“April is the cruellest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote in the first lines of The Waste Land, but for baseball fans it is the month of September that marks the time of bitterest disappointment. Whereas April, the opening month of the baseball season, is filled with hope and promise, September is the final full month of the regular season, the conclusion of a grueling six-month schedule spanning 162 games, played almost daily, and far exceeding the number of games played by teams in a single season in any other major professional sport. The up-and-down rhythm of the baseball season is consequently constant, and no sport requires players, and their fans, to remain on a more even emotional keel, since even the best teams usually lose more than one out of every three games played, and the best teams are beaten on a weekly basis by the worst teams.
Baseball by its nature is a truly a game of inches—or more accurately, fractions of inches. Hitting a ball a mere sixteenth of an inch from the “sweet spot” of the bat may make the difference between a player hitting a home run or simply a long fly ball easily caught by an opposing outfielder. Baseball is also a game of nanoseconds; it has been scientifically shown that hitters have only the time it takes to blink their eyes to swing at a fastball once it is released from the pitcher’s hand. A runner may be ruled out on an attempted steal of second because the infield dirt was wet and slowed him down a millisecond or two; or he may be safe because the catcher’s throw to the second baseman was a half-inch too high, and the time it took the fielder to lower his glove to touch the runner’s leg was a split-second longer than the time it would have taken the thrown ball to reach his glove—if perfectly positioned so that the runner’s leg slid into it.
All this means that every decision and every action—small and large—made by players and coaches in a baseball game is of crucial importance in determining the outcome of any particular “play.” Add up all these thousands of minute decisions and actions during the course of a game, and you have a recipe in which the altering of one element can make the difference between a win and a loss.
As the season progresses for a team in contention, then, each game becomes meaningful, and each pitcher’s pitch, each batter’s swing, each fielder’s stab at a batted ball, of more importance. One writer has said that watching fall baseball as a fan is like having a series of nervous breakdowns.
Some may argue that October brings with it greater disappointment, as teams are eliminated from the playoffs and the World Series (the Series now may extend into the first day or two of November). But in these late-fall months, the fan of the losing team can say, “At least we got there. And the 162 games of the regular season were therefore not a waste.” But September, in marking the real culmination of that regular season, is the time that many teams lose their grip on a playoff berth after playing some 135, 145, 155 games. Yes, the Major League season now trickles into the first few days of October, and some teams suffer the ignominy of losing a place in the postseason in their final series—the baseball schedule being a series of mostly three-game, and sometimes two- or four-game, series against other teams.
But again, it is really September that carries with it the final judgment for teams aspiring to the playoffs, and often it is not mathematical elimination, but simply a decisive blow struck by the opposition that suddenly tears back October’s veil and reveals the team’s seemingly predestined fate. And at times it is one particular play in September, perhaps in the form of a self-inflicted wound, a miscue by the suffering team itself, that obviously and immediately marks the high tide of the team’s chances for advancing into the postseason… and the beginning of the slow, inevitable ebbing of that hope.
Such a fate befell my beloved Baltimore Orioles this past week. For the first half of the season, the Orioles’ offense terrorized opponents. In June, the team set an all-time record for the most home runs hit by a major league team in that month, and at the end of the day on June 30, the Orioles had complied a record of 47 wins and 31 losses and were perched atop the American League East, leading the second-place Boston Red Sox by five games.
But then, in the sultriness of an American July, the offense inexplicably cooled, and the Orioles played sub-.500 baseball for the next several weeks, leading up to a four-game series against those same Boston Red Sox on September 19 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. After losing the first two games of the series, the Orioles were desperate to win game three, their hopes not only for winning the division fading, but the team’s grip on one of the two American League Wild Card spots also suddenly in peril.
With the Orioles leading 1-0 in the top of the sixth inning, the Red Sox had the bases loaded with two outs, when the hitter, catcher Sandy Leon, who was down to his last strike, hit a grounder to the right side of the infield that was fielded by Oriole first baseman Chris Davis. Though known as a slugger, Mr. Davis routinely plays Gold Glove-caliber defense and indeed had made an excellent defensive play earlier in the game, in the fourth inning, to preserve what was then still a shutout.
But this time, the Fates had something else in mind for Mr. Davis. And devoted fans could see it coming as the hulking first baseman wildly charged the meekly-hit groundball, scooped it up cleanly but with his body woefully off-balance, and made a hurried side-armed throw to the Oriole pitcher running to cover first base. The ball sailed by the pitcher’s outstretched glove and into foul territory, allowing two runners to score, and Boston to take the lead: 2-1, Red Sox.
The very next pitch was clubbed by a Red Sox outfielder for a three-run homerun: 5-1, Red Sox.
A pall fell upon Camden Yards. It was eerily quiet. The Orioles’ television broadcasters, including the loquacious Jim Palmer, fell mostly silent for the next few minutes. The game was over. The season was over. It all happened in the span of two pitches and perhaps two minutes. And all this was clear at that moment, despite the fact that the Orioles would come to bat four more times in the game; and it was still clear even when having lost the game, the Orioles would remain in position for the second of two Wild Card spots, with ten more games left on the season schedule.
The feeling among Oriole players and fans must have been something akin to what Robert E. Lee felt as he watched the survivors of Pickett’s Charge trickle back to Confederate lines at Gettysburg.
The judgment of the fickle gods of baseball had been rendered on the Orioles on that fateful September evening in the heart of Charm City. It was not a just pronouncement. The Orioles from time immemorial have been one of the most likable teams in the game, their roster filled over the decades with hardworking, humble players who rarely showboat and never gloat. Current Orioles play under the palpable aura of the team’s patron saint, “Iron Man” Cal Ripken—he of the mind-boggling 2,632 consecutive-games-played streak—whose work ethic, competitiveness, and integrity provide the Gold (Glove) standard for the team.
Few current Oriole players embody “The Oriole Way” (which is very much “The Ripken Way”) better than Mr. Davis, who, despite having signed a $161-million dollar contract last offseason, runs hard to first base on every routine ground ball; who despite making his greatest contribution to the team as a hitter of prodigiously-long home runs, works hard every day on his defense; and who despite dealing quietly with a painful hand injury all season, has rarely taken a day off. After his critical error in that momentous sixth inning, Mr. Davis, who will be paid his millions no matter how he performs on the field the next seven years, appeared to fight back tears on the field and in the locker room after the game. He had let his brothers down, after all.
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy… or to a nicer team. And we Oriole fans are left stunned by the injustice of it all.
Every Oriole fan knew in his heart that the Orioles would lose the final game of the series the next night. They did, and they even lost the Wild Card slot as rival Detroit won two games the same day.
With nine games remaining as I write this, the Orioles technically, mathematically still very much have a chance to go to the playoffs in October. But to those wise and wizened Oriole fans like me who have followed the team closely on television since the wonderful promise of Opening Day back in that seemingly long-ago April of this year, the season is already over. We just know it… just as we knew that Chris Davis would botch that play on Sandy Leon’s groundball before he even fielded it.
Yes, the Oriole Cause is already Lost, and the only consolation for us fans, is that with September waning, the Defeat will not be a Long one. And yet it couldn’t be more cruel.
Post-mortem author’s note: Amazingly, the Orioles proceeded to sweep a three games from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the ensuing series, and then take two out of three games against both the Blue Jays and the Yankees in the season’s final week, winning the second of two Wild Card playoff spots. It briefly seemed like the Orioles had defied the sentence meted out by the baseball gods during the Boston series. But no. In the Wild Card game against the Blue Jays, Orioles manager Buck Showalter inexplicably failed to use star closer Zach Britton—who had successfully converted all forty-seven save opportunities in what was perhaps the greatest season ever by a major league relief pitcher—at any point in a contest that was tied going into the bottom of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh innings, when a single run by the Blue Jays would have won the game. In the eleventh inning, Mr. Showalter strangely chose an unreliable starting pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, to pitch the inning. After Mr. Jimenez promptly gave up back-to-back singles to start the frame, Mr. Showalter paid a visit to the pitching mound, an action that is almost always indicative of the manager’s intent to remove a struggling pitcher. Instead, with Mr. Britton ready in the bullpen, Mr. Showalter left Mr. Jimenez in to face Blue Jays’ slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who deposited Mr. Jimenez’s very next pitch into the stands for a game-winning, three-run home run. Somewhere, the baseball gods, who had apparently clouded the mind of a Hall of Fame-bound manager and silenced the tongues of his assistant coaches, were laughing.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.