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What Does It Mean To Be A Fan Of A Team Going Nowhere?

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Well, here we are at another All-Star break, and the Orioles have the second worst record in the American League and the fourth worst in baseball. They have the second worst run differential in baseball and the worst in the American League. For enthusiasts of traditional statistics, the Orioles have the worst ERA in baseball; for saber fans, the Orioles are last in baseball by UZR. The Orioles are also unlucky; they have scored the fourth fewest runs in the American League, despite having the seventh highest OPS in the league. We arrived at the All-Star break having lost nine of our last ten games, and with a rotation featuring Jeremy Guthrie, Mitch Atkins, Chris Jakubauskas, and Alfredo Simon. It seems safe to say that we aren't primed for a big second half.

As the survivors of thirteen consecutive losing seasons, Baltimore fans are used to seeing their team lose. But this season has been devastating to the hope that arrived four years ago with the hiring of Andy MacPhail as general manager. His rebuilding effort appears to have failed. Now in his fourth season with the Orioles, Adam Jones has not emerged into a star player. Neither has All-Star Matt Wieters, now in his third season in the majors. Our top pitching prospect of 2009, Chris Tillman, is back in the minors after having failed at the major league level. So is our top pitching prospect of 2010, Brian Matusz. Our top pitching prospect of 2011, Zach Britton, joined them there last week, after failing to get out of the first inning against the Red Sox. Meanwhile, our free agent stopgaps have become more expensive, but no more effective, with Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee proving to be only marginally more useful than Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada were last season.


Our continued malaise as an organization this season is even harder to take because our perennial fellow bottom dwellers have all seen progress this season. The Pittsburgh Pirates are four games over .500 and a game back of their division lead. The Diamondbacks are six games over .500 and three back of their division lead. The Washington Nationals have a .500 record, and have done it with Stephen Strasburg missing the entire season and Ryan Zimmerman injured for a large portion of it. The Mariners have moved into third place, and have seen breakout campaigns from Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley to go with Felix Hernandez and Justin Smoak to form a strong young core of talent. And while the Royals are only a game ahead of the Orioles in the standings, they have the top minor league system in baseball, which has seen the impressive debuts this season of Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, and Mike Moustakas. Fans in Kansas City feel, legitimately, that things are finally looking up.

And the Orioles, well, we have failed in nearly every way. We don't hit, we can't pitch, and we can't field. We don't develop top young players, nor do we succeed in signing free agents. The most excitement we've seen from Baltimore fans lately has come from the Orioles demonstrating that they are unable to hit even a target as large as David Ortiz with either a pitch or their fists. Watching the Orioles on and off the field, it feels like I am watching a team that is going nowhere, passing through a tunnel where I can't see the light on the other side.

It is hard for me to find the meaning in being an Orioles fan this season. At nearly whatever your expectations were for this season, the Orioles have managed to underperform. Unlike many O's fans and the actual management of the team, I didn't expect the Orioles to be good this season, or even to approach .500. I did, however, expect that they would be fun to watch, and that is not the case. At all. The Orioles are excruciating to watch, whether they be failing miserably with runners in scoring position, bungling routine plays in the field, tottering around the basepaths or giving up more home runs than anyone in baseball. Ten years after the publication of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics, we have the third worst groundball rate of any pitching staff in baseball; eight years after the publication of Moneyball, we have the third worst walk rate in the American League. We are stuck in the past, as symbolized by our free agent additions of some of the top stars of a decade ago.

The frustration level is increased because it feels like there is precious little the Orioles can do to turn this around. Unlike in previous seasons we can't look to a change of the manager to end our frustration; unlike his predecessors, Buck Showalter has the reputation of being one of the top managers in the game and the team has committed to him for multiple seasons. Nor do we have the hope of the cavalry coming around the corner; with the graduation of Britton, our top prospects are all in A ball or below. Under our present front office, our record of developing our own prospects is abysmal, but our record of scouting and signing major league free agents is worse. We can indulge, and will, for the next month in trade rumors, hoping that the next Oriole star will come from a trade of Jeremy Guthrie or Koji Uehara, but having been burned by Josh Bell, Tillman, and Jones, I have little faith in the ability of the O's to find a gem on the trade market. And while Guthrie and J.J. Hardy are nice players, we can hardly expect the kind of return for them that MacPhail got for Erik Bedard who was coming off a season as a Cy Young runner-up or a former MVP like Tejada. And of course, as much as we might fantasize about trades where we get Julio Teheran from the Braves for Adam Jones or Brandon Belt from the Giants for Hardy, the reality is that the O's don't have any articulated intention of dealing their best players; the latest rumors are that the Orioles will actually be buyers at the deadline, looking for veteran pitchers to shore up a rotation that until a couple weeks ago was leading the AAA Norfolk Tides to the worst record in the International League.

So, what do we have to hold on to? We aren't fun to watch, we aren't going through the growing pains of a rebuilding movement, we can't have faith that this is the start of something better. As a fan, I feel like I am being asked to be a sentinel; to bear witness to sport without hope. The old Dodgers refrain of "Wait 'til next year!" holds no promise for me; I believe in my bones that next year we are going to be no better off than we are this year. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop will be a year closer to the majors, but Wieters, Matusz and Tillman will all be a year further away from when they had the potential to be star players.

So where does that leave us? What's the rationale for following a team, rooting for a team, blogging about a team, when the fun is gone, and the hope is gone, and you are conducting an autopsy on the corpse-like remains? Why remain a fan of an organization that is inept on and off the field, that rewards our loyalty and passion so poorly?

These are hard questions, and my answer doesn't satisfy me as a thinking person. I keep watching the Orioles, thinking about the Orioles, caring about the Orioles for a simple reason: because I can't stop. I don't live in the Baltimore area anymore, but the love of it is in my blood. Baseball doesn't feel right to me if it doesn't come with pit beef and Old Bay fries, and the sight of the warehouse beyond right field. I'm a hostage to the Orioles, even when I know that they don't love me back and may never repay me for my affection and loyalty. And there is one more thing that I can't let go of, that keeps me coming back for more punishment...

It doesn't have to be this way.

Baseball isn't a fair game. There are teams who have huge advantages and always will, teams that have loads of money and recent success, teams that top prospects are eager to sign with and free agents are eager to play for. And they will always have an edge. And there are teams whose circumstances almost condemn them to long stretches of failure, teams like the Royals and Pirates who play in small media markets in poor areas, or teams like the Athletics and Rays who inhabit areas where there simply aren't enough fans who care about the team. The Orioles aren't like those teams.  Our owner is not a miser. Our town still shows up in decent numbers and still tunes in on television. Even with over a decade of losing, of our having to elevate decent players into stars so we have heroes of our own, we still manage to be more popular than half the teams in baseball. We have the raw elements for baseball in Baltimore to be successful.

And we can be a part of making it happen. The Royals became a smarter team that emphasized a strong farm system in part because smart people like Joe Posnanski and Rany Jazayerli became the leading journalists following the team. They helped their fellow Royals fans become smarter about baseball, and helped lead that team towards making smarter baseball decisions to satisfy their fan base. Writers like Dave Cameron and Jason Churchill did the same for the Mariners, helping to end the Bill Bavasi era and allowing Jack Zduriencik the freedom to make bold moves to reshape their franchise.

That's a pretty thin reed to hold on to, I'll admit. I've given a lot already as a fan of this team, and gotten precious little back; it strikes me as highly irrational to give more, to ask others to give more, simply because I refuse to believe that it has all been for nothing. I find it hard to believe that, at this late stage, after he has been one of the worse owners in sports for almost two decades, that I am putting my faith in the ability for Peter Angelos to pull his club out of its death spiral. 

As hard as it has been and probably will continue to be to watch the Orioles, this is a time in our franchise's history where a lot of interesting things will happen. Over the next month, we will have both the trade deadline and the signing deadline for the amateur draft, and how we handle them will tell us a lot about our future. A few months later, the contracts of our general manager and our scouting director will expire. What kind of future do we want to have as Orioles' fans? What kind of future will our owner, a man who whatever his faults loves our city, demand and try to achieve?

I will be here to witness it. I want to see what happens next. Even if it keeps breaking my heart.