Thursday, August 25, 2011

A 12 Year Old Remembers

It was a different time.

It's funny how much things can change in 25 years (yes, I know I am 38, but bear with me). The Orioles were the only pro game in town. And while they were going through a rough patch they were only a few years removed from winning the World Series, so it isn't like there was some hugely disaffected fan base (like there is now). They didn't have to show up in orange shorts (and I mean shorts. This is pre-Fab 5 Michigan length) and tank tops to my middle school and play a game against some of the students and faculty. But they did.

I know now that they probably did this all over the state, but to my 7th and 8th grade brain these were the guys I watched in awe on the baseball field walking into my crappy gymnasium to take us on. They had just finished the regular season and I just knew that the calendar in the locker room had "Sept. 14,15,16 @NYY. Sept. 18,19,20 TEX. Jan. 17 @CBMS (that January date was circled in red ink, because THAT one was personal). And it wasn't just a bunch of end-of-the-bench and mop up reliever guys playing. It was Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray and Scott McGregor and Storm Davis.

And Mike Flanagan.

I don't remember much about the game (other than that we lost and that there was a picture of Mr. McMurray - one of our gym teachers - executing a perfect bounce pass past the outstretched arms of Cal in the yearbook. His face was the picture of concentration. HE was not in awe of these baseball players, that is for sure), and I don't recall any specific interactions with any of the players (I do recall a lot of the girls in my class swarming Cal after the game to get his autograph because they had crushes on him and his ice / steel blue eyes). I wish I could tell you that Flanagan said something to me, that he flashed his trademark sardonic wit and gave a kid a thrill. But I can't. He (like all of the Orioles) was polite, he was friendly, but he wasn't out there to find a 12 year old kid to make his new best friend. So my only real personal memory of Mike Flanagan, besides watching him pitch or listening to him during a game, is watching him run past me on the way to an easy layup. To tell you the truth, I don't remember being bothered all that much by being scored on by Flanagan (which is probably one of the reasons the Orioles won rather easily every time they played our school. That and because they were playing a mix of Social Studies teachers and gangly 13 year olds who were trying to figure out why their voice was cracking and why they were suddenly growing hair or boobs - or in the case of the hair growers how they could get to see those boobs - and why they had become REALLY uncoordinated).

By now you have heard that Mike Flanagan is dead. There are all sorts of rumors flying around right now about how (and possibly why) he died, but to be honest I don't care about that. The how and the why are secondary to the who, and the who is a man that cared as much about this ballclub as any one person has ever cared about anything. Whatever he was asked to do, he did it. He started games, he pitched in relief, he was traded for prospects and then came back as a Spring Training tryout (he was not even offered a minor league deal, which could easily be taken as a sign of disrespect) and made the team again, he worked in the broadcast booth, in the dugout as the pitching coach (on two separate occasions), and in the front office. I'm pretty sure that if someone had asked him to walk the aisles hawking beer or hot dogs he would have done it.

In an era where the vast majority of athletes are little more than high priced rentals, Mike Flanagan's dedication to the team that drafted him stands out. But our loss as fans who remember him for all he did for our team pales to the loss his family and friends are feeling right now. And while I know that the 24 hour news cycle demands fodder to be fed to it constantly, I hope that everyone takes a step back and thinks about what they would want if this was their teammate, their friend, their father, or their spouse, and gives those who are grieving that same respect.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Our Problem As Fans

I have been marinating on how to bring this up for a couple of weeks now. I have written and deleted so many paragraphs that I'm surprised that my "backspace" button hasn't gotten up and left my computer. So in the spirit of ripping the band-aid off rather than pulling it off slowly, let me say this:

Baltimore sports fans are paranoid.

I have been a fan of Baltimore sports for as long as I can remember anything. The hardest thing I do is to not be a homer when I am writing on here (and I know I often fail at that). But I have always been amused by the myopic viewpoint of Baltimore sports fans, until it got really out of hand over the last dozen or so years. But first, a little history...

Baltimore is a city that has never had a home. The North considers it a southern city, the South considers it a northern city. At one point it was a major player in the nascent country's development, but it was passed by New York and New Jersey in the north and South Carolina and Georgia in the south. Before long, Baltimore was looked at by people outside the city as a whistle-stop in between Washington DC and Philadelphia and the people in Baltimore were growing a very large chip on their shoulders. I am pretty sure it didn't help that the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York City and then became the juggernaut of professional sports while Baltimore couldn't keep a minor league baseball stadium standing.

Then it all started to come together. After a couple of stops and starts, Baltimore got an NFL team (they thought, at the time, for good) in 1953 and a MLB team in 1954. Within 5 years the city had a major championship (beating a team from high and mighty New York for added satisfaction) and a team that quickly became the class of the NFL right as the league's popularity exploded. And right as that was happening the baseball team began a run as arguably the best team in baseball. Another league that had not been able to get a foothold in the city looked like it finally had it going as the Baltimore Bullets got better and better and started fighting for an NBA title, making it to the Finals in 1971. Add in an indoor soccer championship and everything was coming up Milhouse for Baltimore.

And then it all fell apart.

The Bullets move to Washington DC and 4 years later win that NBA crown. The Colts move out of Baltimore a year after the Orioles win the World Series. The Orioles fall apart and go from that World Series to 107 losses in 5 years. The city eagerly accepts a cast off, secondhand team in an upstart football league that plays in the spring (the Philadelphia nee Baltimore Stars of the USFL) and watches that team win a championship only to see the league fold the next year in the dust of an ill-advised legal challenge to the NFL. The baseball team treads water, but even when it is doing well the fates seem to be against it so the season (and the post-season) was cancelled. The suffering football fans are basically told that they are never getting an NFL team (you may have heard something about building a museum) after watching NFL franchise after NFL franchise use Baltimore as a bargaining chip to get a better deal from their chosen city (see: Cardinals, St. Louis / Phoenix; Bengals, Cincinnati; Raiders, Oakland/Los Angeles; Buccaneers, Tampa Bay; et al). The fans in Baltimore sold out a preseason game in 93 minutes to watch two teams that they did not care one bit about just to show that the passion for NFL football was still there only to watch the league give expansion franchises to Charlotte NC and Jacksonville FL. The CFL decided that Baltimore deserved what they considered a professional franchise, only the NFL wouldn't let the city name the team after the old NFL team because it would confuse licensing rights with a team that had been wiped from existence and a city that had been told it would never be a member of the NFL again, even after the team offered to add "CFL" to that name.

Eventually the Orioles got good again (at least for a little while) and Baltimore got an NFL team (even though as a rule they were not at all fans of how they got it). But by then the damage had been done. The people of Baltimore have always had a chip on their shoulder because they feel slighted by the national consciousness, and the damage to their sports psyche was too much to bear.

Why am I bringing this up? Because all of this has led to Baltimore sports fans turning into that paranoid conspiracy theory guy that is convinced everyone is out to get them. I have never seen another fan base so completely out of their minds about making sure that the next hire is someone with local ties. Managers, front office personnel, even reporters. When the Orioles hired Lee Mazzilli in 2004 fans screamed in protest because he was most recently with the New York Yankees. Mazzilli led the Orioles to 78 wins in his first season and had them in 1st place in 2005 until the team fell apart in the middle of the Rafael Palmeiro steroid suspension / scandal / finger pointing at Miguel Tejada. But he was a Yankee, dammit. And my point then was "So what?" He is coming from a franchise that is winning. Maybe he can bring some of that dynamic and that success here. There is a reason that successful teams lose their coaches, be it in baseball or football or any other sport, and that is because the other teams recognize that success and want to emulate it. It makes sense. But around here making sense takes a back seat to making sure the hired help has a local commute just to get to the job interview. But that pales to the stink about reporters.

I am not going to opine on the merits and demerits of Jen Royle or Matt Vensel, because that is not the point of all of this. But the fact that Vensel is from Pittsburgh and Royle is from Boston (and for a double shot of local disgust she covered the Yankees for years before moving here to cover the Ravens and Orioles) apparently means that they are incapable of covering the local teams. Why? Because they are inherently biased against the Ravens and Orioles and their hometown allegiances will require, nay FORCE them to give disinformation; be overly critical of the local teams while giving too much praise to the opponents / rivals; and in any other way possible undermine the fan base here in order to facilitate the ascension of their home town teams.

As absolutely ludicrous as that sounds, it is what people (including certain locally owned AM sports talk station heads) actually believe. I have reached such a point of incredulity about the whole thing that I no longer know how to respond when someone I know says something like that (and I have heard friends actually say that the Orioles should have hired Rick Dempsey over Buck Showalter because Dempsey used to play here so he is obviously the right choice. Just an FYI - Dempsey played for the Yankees. That's who the Orioles got him from in a trade in 1976. But that seems to be forgotten by most people).

I am all for promoting from within. I love seeing someone I watched play and succeed come and work with players now and try to impart some wisdom upon them, but the simple fact is that other teams and other players have had success too and if they want to help the local teams improve than I am all for that as well. And while I love to see someone who grew up in the area find a home in the local media, I care more about their ability to analyze and report on what is happening with the teams that I watch (and cover). I do not care where they went to high school as long as they can give me information that I didn't already have or insight that I didn't think of or spark conversation that I am intrigued by and want to participate in, but more and more I seem to be in the minority about this.

What do YOU think?