helping build a Houston Astros team that won by using advanced analytics and weird math. He asked Baltimore fans to trust him. Elias convinced the team’s overlords that the only way little Baltimore could compete in a division with much larger and much wealthier teams in New York, Boston, and Toronto (and Tampa) was to gut the whole organization and rebuild it from the foundation. Yeah, it’d be painful to watch. But, if you stuck around, it would pay off, they said.

Whelp, it worked. No matter what happens to Baltimore in the postseason, they’re poised to be competitive for a really long time. The front office has pushed all the right buttons, drafted all the right kids and selected all the right spare parts from other teams’ scrap heaps.  

Unlike other American pro sports, Major League Baseball has no salary cap. Teams in cities with a lot of people… and a lot of wealth… and a lot of big business have a gigantic advantage over teams in cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Baltimore. Sure, there’s a plump revenue-sharing system that pretty much ensures that everyone makes a pile of money. But the smaller-city teams can’t afford to make the mistakes that bigger-city teams can just spend their way out of. Baltimore had very little room for error. If the Elias rebuild didn’t work, the team would be doomed to baseball’s dungeon, if it even managed to stay in Baltimore.

At a time when it feels like our institutions are letting us down, this particular local institution actually made good on its promise. Hell, they even announced an agreement last night to keep the team at Camden Yards for many years to come. A baseball team won’t fix a city that, as often as not, seems barely able to function. But it really does bring a lot of smiles to a lot of faces, on the field, in the stands, in the bars, and in our homes. 

In some ways, it doesn’t seem like it could get any more perfect considering the team’s horrific fortunes of the recent past. But, it actually could get more…perfect. For, with any luck, Baltimore, which has home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs, could find itself in a place it has not been for a very long time: the World Series. And maybe, just maybe…the O’s might win the thing. And wouldn’t that be fun!

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