"Motherfuckin' Shit! Take Your Ass Home!" Or, Why The Baltimore Orioles Matter

The best night of the 2011 baseball season in Baltimore was the final one. For once, for the first time in years, the whole country was watching. And what it saw was a thing of joy. There were the Boston Red Sox, all $161 million worth of them, one out away from a 3-2 victory and, at worst, a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot. And there were the Orioles, 93-game losers, down to their last batter: Chris Davis, a stale quadruple-A guy, picked up from the Rangers as part of a classic midseason winner-loser deal, Baltimore's best relief pitcher for a couple of unwanted parts. A one-tool player, running out of time to develop any other skills.

But Davis's one tool is hitting the ball hard. He blasted the first pitch from Jonathan Papelbon for a double. Then Nolan Reimold—promising 25-year-old rookie turned 26-year-old injury case turned 27-year-old who-knows-what—drove a 2-2 pitch into the gap, over the fence on one hop. 3-3. And then Robert Andino, the utility infielder: a flaring liner to left. Carl Crawford, all $14,857,142 worth of Carl Crawford, charging and sliding and reaching out—

The ball. On the grass, almost motionless—comically so—as Crawford kept on sliding. "No! It's dropped! The Orioles coming to the plate! Reimold! They did it! They did it! They did it!" On the replay, Reimold bounces up from his slide at home with a relatively sedate fist pump, then turns to see the dugout erupting toward him, the entire team whooping and spinning and pogoing and dogpiling onto the field, exultant, winners.

I lost count of how many times I rewatched the clip, savoring every moment, but one moment above all the rest: Andino emerges from a pileup between second and third with his jersey untucked, and starts stalking back toward the home dugout. As he goes, he tips his head toward the visitors' side. "Motherfuckin' SHIT!" he says. The lip-reading is pretty straightforward. His hand flicks back, in dismissal. "TAKE YOUR ASS HOME!"

* * *

There are winners in sports, and there are losers. The last time the Baltimore Orioles were winners, for a season, was 1997, when they led the American League East wire to wire and lost to Cleveland in the ALCS. That year, the Red Sox finished in fourth place. Fenway Park was a grimy, obsolete relic. Boston hadn't won a World Series since the end of World War I. But Nomar Garciaparra—general manager Dan Duquette's first pick in his first-ever draft for the Red Sox—did win Rookie of the Year.

(The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in 1997, didn't even exist.)

A lot has happened in baseball history between then and now, but very little of it in Baltimore. The Orioles have lost, and they've lost, and they've lost again. They've lost with Albert Belle in the lineup, with Tony Batista, with Aubrey Huff, with Luke Scott. They've lost with Mike Mussina and Bruce Chen and Rick VandenHurk. I took my son to his first game when he was 2—oddly enough, Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino were the heroes that day—and because he likes numbers, we started making and taping up little paper jerseys of various players. He's not yet 5, and his walls and door are a gallery of obsolescence: MICKOLIO 31, MILLWOOD 34, SNYDER 58, IZTURIS 3.

The die-hard fans have observed the ebb and flow of different management teams, different long-term strategies, different manifestations of incompetence and bad luck. The rest of the world only sees (when it looks; that is, when the Yankees or Red Sox come through town) a record of consistent, uninteresting failure: 60- or 70-some wins, 80- or 90-some losses. Why should anyone care about the details? Baltimore is a throwaway sentence or two at the end of the A.L. East preview, a punchline, the butt of jokes about soccer-style relegation.

The truth is, the Orioles have been relegated. They play against major-league teams, but sometime in the losing years, they lost their standing as an actual major-league franchise. Consider the free-agent season just concluded. On paper, Baltimore is in the same division as Boston and the Yankees. The Red Sox have Adrian Gonzalez at first base. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira. The Orioles were coming off a season where they'd started with 35-year-old Derrek Lee at first base, then cycled through call-ups and out-of-position outfielders and third basemen. Owner Peter Angelos has money to spend. Yet in a winter with two All-Star first basemen on the market, no one even considered the notion that Albert Pujols could go to Baltimore, and there were only a few desultory rumors about Prince Fielder. By consensus, the Orioles are not the kind of team that gets top-tier free agents.

* * *

You can go ahead and stop reading about the Orioles now, if you want. They're just the Orioles.

(Robert Andino adds: asshole.)

* * *

Where would a team like Orioles get top-tier talent, then? The theory is that they should trade for it—that whenever they do discover a good player on their roster, they should trade him to a better team, for prospects. This is what second-division teams do. They wait. They rebuild.

Four years ago, the Orioles sent their best pitcher, Erik Bedard, to the Seattle Mariners for a package of five players, including 22-year-old center fielder Adam Jones. I hated the trade at the time. Bedard was a genuine ace, and the incoming players, even the much-admired Jones, had no real major-league credentials. But Bedard blew out his arm, and Jones became an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, so the trade was a success.

Except it wasn't. In 2007, with Bedard, the Orioles went 69-93. Last year, with Jones, the Orioles went 69-93. In closer detail, Baseball Reference valued Bedard's performance in 2007 at 6.0 Wins Above Replacement. Last year, Jones had a WAR of 1.7. Pitcher Chris Tillman, who also arrived in the Bedard trade, had a WAR of 0.1. George Sherrill arrived in the Bedard package and was flipped for third-base prospect Josh Bell, and Bell last year had a WAR of -1.2. So, in a trade meant to build the Orioles' future, 6 wins' worth of Erik Bedard in 2007 became 0.6 wins' worth of players for the 2011 Orioles.

Or there's this: Bedard in 2011—at age 32, coming back after missing the entire 2010 season—had a WAR of 1.4.

And yet nowadays, the discussion is about when and how the Orioles should trade away Adam Jones, cash him in for prospects, for the sake of—yes—rebuilding, despite the fact that Adam Jones was the keystone of their last rebuilding effort and nothing ever got built. And who will play center field? Teams like the Orioles are not supposed to ask these questions.

* * *

It's not only the free-agent players. Tony LaCava, Toronto's assistant general manager, turned down an offer to become the GM of the Orioles this winter. He preferred staying in Toronto, being part of the project there. Toronto has not been to the playoffs since 1993. Every junior executive who had the slightest bit of cachet ran as far away from Peter Angelos as possible. It was a thing, a recurring joke.

In the end, the Orioles announced that their new general manager would be Dan Duquette. I believe I swore out loud when I heard the news. Dan fucking Duquette. Fired in the housecleaning that had swept decades of ghosts and self-loathing out of Fenway, as new owner John Henry set about reinventing the Red Sox as a 21st-century championship franchise. Duquette hadn't had a job in a decade—a decade, coincidentally enough, in which the entire business of baseball operations had been transformed. In a world where boy geniuses analyze their way to the World Series, Peter Angelos had hired a witch doctor. If not a corpse reanimated by a witch doctor. Dan Duquette! Doom.

* * *

On August 24 of last year, Mike Flanagan—a Cy Young winner back when Baltimore was the best franchise in baseball, later half of an unsuccessful two-headed general-managing team, and finally an Orioles broadcaster—walked into the woods behind his house with a shotgun and killed himself. It emerged, over time, that Flanagan had been profoundly depressed and under multiple kinds of strain. But one early report attributed his suicide directly to his grief and disappointment with the Orioles, his belief that he had been blamed for failures beyond his control. In Baltimore, that didn't sound impossible.

* * *

Since the end of 1997, the Orioles have played 2,267 games. Every one of those counted. Fans paid money for the tickets, sat in the ballpark, and watched the home team lose. Over the years, fewer of the ticket-holders have been Baltimore fans and more and more have been Red Sox and Yankees fans, who have come to treat Oriole Park as an auxiliary home field. The Orioles are there to get beaten.

This knowledge is corrosive. Tomorrow and next year and the long-term plan—these are a script to fetch the suckers off the midway. The people who talk about "rebuilding," who discuss a baseball roster as a portfolio of assets to be managed for future value, won't admit this. Teams and fans are supposed to recognize that a season, or two or three seasons, is a lost cause, and embrace that. Be smart, give up. You lose today so that tomorrow you can win. (Might win.) (Might have a chance at possibly winning.) (Might potentially, theoretically, have a chance at possibly coming closer to winning.)

In fact, you lose this year, and next year you lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose. Lose.

The Yankees never have to miss a turn. They may not make the playoffs every single year, but they always have a shot. The Red Sox never miss a turn. New York and Boston buy the best free agents and pay freely to keep their homegrown stars. When things go expensively wrong (John Lackey, A.J. Burnett), they eat the cost of their mistakes and go shopping for more players.

The thrifty Tampa Rays, through brilliant scouting and clever payroll management and great luck, are enjoying a few turns of their own now. Just do exactly what the Rays did—draft a platoon of ace pitching prospects and have them all stay healthy, develop some MVP-quality position players, trade stars away at the peak of their value, before their production starts to slip—and you, too, can have a winning team in the A.L. East.

The Blue Jays still haven't had a turn. Despite the admiring profiles of their previous whiz-kid GM, J.P. Ricciardi, which are now the admiring profiles of their current whiz-kid GM, Alex Anthopoulos—despite the loyalty of Tony LaCava—the Blue Jays are still waiting for the part where they actually do get good. Lots of people think it's really truly going to be this year. Maybe it is! But while we're counting, it hasn't happened yet.

And the Orioles keep playing games, and keep losing more of them than they win. One hundred sixty-two times a year, they put on their gloves and go out on the field and play a game that is as real as any game anywhere else in the majors, as real as the games in the Bronx or in San Francisco. They hit, they run. They get hurt.

Admittedly, not every team loses a player to burns sustained when he overslept in a tanning bed, like Marty Cordova once did. Not every team loses a player because he bashes himself in the helmet with a baseball bat in a moment of frustration, as Brian Roberts did two years ago. That's a funny way to go on the DL, except two years later, Roberts—the rare Oriole who is widely acknowledged to be a pretty solid major-league ballplayer—is still shaky, still in the purgatory of brain injury, spending Opening Day on the 15-day disabled list, which means 15 days to life. (This is why Robert Andino keeps starting at second base.)

These are actual baseball players. When Koji Uehara learned that he had been traded to the Rangers, in that pragmatic deadline deal for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter, he wept. He was going from last place to first place, and he was heartbroken about it.

* * *

The Orioles are not as bad as you think they are. They are bad, and maybe they are hopeless, but they are not hopelessly bad. The A.L. East does things to a team. In 2008, the year that Tampa jumped from last place to first, the Orioles ended up playing 114 games against teams with winning records. Those are teams with winning records independent of how they did against the Orioles. In the division, Baltimore went 22-50. Outside the division, they were 46-43. Add it together and they were 68-93, another losing Orioles team like every other. Stupid Orioles.

Last year was not as difficult as that. Baltimore only played 85 games against winning teams. Again, that doesn't count the wins those teams got against the Orioles. Against Boston and New York, the O's went 13-23. Going into the final game of the year, they were 12-23.

When you slip up, in the A.L. East, it's a long way down. I won't predict that Boston will be bad this year. But if there's one thing Orioles fans know, it's what dysfunctional ownership looks like. We saw Peter Angelos in the dark winter of 1997-98, firing manager Davey Johnson and accusing him of financial improprieties. One losing season later, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar were gone, replaced by Will Clark and Delino DeShields.

So now here's John Henry, the prudent technocrat, stumbling around his yacht, dumping the manager and general manager who won him two World Series, declaring he never wanted that bum Carl Crawford in the first place. Here are anonymous sources saying the manager was a pillhead, the pitchers were lazy and drunk in the dugout. Maybe it will all be fine. But some things, money can't fix.

The Orioles, meanwhile, have made nothing but low-wattage moves, to the rage of fans in comment threads. Down in the comment threads, people would like to see some acknowledgement that they have gone 14 fucking years without seeing any fucking results from the fucking front office and its fucking so-called plans. It's good to see that some people still care, however curdled and angry that caring has become.

But so far, most of what Duquette has done has made sense. The 2011 Orioles, even with Derrek Lee and company at first base, quietly had a league-average offense. The regular hitters were better than average. They lost 93 games because they had historically bad pitching, helped along by an almost incomprehensibly bad defense, and because the bench was somehow worse than it would have been if they'd simply picked up a batch of available unwanted players at random. Markedly worse.

The defense still looks awful. Mark Reynolds, whose glove at third base was the megadose of dioxin to the pitching staff's cancer, remains at third. Spring-training apologias have him 20 pounds lighter and more flexible, as spring-training apologias always do. But Duquette has been slowly shoveling away at the other problems: stockpiling mediocre starting pitchers to take innings away from abysmal starting pitchers; rounding up adequate bench players to replace atrocious ones.

Weirdly, for all the market-inefficiency-hunting in the years since Moneyball was published, the original Moneyball scheme still has legs. Across the board, Duquette has been replacing low on-base-percentage players with higher-OBP ones, on the cheap. Gone are Vladimir Guerrero (.317 OBP last year), Felix Pie (.264), Luke Scott (.302), Craig Tatum (.245), and Matt Angle (.293). Their replacements include Ronny Paulino and Wilson Betemit—who have career OBPs above last year's .322 American League average.* Waiting down in Norfolk are Duquette's first Orioles acquisition, Matt Antonelli (.373 minor-league OBP), and his most recent one, Zelous Wheeler (.371 in the minors).

And there's Nick Johnson, Injury-Plagued Nick Johnson, who spent all last year in the minors, putting up a tragic but inspiring .201/.326 /.328 slash line. Even crippled up, on the verge of falling out of baseball altogether, Nick Johnson was still drawing walks. Duquette brought him in for the price of a minor-league contract: a 33-year-old first baseman with a career major-league line of .271/.401/.443. He hit .292/.393/.458 in Sarasota, and he's on the Opening Day roster.

It's a long way from Albert Pujols. But it's a big step up from Derrek Lee, too. Maybe the real undervalued asset was in hiring an unwanted veteran general manager, rather than the sixth- or eighth-best whiz kid on the whiz-kid market. Duquette seems to be trying to get ahead however he can, not angling to position himself to implement a long-range plan to create a future window of opportunity. The long view doesn't require you to grab Zelous Wheeler off waivers at the last minute.

The reason you grab Zelous Wheeler and Matt Antonelli and Nick Johnson is so that, at some point this year, when Chris Davis or Mark Reynolds unleashes his violent, unsound swing and for once connects with the ball, it will be a two-run home run instead of a solo shot, because someone ahead of him has drawn a walk. You do it so that the Red Sox pitchers have to throw three or four extra pitches in an inning.

These are little things. The 27th out in the 162nd game of a losing season is a little thing, too. Until you refuse to concede it.

(* Correction: I originally included Endy Chavez here because I misread his stat line: his career OBP is .313; his 2011 OBP was .323.)