The year, 1997.
As a mere fledgling five-year-old Orioles fan watching Jose Mesa strikeout Roberto Alomar with a two-seam fastball in Game 6 of the ALCS, I looked up to my dad and asked "Is it over?". He replied with a simple "Yes".
I cried. I don't remember crying, but my dad certainly enjoys telling the story of how I wept for the playoff death of my beloved Baltimore Orioles. Perhaps I cried because I knew it would be the last time I would see the O's in a meaningful game for the expanse of my adolescence. To make fandom tougher to swallow, my shadow on the Mid-Atlantic would endure the same timetable.
* * *
My dad grew up in Dundalk, went to Dundalk High School, and eventually wound up at the Air Force Academy, graduating in 1983 (what a wonderful year it was). As a kid, dad worked at the Pentagon for what ended up being the traditional military four-year stop. We left Alexandria, VA in 1998, winding up in Florida hubs Pensacola and Miami (both four-year stays) before permanently rooting in Colorado Springs in 2006.
I remember only a handful of games at Camden Yards in my younger days. I can vividly recall B.J. Surhoff making a diving play in left field against the Marlins some random summer afternoon. On one occasion, my young brother Colin and myself coaxed what seemed like the entire Orioles coaching staff and Rodrigo Lopez into seven batting practice baseballs. I have not been to Oriole Park since 2006, and that's a facet of my life's journey that I find reason to sulk.
Still, there was always Orioles baseball, even from afar.
I would hover over the ole Dell desktop checking scores for the majority of my childhood. I'd catch the occasional game on ESPN when the O's were lucky enough to be televised against the Yankees. Visits to Tampa to see family were only worth the trip if the Orioles happened to be playing at Tropicana Field. We managed to sprinkle in visits to Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota over the years to take in Spring Training, but as most would understand, it just isn't the same. My dad accepted a job at his alma mater in 2006, yet again furthering my distance to the city I'd always yearned for membership. But if there's a will, there's a way, and damn it we found a way. As it just so happened, my mother gifted my dad (though it seemed like a present for all of us boys) the Extra Innings package made possible through DirecTV. The Cicere's were now witnesses to everyday Orioles action, and that was all I could have ever really asked for.
The Orioles continued to stink through my high school years, but for me, it was mind-blowing to know that the evening was to end with the Cicere boys huddled around the couch listening to Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer call what we hoped was a win. It turned us into better fans, while reinvigorating a passion that managed to regain steam.
I had a halfway desire to relocate to the East Coast for school, though my, uh, let's say, attention to detail, was geared more towards a social life than doing homework, making any thoughts of attending an out-of-state school, specifically in the DMV, an impossibility. So, I ended up at Colorado State University, reverting back to iPhone updates and heavy MASN reading to fill the void of baseball-less days.
* * *
In 2012, life was good again.
As the Orioles shocked the baseball world, even myself, into a Wild Card berth, I was really unsure as how to react. I was happy, yes, but more so nervous knowing Joe Saunders would be starting on the mound versus the crafty Yu Darvish in Arlington. Thoughts of short-lived joy outweighed the actual fact that the O's were playing in a postseason game for the first time in 15 years. Naturally, going to class that day went out the window. I mean, would you not attempt to zen yourself for a moment that had been postponed for more than half your life? If you think about, I wouldn't have really been there anyways.
Whether it was out of instinct or sheer terror, my three roommates (I was lucky enough to live with three high school buddies who understood my out-of-place fandom) and I had already blown through nearly the first of two 30-racks of Pabst (it was a special night, so we treated ourselves) even before the game started. I'd picked a spot on the couch, beer to my left, remote to my right, and for the extent of the game, I did not move. Just as the last out was made, and the Orioles advanced to the ALDS, I erupted in the company of my trio of mates, each with a collective the-hell-is-wrong-with-this-guy kind of look, though they were nice enough to join in my chorus of expletive-yes's.
The phone rang, and it was dad. As we did for most games, we recapped the series of events, discussed what went right, what went wrong, but this time it was different. Even through the phone, there was a mutual sense of accomplishment for the team we'd unabashedly represented in what could be tabbed as a foreign land.
* * *
In July of 2014, I'd learned that an Extra Innings subscription also meant free access to MLB.tv. Oh yeah. Big time game-changer. As the Orioles were cruising to their first division title since 1997, I often decoyed what appeared to be note-taking for what was actually me watching Orioles games in the middle of class. It only felt right given the circumstances.
My housing situation had changed by then, as I was no longer living with friends, forcing Orioles games to be watched in solidarity. In a household of non-baseball fanatics such as myself, attempting to translate the magnitude of a prolonged AL East title didn't register with the new tenants, so I decided it best to hold myself willingly hostage in my room most evenings.
On the night of September 17 of last year, I raced home to watch the final moments of Clinchmas, once again alone in my upstairs bedroom. As Tommy Hunter induced the final groundout of the Orioles' 8-2 win over the Blue Jays, while the rest of his Oriole teammates mobbed the Camden Yards infield, I sat on the edge of my bed in comfortable silence. First I smiled, then I sort of half-heartedly laughed, but then I cried.
Not like a full-on sob, but one of those half-assed, teary-eyed cries that only come with seeing Nick Markakis look up into the sky as you both come to the realization of what had just taken place. I somewhat paced the allotted floor space between the bed and television, just watching, taking it all in. My dad called and we spoke for just a few minutes, ritually trying to comprehend the enormity of Adam Jones jogging the outer rims of Camden Yards with his championship belt. He said he was having a cold one, I countered with the same. I hung up the phone and watched the final moments of elation in isolated joy.
* * *
By the start of the ALDS, I'd managed to insinuate among the rest of the household how important the series was, thus convincing the new roommates that we were watching the Orioles play the Tigers and there wasn't a damn thing they could do about it. Before Game 2, I self-diagnosed a rare outbreak of Orioles' fever, making me unfit to attend any class that day...win or lose. All was well, as Markakis kicked off the scoring with a two-run shot in the 3rd inning, though the eventual three-run deficit in the 8th inning didn't help me to impress upon the baseball newbies the awesomeness of the sport.
Then the double happened.
The instant Joakim Soria's hanging slider left the bat of Delmon Young, I rocketed off the couch, attempting to steer Nelson Cruz, Steve Pearce and J.J. Hardy around the bases. I yelled, cursed, fist-pumped and high-fived with a fury, all while these relative strangers repeated that same "what the hell is he doing?" look. I didn't care. Not one bit. Despite the Orioles eventual ALCS sweep, Young's double helped to hitch a few newcomers onto the Orioles' bandwagon, and for me, it helped make the ride that much more enjoyable.
* * *
I've done the best I can with the hand I've been dealt, but in reality, I was set for life before the cards were passed around the table. My dad is a product of Baltimore, making us one as well. The Orioles being what they are to this family may not be as important as normal household values, but typical families don't love baseball the way we do. Would I like to be at Camden Yards for 81 games? Of course. Would I prefer to be surrounded by those whose fandom aligns with me and mine? Surely. Though my Orioles lens has strayed from commonplace, I was still there to see the O's go into Arlington and take down the Rangers. I saw Tommy Hunter spray those lucky souls with Budweiser. I roared as J.J. Hardy touched home in Game 2. My placement in these moments, whether with friends, strangers or companionless, were surely the same as yours, but with just a little contrasting flavor.
I haven't set foot in the state of Maryland for nearly a decade, and yet I've still had the pleasure of feeling the same frustration, and jubilation, that my Oriole brothers and sisters have experienced in recent years. In that, is the true meaning of fanhood. There will be stories of watching the Orioles win the AL East at a downtown Baltimore bar, in the airport on an iPhone, or an assembly on grandpa's couch. When the time is right, I'll get to tell my kids I watched the O's reclaim the division in my Fort Collins college bedroom while drinking a Rolling Rock. I'll never be upset that I've always been so far away from the city I consider myself an adopted resident. Having navigated three-fourths of the United States' compass, the one constant has always been Orioles baseball.
And in these orange and black eyes, there will never be anything more endearing.