Thursday, August 04, 2005

I Didn't Begin Life As A Phillies Fan

[Editor’s note: The Baltimore Orioles fired Lee Mazilli yesterday, making him the sixth manager owner Peter Angelos has fired since buying the team in October, 1993. The seventh skipper, Sam Perlozzo, is being called an “interim” manager. That is appropriate.]

I grew up in Baltimore at a time when baseball was still the national pastime. For my generation, baseball was the game of our forefathers. All the other professional sports now populating the landscape, even football, were either non-existent then, in their infancy, or had not yet captured the nation's imagination. Certainly none of them exercised the exclusive hold on our hearts that baseball enjoyed.

Personal history -- not just childhood memories of going to games with a father or grandfather, but also hearing them speak about the stars and ballparks of their youth – served to deepen our loyalty and affection for the hometown team.

In my youth the Colts (1953) and Orioles (1954) arrived in Baltimore within a year of each other, but the only history my father could relate to his then six-year old son was of the various minor league Orioles teams of his childhood and of old Orioles Park, the predecessor to Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards.

In 1954 Baltimoreans of all ages rejoiced at the arrival of a new major league team, with the oldest voices in the chorus intoning the legendary names associated with baseball in their city: Babe Ruth, Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, and Hughie Jennings, star of the National League Champion Orioles of 1894-96.

My father's fondest baseball memories were of going with his father to see Jack Dunn's celebrated Orioles teams which won seven straight International League pennants between 1919 and 1925. Dunn's teams were considered on a par with or superior to most major league teams of the day and he maintained their extraordinary level of excellence by holding onto players when a lot of major league teams sought to purchase their contracts. Prior to the 1926 season Dunn finally broke up the team by selling a number of his star players including Lefty Grove to the Philadelphia Athletics. Grove would later be at the core of the championship A's teams of the 1930's.

The Colts, by comparison, had no such legacy to draw on. In fact, professional football was just beginning its national expansion and, as yet, hadn’t replaced baseball as America's greatest sports passion. It is generally agreed that it wasn't until the dramatic sudden death championship game in 1958 between the Colts and the Giants that the public's interest in the NFL exploded.

Throughout my youth I adored the Orioles. Whenever I was going to the ballpark, I would leave home early and arrive at Memorial Stadium in time to watch infield practice. Batting practice held no special appeal for me, but watching Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson and Boog Powell take grounders was pure joy. The rituals of their infield practice remain vivid to me to this day. (I don’t know whether or not teams even take infield practice any longer.)

In those days my brother, nearly three years older than I, was a devoted Yankees fan. He must have been switched at the hospital, I thought, but his fifth column presence in our household turned out to be good training for my subsequent years in the wilderness. At college in New England I was thrown together with baseball fans from across the country. Being in Connecticut, there were obviously more Red Sox and Yankee fans than partisans of the Birds, but this melting pot of boosters only deepened my affection for the Orioles.

After finishing college in the late '60's I lived in several different cities around the country, none of which had a major league team. Only when I moved to Cambridge, MA, could I see the Orioles in person, and given my instincts for survival I contained my enthusiasms whenever I went to Fenway Park.

Compounding my frustration at keeping in touch with the Orioles during these peregrinations, this was the era before cable television, super stations, and Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and sometimes Thursday games of the week to say nothing of watching MLB on one's computer. Even when the networks began to broadcast more games nationally, the Orioles, who do not play in one of the larger TV markets, made few appearances other than during those years when they were perennial playoff and World Series participants. During the late '60's and early '70's it was hard to keep the Orioles off national television in October, but their appearances during the regular season were precious few. I mostly relied on radio to keep in touch, but the Orioles network was beamed toward the South as befit the cultural heritage of Baltimore. I was seldom able to hear these broadcasts, and when I lived in New Mexico and Texas, not at all..

The Orioles of my youth and young adulthood developed into a much-admired franchise, known for its strong organization from top to bottom. So good was its reputation, the term “The Oriole Way”, denoting an emphasis on fundamentals and pitching from the lowest minor league team right up to the big league club, was well-known throughout the baseball world. Between 1958 and 1975 the franchise had the highest winning percentage in baseball. Its ownership was respected. Players were eager to join the club. The fans were fiercely loyal when a player was active and perhaps even more so after one retired and remained in Baltimore. People named their children after Brooks Robinson.

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1978, I was still a loyal Orioles fan. Indeed, I hadn't lived this close to home in thirteen years and looked forward to going to Baltimore to see a few games in person and to listening to their radio broadcasts whenever I chose. No sooner had I settled into my apartment on 19th Street in Center City and determined the optimum room for radio reception when I discovered to my dismay that the Orioles had switched their radio affiliation from long-time flagship station WBAL, whose 50,000 watt signal reached far up and down the Eastern seaboard, to a smaller station, whose 10,000 watt signal failed to even reach Philadelphia.

Wistfully looking over the schedule for the upcoming season I noticed that WTOP in Washington, another 50,000 watt station, would be carrying virtually all of the Orioles games. Without a team of its own in those days, Washington had adopted the O’s as their own. But Washington was forty-five miles south of Baltimore.

Desperate to learn whether or not I could tune in a Washington station, I was tempted to listen to the Orioles season opener. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for daytime and I knew better than to try. For some reason day games are virtually impossible to tune in over long distances. I was certain there was a scientific explanation for these difficulties, but the ardent fan is no more consoled by discourses on radio waves and sunlight than the .200 hitter is by treatises on whether a curve ball really curves.

The evening of the first night game, however, I was prepared. I turned on my radio in great anticipation and to my unending delight, the signal came in more than adequately. Many years later the Orioles were reunited with WBAL but for reasons I cannot nor care to decipher, the Washington station still came in more clearly. I stayed with WTOP; after all, there was the matter of loyalty.

Over the next several years things gradually began to change. In 1979 the Orioles were sold by the Hoffberger family, who headed the original ownership group, to Edward Bennett Williams, the famous Washington trial lawyer. Slowly but surely the front office changed; then came the on-field changes. Managers came and went at a faster pace. (Earl Weaver retired, un-retired, and retired again during this period). Impatience replaced slow, deliberate development. Harvard Business school types replaced baseball people without much accompanying grace or success. To be fair, baseball itself was undergoing rapid change, too, with free agency being the most significant development. But the atmosphere surrounding the franchise was palpably different.

A few years after Williams sold the team to Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos in 1993, the Orioles would become perennial also-rans. Angelos, an extraordinarily impatient man by all appearances, was hardly a hands-off owner. He meddled constantly in day-to-day operations and personnel decisions including the misguided Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa signings. Soon, players avoided coming to Baltimore. As noted above, managers turned over at a rapid pace (seven in twelve years). “The Oriole Way” was no longer mentioned let alone practiced.

Some time in the mid 1990’s I had had enough. I no longer recognized the Orioles as the franchise of my youth. I was prepared for lean years on the field, but not the chaos that surrounded the entire franchise. At the same time I couldn’t help but be familiar with the Phillies after living here for more than fifteen years. One Spring day I awoke and decided the Phillies were more worthy if not in need of my support. I didn’t agonize over the decision; it had been a long time coming. My father had passed away by then and my brother had been living in the Boston area for nearly twenty years. The connections to the Orioles no longer existed.

I never looked back though I continued to be pleased when the Orioles played well, which wasn’t often. I immersed myself in the Phillies and in the early years of my new affiliation I felt some disadvantage at being unfamiliar with the teams of 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Now, after more than a decade of rooting for them and more than twenty-five years as a resident I consider myself a die-hard Phillies fan. It hasn’t always been an unalloyed pleasure, but they are my home team for better or worse.


Tom G said...

First isn't it interesting that we almost have to root for the team our father rooted for?

Second, did you watch or follow much baseball when you lived in TX and NM? If so, how hard or easy was it to watch any ball at all?

Tom Goodman said...

I have a few thoughts on the first part of your comments.

I think we tend to remain loyal to the professional franchise(s) of our place of birth no matter where else we might end up living precisely because they represent home and community in the most profound senses of both terms. On the other hand, many people(see Jason's post today or your various references to JMU) remain loyal to the teams of their college years precisely because that experience represents their first communal experience away from home.

As to the second part, I lived in New Mexico between 1970 and 1973. In those days I do not recall there being any games broadcast apart from the NBC game of the week on Saturdays and as a graduate student living in the Land of Enchantment I didn't spend my Saturdays indoors. By the time I arrived in Texas (1975 - 1977) and was living in San Antonio (hardly the land of enchantment, I might add) there still weren't many games broadcast during the week. I do remember watching the World Series between Boston and Cincinnati, but as I recall at least some of those games were broadcast at night during prime time. Game Six was a night time affair if I recall correctly. Had there been a few more games on TV in those days I might have tuned in more often. I always say I "did two years in Texas". Let me put it another way: If you spent two years of your life somewhere and all that you recall fondly is the grapefruit you did not have a particularly good time.