The signing of Vladimir Guerrero to be the full-time designated hitter for the Orioles in 2011 has opened up an interesting fault line among the fanbase. I have been fascinated watching the various reactions because for the most part they have not fit into the preconceived notions and stereotypes that I assumed to be true. The places that I believed to be the biggest enclaves of relentless negativity have, curiously enough, proven to be the places where people are most excited about this particular signing and about the 2011 season in general.
My initial reaction to the Vlad signing was not a positive one, and though this attitude is shared by many here on Camden Chat, it seems to be in the minority among the broader population of Orioles fans. There may be a temptation to view this divide through a lens of elitism, casting the split as one between the kinds of fans who are fans of traditional statistics and the kinds of fans who have embraced newer metrics for player evaluation.
Though you may be able to put the debate in those terms, I think that is just too easy, and only would serve to alienate those fans who are excited. To me, there is something deeper and more visceral at play here. There is an optimism gap among the Birdland faithful. There are those who are still able to cleave to some hope for a better day, and there are those who have been conditioned over all these years of losing to always expect the worst, so much so that they cannot imagine things being any other way.
I would like to tell you that I am one of the dreamers, and that I can dare to hope, but it is not so. Hope is out of my reach, and it's the Orioles who put it there.
We all have our own reference points for the last Orioles winning season. Or at least, all of us who were actually old enough to remember have those memories. In the fall of 1997, I had just started high school, and I honestly don't even recall paying attention to the playoffs at all. The Jeffrey Maier moment from the year previous is indelibly etched into my consciousness. You could probably even argue that event influenced my development as a person. When it comes to 1997, though, I have no memory of the Armando Benitez horror story that wrecked the wire-to-wire team.
How could I have known that would be the last taste of winning Orioles baseball? How could any of us have known? In some ways it doesn't feel that long ago, and yet, this year will be my 10th year high school reunion. That decade of nominal adulthood has brought me probably three months where it was really exciting to be an Orioles fan: the pre-All Star Break months of 2005.
I have only come to love the Orioles more in that time, even as the consecutive losing seasons have piled up. Even through years and years of each subsequent season having more losses than the one before it, I became a bigger fan. Whatever else is going on in my life, the Orioles have been there nearly every night for six months a year. To an outsider, that probably sounds like some kind of hell: refuge from other trials in a crappy team like the Orioles? I bet you understand, though. They don't have to be good. They just have to be there.
Which is not to say it wouldn't be nice if the Orioles were actually good again. I just never expected it to happen, or even hoped for it to happen. After this long, it's like being inoculated against the suck in some ways. And we've certainly seen some whoppers. 4-32, three managers fired midseason since 2005, Palmeiro's stanozolol, the Mother's Day Massacre, 30-3. They hurt for a while, but then they don't, because with each one you're a little more used to it.
In a serious departure from my usual policy, I let myself get sucked in by the hype last year. In retrospect, I really couldn't tell you why, because after seeing the 2010 season I can't step back far enough to see what I imagined were hopeful signs. It all seems inevitable now. But I read all the stories, I read all the buzz, and I suppose those stories are there every year, but for some reason last year I let myself actually dare to dream. Not even of contention, because that would have been too much. At least a year where we were not a laughingstock. Maybe the young pitching would develop into something special. Maybe the young hitters would take their serious strides forward. Weirder things had happened, right?
Not only did I allow myself to hope, but I bought into it so much that I was going around with a little swagger, telling my non-Orioles fan friends, family and acquaintances that this was going to be a year where something special might happen. After twelve consecutive losing seasons at that point, we all needed a little something to believe in.
There was no way to know the depth of that folly until it was too late to do anything about it. I went in to the 2010 season with my guard down. The carefully-crafted defenses against terrible baseball were lowered, and in the event, I was not allowed even a day's respite before the painful knife twisted in. Michael Gonzalez happened. Michael Gonzalez, whose signing was a mystery. Why give up a draft pick and give a two-year contract to that guy?
Then Gonzalez blew two saves in the first four games, setting us on the path for a season's worth of bad juju. It was the kind of thing that prompted Orioles radio announcer Joe Angel to close the broadcast of the game that sent us to a 1-11 record – a game that ended with Jim Johnson blowing a save in Oakland - by informing us, "I'm ready for a straitjacket." The Orioles made April fools out of all of us.
The train of indignity rolled on, with the Garrett Atkins debacle, the Kevin Millwood mess, the Ty Wigginton post-April performance, the Cesar Izturis offensive trainwreck, and on and on. Not only were we repeatedly buffeted by these colossal failures, but we looked like idiots too, for ever believing it could be any other way. Were it not for the turnaround that coincided with Buck Showalter's arrival, whether or not he had anything to do with it, we were headed towards a historically bad season.
With the 2010 campaign behind us, it's now thirteen straight losing seasons for us Orioles fans and that need to believe is even stronger. Whether or not you agree with the Vlad signing on its own merits, what it portends for both the present and the future, let's be honest: it's an exciting capstone to an offseason that's overhauled a lot of the worst parts of the 2010 roster.
I want to believe in the Vlad signing, and I want to believe in 2011. Were it not for the disaster of last year, I probably would. Now as much I try, I simply cannot trust to hope, for it has forsaken these lands. The 2010 Orioles stomped on me until it fled.
I want to get excited, but then I think of Vlad's knees, Derrek Lee's wrists, Brian Roberts' back, Kevin Gregg's 1.39 WHIP in 2010, Adam Jones' inability to lay off the down and away pitch, Luke Scott's likely regression after a career year, the fact that I might have to put up with another year of Mark Hendrickson on the roster, and, oh yeah, the possibility that the young pitching we've pinned all our hopes on could either get hurt, or suck.
When it comes down to it, I don't think that the excitement over the Vlad signing has anything to do with one's preferred method of statistical analysis or anything like that. I think there are still people out there in Birdland who can still dream a little bit. Maybe they were smart enough to not get crushed by the last season, or maybe they're just bigger optimists than I and they are not afraid to let their guard down again. I am not going to hold it against anyone for wanting to believe that the better times have finally arrived. I am just not one such person right now.
Still, April 1 is a long way away. Maybe by then, I, too, will rediscover the audacity of hope. It might happen, if only I can get over my fear of being made into an April fool once more.