One game, all the mar­bles

Our view: Ori­oles-Blue Jays matchup could be the start of some­thing big

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Ahigh-stakes, but seem­ingly in­ter­minable, com­pe­ti­tion comes down to a sin­gle, na­tion­ally tele­vised mo­ment be­tween sec­ond-tier an­tag­o­nists. That’s ei­ther the vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate be­tween Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence in Far­mville, Va., or the Ori­oles-Blue Jays wild-card game in Toronto.

As it hap­pens, both will take place tonight at about the same time. The dif­fer­ence? Please. One is sim­ply of far greater con­se­quence than the other. We speak, of course, of the base­ball game. This has been a re­mark­able sea­son for the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles, and the team’s ap­pear­ance in the play­offs de­fies com­mon as­sump­tions about the sport. Re­mem­ber how the Ori­oles fin­ished with a .500 won-loss record last sea­son as fans be­moaned the ro­ta­tion of so-so starters? The team’s earned-run aver­age in 2016 is ac­tu­ally worse and the starters at least as unpredictable (and that’s putting it kindly) as ever.

And it’s not like the Ori­oles’ of­fense set Ma­jor League Base­ball on fire ei­ther. The team wrapped up the sea­son with six triples (the fewest in the ma­jors), 744 runs (12th), and a .256 team bat­ting aver­age ( just 6 points bet­ter than last sea­son). Only in home runs were they ex­cep­tional — smack­ing 253 of them, the best in base­ball.

That’s made the Ori­oles a team that seems to have caught its home­town fans off guard. The O’s home at­ten­dance has av­er­aged 26,819 per game, just 20th in base­ball and about 4,000 fewer fans per game than last sea­son, when the city was still deal­ing with the af­ter­math of the Fred­die Gray un­rest. Fans have floated the­o­ries, in­clud­ing ticket prices, con­tin­ued wor­ries about ur­ban vi­o­lence and the lure of the high-fly­ing Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, but none seems es­pe­cially con­vinc­ing.

Yet it’s hard to be­lieve that Bal­ti­more, a city that has cheered for so many great base­ball play­ers and teams, is ready to aban­don the Birds right now. The suc­cess or fail­ure of the 2016 sea­son comes down to a sin­gle game — un­der a change to play­off rules made just four years ago, the two wild-card teams in each league face each other for a one-game, all-or-noth­ing match to de­ter­mine which one gets into the Divi­sion Se­ries.

Vice pres­i­den­tial de­bates can be en­ter­tain­ing (the Sarah Palin-Joe Bi­den face­off of 2008 got record rat­ings, if only for gaffe-gaz­ing — the equiv­a­lent of wreck-watch­ing in NASCAR) but rare is the voter who makes an Elec­tion Day choice based on the un­der­card. The Ori­oles-Blue Jays game might ac­tu­ally pro­duce a wild-card team ca­pa­ble of mak­ing it to the World Se­ries, as the Kansas City Roy­als and San Fran­cisco Giants both did in 2014. (In a wel­come sign for the O’s, the Giants won as a vis­it­ing wild-card team and then beat the Roy­als to cap­ture the World Se­ries).

Base­ball purists may be ap­palled that the sport’s 162-game sched­ule can be ren­dered so mean­ing­less that a team’s sea­son hinges on a sin­gle game, but that’s the na­ture of the na­tion’s pas­time. A pitcher can throw a near-per­fect game but make just a few bad pitches and end up with a loss. A hit­ter can miss a home run by a frac­tion of an inch, and a game can turn on a sin­gle play — a stolen base, an er­ror in the field, a well-timed hit.

Per­haps pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are the same. Did Don­ald Trump lose a de­bate to Hil­lary Clin­ton be­cause of what hap­pened at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity (a de­ci­sion to con­stantly in­ter­rupt or get­ting caught off guard by the com­plaints of a for­mer Miss Uni­verse) or was the 90-minute de­ba­cle sim­ply a re­flec­tion of the can­di­dates — with all their quirks and foibles — that have been man­i­fest through­out the po­lit­i­cal sea­son? And by the same to­ken, can an un­der­dog like the Ori­oles top a team that has beaten them six out of 10 times at Rogers Cen­tre?

Bal­ti­more­ans who have ig­nored the Ori­oles this year have missed out. It is ob­vi­ous that the play­ers have a strong af­fec­tion for each other, and the sea­son’s top per­form­ers — Mark Trumbo, MLB’s top home run hit­ter, and Zach Brit­ton with his mi­nus­cule 0.54 earned run aver­age, best among MLB closers — are won­der­fully un­likely suc­cess sto­ries. Gov­er­nor Pence or Se­na­tor Kaine might knock it out of the park at the podium tonight, but the odds are bet­ter for a Bal­ti­more com­peti­tor, whose team will ac­tu­ally ad­vance as a re­sult — a prospect Charm City denizens can truly be happy about.

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