It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... as Charlie Dickens used to say.
I refer to the Baltimore Orioles, and their first appearance in the major league baseball playoffs since 1997. The Birds and the New York Yankees are at odds in the American League’s divisional playoffs, and I fear odds are against the Orioles as the two teams head for tonight’s deciding Game 5.
I’ve always yelled at crows. Now I’m starting to yell at Orioles.
It has been an exciting and excruciating week for us Bird fans. Nothing has come easy — most of the innings have been low-scoring affairs, and two of the games have gone into extra frames. On Thursday, the Orioles doubled twice in the top of the 13th inning, and held on for a 2-1 win. I barely held on myself, listening to the last inning on the radio and under the covers.
But it could have been a 6-1 lead, and Oriole fans still would have been pacing their living rooms. The Yankees have this annoying and obnoxious habit of coming back in late innings and pulling games out of fully-involved fires, as the firefighters like to say. Even Thursday night, down to the last strike in the bottom of the 13th, I was concerned about the accursed Yankee magic.
In a way, the Yankees are like Dracula. In order for Van Helsing to get a win, he’s got to pound about six wooden stakes into the vampire’s heart. Then he’s got to roll the coffin out into the middle of the street, hose down the bum with holy water and then park him in the sun for a nice, long bone-baring sizzle. Until all those steps are taken, Dracula always has a chance for a comeback.
I wish there was a similar way to handle the Yankees, but Baltimore has been unable to really deliver a knock-out punch this week. There have been no big innings, no confidence-building shows of strength.
The Orioles top hitters have been in a funk all week. And there have been few big hits for a group that was second in the American League in home runs this year — the Yankees were first. It’s true, a bunch of Yankee hitters are also enjoying rotten Octobers, and pitching for both sides has really been terrific.
A couple of plays in particular must have annoyed Oriole fans. The first one was during the Wednesday game, when center fielder Adam Jones misplayed Derek Jeter’s deep fly ball into a triple. Everyone gets fooled once in a while, but Jones was blowing bubbles with his bubble gum as he ran back on a ball that was far deeper than he thought it was. Bubble gum! On a bad miss, a bad play and a Jeter triple. Bazooka Joe has nothing on Bazooka Jones!
And last night, poor Jim Thome legs out an infield single in the ninth inning and is pulled for pinch runner Lew Ford. Now if Orioles management told me, at age 57, to go up and pinch hit, it would be a disaster. But if they told me to pinch run at first base, I’d be careful enough not to get picked off. How old Lew managed to get picked off — trapped like a rat — was an exasperation par excellence.
Manager Buck Showalter has also been driving me a little crazy. The guy is calm and cool, and has done a great job getting Baltimore as far as he has this autumn. He probably should be the American League’s manager of the year. And while my resume as manager of the Gazette’s softball team is not as impressive, I’ve got to question Buck on some of his moves:
* On Jim Thome: Yes, the one-time slugger has 612 career home runs, but has been swinging and missing more and more every game. I’d keep him on the bench as a pinch hitter, and bat the light-hitting Endy Chavez or Robert Andino instead. Light hitting is better than no hitting. Now if Thome is in the lineup tonight and hits a couple of cash money shots, I will gladly eat my words on Monday.
* Miguel Gonzalez: The Orioles rookie was breezing along with a 2-1 lead Wednesday night, and the manager pulled him for the relief corps after seven innings. Other managers go the same way, and I’ve never been able to agree. If a pitcher has great stuff and is shutting down a team, why not keep him on the job? Take him out if someone leads off the eighth or ninth with a hit. As it was, Gonzo was on the bench and closer Jim Johnson gave up a tying home run to pinch hitter Raul Ibanez in the ninth. Ibanez hit a second blast — the game winner — in the 12th.
The Orioles won more than their share of extra inning and one-run games this year, and I’ll bet they will not be as fortunate next season. And with the Yankees unwilling to age gracefully and descend in the American League East — and with the Tampa Bay Rays on the rise once again — the Birds might not be a lock for the playoffs next year. So I guess Baltimore fans have to enjoy the present ... and I guess losing close games is better than getting clobbered in high-scoring affairs.
For me, part of the fun of the playoffs has always been rooting against the Yankees. They’ve been in the post-season 17 of the last 18 years — too many appearances for one team. I’m all for spreading the wealth around a little bit.
Still, if the Orioles go down tonight, they will have at least pushed the Highlanders to a five-game series, and forced them to use their ace pitcher, the great Sabathia.
That could make it a little easier on the Detroit Tigers, who will play the winner of Friday’s game for the American League pennant. Had the Orioles lost Thursday, Sabathia would have started the set against the Tigers.
I’m rooting for the Orioles tonight. I hope they win.
But if not, I will be a Tiger fan through mid-October.