• Sep

    Kerry Leibowitz: A Matter of Context

    At the conclusion of the miserable three-game series in Phoenix against the Diamondbacks, I told my wife (who is also an Orioles fan) that at some point over the final quarter of the season the Birds would have to get hot if they were going to secure a postseason spot.  By “hot” I meant something akin to a two-week stretch where the team went 11-3…something like that.


    That was a month ago, and with each passing day since, it appears that I was wrong.  The Orioles ended that series with Arizona with a record of 65-55 and have played 26 games since.  Had the team played even to a desultory 14-12 since then—which certainly would not reflect “hot” play—they would sit at 79-67, no worse than ½ game behind Tampa Bay for the final wildcard spot, and with four contests left with the Rays would be in full control over their own destiny.  (A “pretty good” 15-11 would put them ahead of Tampa Bay right now.)  Had they actually gotten hot, they’d hold the #1 WC slot right now and be a virtual shoe-in for a postseason slot, even if they crapped the bed in the final two weeks.


    But of course the Orioles played a somewhat-less-than-desultory 12-14 over this period, and while the team still—somewhat miraculously—isn’t out of the race, it sure feels as though they are and they now need help; they now trail three teams for that final wildcard slot and are tied with a fourth.  Now they definitely do need to get hot to have anything beyond a puncher’s chance to claim a postseason slot, and “hot” is something this team hasn’t been—not once—all season long.


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    The Orioles just finished a four-game series, against the Yankees no less, for which an average of just under 22,000 tickets per game were sold, in the midst of a legitimate postseason race.  Yes, it was a weekday series, and yes, the weather for the last of the four games was lousy, but still…it is a postseason race and it was the Yankees.  The Orioles have sold more than 40,000 tickets to a game exactly once since the All-Star break (in late July, against Boston).


    I don’t want to try and oversell this point; there are some reasons for the trend we’re seeing that go beyond any implied apathy.  That said, this isn’t 2012, when the season ticket base was notably smaller and the Orioles drew better than 40,000 eight times after the All-Star break.  The vibe down the stretch this year is decidedly different.


    And that fact is entirely understandable.  This year’s club appears, in many respects, to be the antithesis of last season’s team.  Last year’s team played its best baseball—by far—over the seasons final six or seven weeks; this year’s club is playing as badly or worse down the stretch in comparison with any previous point in the year.  Last year’s team had the feel of a bunch of overachievers who managed to find a way to win the vast majority of close games played (as evidenced by its 29-7 record in one-run games and it’s +11 win differential comparing actual record with Pythagorean projection).  This year’s team seems more talented and productive, but appears to play just badly enough to lose the vast majority of the time (witness the 16-27 record in one-run games including a brutal 3-13 since the break).  Fairly or unfairly, this year’s unit seems to be regarded by many as underachievers.  Last year’s club needed an absurd record in one-run games to make the postseason.  If this year’s team had simply performed in mediocre fashion in those contests, they’d be all but assured of a playoff berth.


    Regardless of one’s apportionment of luck as a one-run record cause, a negative set of outcomes invariably produces objectively disproportional despair on the part of a fan base…but there’s nothing truly “objective” about it.  Even though I can easily make a logical case that losing a lot of close games is far, far more encouraging (or should be) than regularly getting pummeled, the close losses seem a lot tougher to take, particularly when they’re the clear difference between duplicating or exceeding last season’s accomplishments and spending October watching other teams compete.


    Let’s face it, as a sports fan, there’s nothing better than a team that unexpectedly makes a run.  I don’t think there’s much question that the two most beloved Orioles teams of the post World Series era (i.e. the past 30 seasons) are the 1989 and 2012 teams, precisely because little if anything was expected of either group but both defied the odds to contend all season (and, in the case of the ’12 team, reach the postseason and come a hiccup away from a trip to the ALCS).  Conversely, there’s nothing—again, as a fan—worse than having expectations go unmet.  (Sometimes those expectations are unreasonable, but for the purposes of this essay that’s beside the point.)  For many Orioles fans, that dynamic characterizes this season to a tee.

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