An ode to Birds, baseball
We so love our team and the sport because their challenges reflect our own
Baseball is a game of metrics and measures. A quick Internet search will give you Ty Cobb’s career batting average (.366), Cy Young’s earned run average (2.63) and the number of home runs Frank Robinson hit in his career (586). Every moment of every season is measured and analyzed, captured for posterity. We’ve been collecting baseball data for so long that we can predict, with some certainty, the outcome of a season before it even starts. Based on the numbers, there was no reason to think that the 2016 season would end with the Orioles in contention for anything other than a middle-of-the-pack finish. So why even watch, or more importantly, why believe?
Like every Birds fan this season, I knew the odds. Before a pitch was thrown in the 2016 season, the sabermetrics website Fangraphs ran the Orioles’ schedule thousands of times and concluded that we had just a 4.5 percent chance of winning the American League East, the lowest probability of any team in the division. Back in April, any rational Birds fan would have started making other plans for September and October, betting that by then their beloved O’s would be well out of contention.
Instead, I was glued to the TV. A part of me believed that if only I were faithful, this time would be different. Our boys were in the win column after Opening Day against the Twins. Mother’s Day saw six home runs at the Yard. There were seven W’s in a row in May. Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Jonathan Schoop were hitting. There were walk-offs in extra innings, Ubaldo Jimenez giving the O’s its first complete game in two years, and home runs — so many home runs. It was an improbable, joyful season, with the Orioles leading the AL East from May to August.
As the weather started to cool, the inevitable and heartbreaking “regression toward the mean” started cropping up on sports pages and blogs, as first the Blue Jays and then the Red Sox got hot just as the playoffs loomed. For those who don’t bow to the gods of statistics, regression toward the mean basically amounts to “it all evens out eventually.” Over the course of 162 games, the Orioles were simply unlikely to overcome their aggregate statistics against more talented, better-resourced teams. It’s just mathematics.
The amazing thing about baseball, though, is that it isn’t just about that stats. Despite what the numbers tell us, a season is made up of 162 games of nine innings and infinite emotions. To the hometown fan, our pitcher is the shepherd David, hurling a stone toward Goliath armed with a bat instead of a sword. When an overeager slugger flails at an outside pitch, he suffers from Achilles’ fatal weakness. Night after night, pitcher and batter are protagonist and antagonist, two sides of a struggle between darkness and light (yes, I’m talking about games where we play the Yankees). To swing or not to swing? Whether it is nobler in the mind’s eye to throw a slider or a curve, that is the question, played out thousands of times in a season.
We watch baseball for the same reason we go to the movies — to see ourselves reflected. The boys of summer get up every morning and go to the ballpark every day. Every at-bat is a challenge, every field position a choice. Like us, sometimes they choose well and turn the perfect double play. Other times, they choose poorly and go down without swinging the bat. Wehave to believe in them, the way we believe in ourselves. We have to believe that in the aggregate, we choose correctly.
As Walt Whitman supposedly said, baseball is a game that helps us “repair our losses.” Our team is our surrogate for our fears, our apathy and our self-doubt. Their triumphs are our triumphs, and their failures ... well, those are ours as well. Some baseball players will strike out more times in a season than they will make contact. But they still go to the plate, knowing that the odds are against them. When they defy the odds, we celebrate the possibility that we too can defeat the Fates, if we only have faith.
The Orioles’ Manny Machado celebrates back-to-back solo home runs with Chris Davis against the Houston Astros at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in August. This was a season of home runs, high hopes and ultimate defeat.