Right as the wind was really coming out of the sails of the Orioles' 2013 playoff hopes, right as the train was really coming off the rails, right as I was getting so mad that my metaphors were mixing like a poorly poured black and tan -- the E-mail arrived. "Your Postseason Tickets Have Been Shipped!" my inbox proclaimed excitedly on Sunday morning, a poignant counterpoint to the Orioles' fourth straight loss, the one where their playoff hopes went from "slim" to "mathematically possible with a dash of 'you must be crazy.'"
For most of my adult life, the Orioles have been a joke. Before the magic of the 2012 season, they hadn't finished above .500 since I was a freshman in high school. In my adult life of buying my own tickets and taking myself to Camden Yards, the Orioles hadn't fielded a winner, let alone a playoff contender. 2012 changed all of that. The Orioles won 93 games and made the playoffs -- and I bought in, getting partial season tickets this year in exchange for playoff tickets last year.
I already knew how to root for a losing team. You show up to support the franchise, to enjoy the ballpark, to take in the sport, to root for an individual achievement -- even when you know it won't lead to any kind of championship, the stated goal of a professional sports season. There was the year where Ty Wigginton represented the team at the All-Star Game. There was the season where fans actually let themselves believe in David Newhan. There was the utter indignity of the 2005 campaign, full of false hope and leading to painful collpase.
I went directly from that sort of futility, to the headrush of a magical season where the team went to the wild-card game, won it, and brought the ALDS to Baltimore. They defied expectations. They defied Bill James. They defied all logic in winning 93 games on the backs of an insane bullpen, a sufficient offense and a patchwork rotation, all backed by Dan Duquette's game of roster roulette.
And now, in 2013, I have to learn something new. I have to learn how to deal with a good team that falls short. Everyone who talked about the Orioles regressing right back into futility was wrong, but even as the team may have gotten better in terms of true talent, they've gotten worse results, mainly due to a bullpen that's looked all too worldly and a rotation whose seams are still showing. Thanks a lot, Jim Johnson.
I have to learn how to be a fan of a team like that.
In 2011, Chris Davis's 51st home run would've been enormous. In 2013, it feels like a consolation prize, like walking away with $10,000 in Powerball when you missed that last number by just one.
In 2007, the team breaking the record for fewest errors in an MLB season would've been a pretty awesome footnote, even if errors are viewed as an increasingly poor measurement of defensive acumen. In 2013, the team's superb defense only makes fans think of what could've been, given a consistent rotation that fed ground balls to the infield more often. Thanks a lot, Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta.
I have to learn how to be a fan of a team that hangs in playoff contention until mid-September, puts up a very good season (especially by comparison to the last 18 or so), but ultimately falls short. I have to figure out what it's like to keep my eye on the prize of a world championship, and somehow still view the other positives of a 162-game season as something more than a fallback, a reason to bother caring about those last few series when the ultimate prize is out of reach.
There are plenty of fans out there who have received envelopes full of useless playoff tickets and viewed them as a simple part of rooting for a team that's in contention, even if they missed the mark for one particular season. I'm not one of those fans yet. There was too much futility for too many years -- and there was too much magic concentrated into one incredible run last year. I can't view this big envelope as anything more than a tangible reminder of unfulfilled expectations.
It's great to have a team that's above .500, and looks like they might be important to the AL playoff picture for a while to come. But right now, it's also horrible. Is it actually worse than being a laughingstock? No, of course it's not. But I'm going to need a few more years where they actually make it before that sinks in.
Until then, do you think 2013 playoff tickets for teams that didn't make the playoffs go for anything on Ebay?