Fandom, sports fandom, is such a strange concept. You decide – usually arbitrarily, based on geography or a parent’s influence – to entrust your heart to a group of strangers who are not aware, in the specific, of how much they control your ups and downs. With so much unavoidable heartbreak in life, why do some of us sign up for extra helpings?
My family moved to Baltimore in 1965; the Orioles won the World Series, in four straight, in 1966. How could I not succumb? And it wasn’t a fluke, that team. Throughout my childhood, the Orioles were an easy team to root for – two World Series and three pennants before I graduated from college. I loved Brooks, Frank and Boog, of course, but also Andy Etchebarren and Mark Belanger and Don Buford. (I have a crystal-clear memory of Buford going into the stands to confront a heckling fan, but I’ve never found anyone else who shares the memory, so perhaps I am mistaken.) The Tess novels often make dark references to 1969, the nadir year of Baltimore sports; NO GOOD DEEDS also has a running gag about the “Baltimore Four,” in which longtime Baltimoreans assume it’s a reference to the four 20-game winners of 1971, Palmer, Dobson, Cueller and McNally. Those were my Orioles.
So, when family members arranged a last-minute trip to Cooperstown over the weekend, I passed. I admire Cal Ripken Jr., but not enough to get me to overcome my antipathy toward crowds and heat. And, as it turned out, an estimated 75,000, a record-breaking number, converged on that lovely New York town for the induction, and the weather was brutal. I watched on a television in the bar of a local restaurant, and have no regrets.
But if I had to pick an all-time favorite Oriole season, it would include Ripken: 1989. After the abysmal ’88 season, in which the Orioles lost twenty straight, the ’89 season was like something out of a film, with the Orioles contending up until the final weekend, in Toronto. As I recall, they needed to win two out of three to take first place. They lost the Friday night game in a heartbreaker, then dropped the Saturday game as well. I had just moved home, after eight years in Texas, and I remember walking the streets of Baltimore, feeling very . . . melancholy. A good friend laughed at my use of that word recently, when we were discussing the passions aroused by professional sports, but it’s the right word. I don’t cry or curse. I just wander the streets, feeling an existential despair.
Why do we give our hearts to sports teams? I’ve read FEVER PITCH and watched countless films, trying to understand this phenomenon. I’ve pondered the masochistic relationship between the Chicago Cubs and their fans. Just this past Friday night, I went to the ballpark on an overcast, humid night, in which rain spit on us from time to time, and experienced the most inordinate pleasure over the Orioles’ (meaningless) victory over the Yankees. Really, my stomach was jumping with nerves as the Orioles took their slender two-run lead into the ninth inning. Why?
Do you root, root, root for the home team? Or some other team? Do you ever feel silly, giving these strangers control over your emotions?
Meanwhile, Cal did us proud at the ceremony; you can watch him <a href=”http://www.baltimoresun.com”_blank”>here</a>. (Scroll through the video menu.) Okay, it’s not the Gettysburg Address, but it was a nice job.