September 28, 2011 - Part 2

This is the Part II in our five-part feature series on the final three games of the 2011 season.  In this edition, we focus on the significance behind those games from an Orioles' fan and team persepctive.

I have seen the term “Schadenfreude” thrown around to describe the reaction of Orioles’ players and fans upon ending the Red Sox season on the final day of 2011 season.  I won’t deny that Schadenfreude, a German term which describes the joy and pleasure one takes in the misfortunes of others, certainly played a role in the post-game emotions from both players and fans.  However, to dismiss the emotions and significance of that game as nothing more than Schadenfreude, simply misses the point.  The events of September 28th had significant meaning to the Orioles and their supporters for a variety of reasons.  It was about Orioles fans taking back their stadium from the invading Red Sox fans for one night.  It was about the Orioles as a team, standing up to a team that had literally and figuratively bullied them for the better part of a decade.  It was about the players, their season long over, fighting to the very last pitch out of a sense of pride and determination.  Lastly, it was about the have-nots of Major League Baseball taking it to the haves on one special, magical night.

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June 1, 2008 is the only time I have ever gone to a baseball game by myself.  The Red Sox were in town for a four game series.  Tim and I had gone to the series opener that Friday.  It was a close, hard-fought game that the Orioles lost 5-2 in thirteen innings.  Despite the valiant effort put forth by the O’s that night, we left the game downright depressed.  The announced crowd of 46,199 was at least two-thirds Red Sox fans.  Despite a more-vocal-than-usual Orioles contingent (thank God for drunk college kids on $5 student night), we still left the stadium that night with our heads down, surrounded by tens of thousands of cheering Red Sox fans, just like we had done all too often in recent memory.  It is an uncomfortable, depressing feeling to feel like a stranger at a place that should feel like home.

We were so deflated that we couldn’t muster up the energy to go to Saturday night’s game.  It turned out to be a good choice.  We watched on television as Manny Ramirez hit his 500th home run and the 40,000 Red Sox fans in attendance went nuts.  At least at home, we had the option of flipping the channel to escape the massive celebration.  The next day, I woke up and decided I was going to go to that day’s game.  It was a beautiful day - one of the nicest so far that season.  Red Sox fans or no Red Sox fans, this was just the sort of day that I love spending at the Camden Yards.

Tim saw it differently.  Friday night was such a let-down and seeing the Red Sox fans celebrate Manny’s 500th home run was too much to take, even on TV.  Tim decided to sit that one out and told me I would be wise to do the same.  Usually I wouldn’t go to a game by myself; it is always a more enjoyable when you have someone to watch a game with.  However, I felt a sense of obligation.  I know that sounds weird and my feelings of loyalty were no doubt at least a bit misguided, but I felt that if I didn’t make the short four block walk to the stadium to cheer the O’s, then who would?

You can probably guess how the game went.  My seats were in the upper deck and there were only a pair of Orioles’ fans within earshot of me.  I watched as the Red Sox fans celebrated Manny’s accomplishment from the previous night.  I cheered the O’s players early on, even if at times it sounded like I was the only person cheering.  I listened as one of the Red Sox supporters around me remarked how “great it is that people from all parts of Red Sox Nation can gather in an away stadium.”  I bit my lip as a girl sitting next to me asked me why I wasn’t a Red Sox fan.  After the 7th inning, with the score 9-4 in favor of the Red Sox, I got out up from my seat, quietly said “excuse me” to the throngs of green and pink hat wearing Red Sox fans, and made my way towards the exit.  It wasn’t until I was completely out of the stadium that the chants of “Let’s Go Red Sox” faded out.  Tim was right - I would have been better off staying home.

Four years earlier, my perspective on the Red Sox and their fans was dramatically different.  In October, 2004, I was firmly in the Red Sox‘ corner.  I cheered my heart out for Boston as they pulled off an unprecedented comeback in the 2004 American League Championship Series against the hated New York Yankees.  I was far from alone in that regard.  If you weren’t a fan of the Yankees, there was a good chance you were pulling for Boston that postseason.  The Red Sox made for a great underdog story and like most of the country, I felt good for the organization, players, and fans when they were finally able to get that monkey off their back by capturing their first World Series Championship in 86 years.

So what happened during those four years?  How did I and the rest of the baseball-watching population get from point A, rooting for the Red Sox, to Point B, outright despising them?  The answer lies largely in the actions of the Red Sox’ fan base.

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“You can’t be a pimp and a prostitute, too.”

-           “Icky Thump”, The White Stripes

The Red Sox had a passionate fan base before 2004, one whose identity - whose defining characteristic - was tied to the fact they were fans of sports’ most hard-luck team.  The Chicago Cubs might have gone longer without a title (93 seasons and counting), but it was Red Sox’ fans, not Cub’s fans, who wore that sustained misfortune as a badge of identification.  When you carve out such a strong an identity for yourselves, as Red Sox fans had, what do you do when that identity no longer meshes with reality?

That was the issue facing all Red Sox supporters after the 2004 season.  The Red Sox were sport’s ultimate hard-luck underdogs.  They were the team that always came so close to the ultimate victory before seeing it slip through their fingers.  Their fans got used to the heartbreak – they came to expect it.  All of those close calls, those heartbreaking moments and seasons – 1967, Slaughter’s Mad Dash; 1975, Bucky Dent; 1986, Bill Buckner; 2003, Aaron Boone – helped a fan base define themselves.

Then suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly to those that believe the day would never come, the Red Sox were champions.  An underdog can be a champion, but not for very long.  Inevitably, that team loses its championship status and reverts back to the role of an underdog challenger or achieves sustained success and sheds the underdog label once and for all.  It is impossible, an oxymoron even, to be an underdog champion long-term.

The Red Sox, with their many successful seasons and routinely one of the highest payrolls in baseball, were far from a traditional underdog to begin with.  I guess you could say they were the King of the Underdogs.  Boston had advantages other teams didn’t have and more often were more successful than other franchises.  Yet, by virtue of being in the shadow of the Yankees and going so long without a championship, they became underdogs themselves in some way.  After capturing the 2004 World Series, the organization had no intent to revert back to the days of close calls and heartbreaks.  To its credit, the Boston Red Sox organization forged ahead, boosting payroll even more, acquiring star players from the amateur and professional ranks, and doing everything in their power to keep the Red Sox as a championship-caliber organization.

They were able to do just that.  In 2005, the team won 95 games or more for the third time in as many years and once again made the playoffs.  They slipped a bit in 2006, failing to reach the 90-win mark or make the playoffs, before rebounding with another World Series victory in 2007.  Everything was on the rise for the Red Sox – their success, their payroll, and their popularity.  After the 2007 championship win, the Red Sox had joined the Yankees as baseball’s richest and most successful franchises.

One would think that all of this would create quite the moral dilemma for th long-time Red Sox’ fans.  How do they reconcile the Red Sox free-spending and sustained success with their traditional underdog self-perception?  How do they reconcile having a whole slew of new fans with their own-perception of the Red Sox fan base as dedicated, life-long followers?  How do you blend together being a team that is built to win and does win with the long held view that everything that can go wrong for the Red Sox, will go wrong?  You are either a dedicated fan of a long-suffering team or a fan of a perennial contender.  Red Sox fans had to decide whether they wanted to adjust their baseball outlook to something more fitting of fans of a championship team or if they would rather find another hard-luck, underdog team to root for.  The Red Sox fan base decided to go with secret option number three – do both.

The Red Sox and their fans, now annoyingly dubbed “Red Sox Nation” as a recognition of their ever-growing national bandwagon fan base, became a mess of contradictions and inaccuracies.  Red Sox supporters spewed venom towards the Yankees for killing baseball through their free agent splurges, while at the same time celebrating when General Manager Theo Epstein spent over $100 million on Japanese import Daisuke Matsusaka.  They treated each win as a huge accomplishment, despite the fact that with their payroll and talent level, the team was the favorite in almost every game they played.  The Red Sox quickly became a living, breathing contradiction – the world’s first underdog juggernaut.

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Welcome to Fenway South!

-          Overheard from far too many Red Sox fans during Boston/Baltimore games at Camden Yards

Red Sox Nation hit its zenith in the couple of seasons following the team’s second World Series Championship in 2007.  Red Sox “fans” were everywhere – from Safeco Field in Seattle to Nationals Stadium in Washington, DC.  If the Red Sox were in town, thousands of green and pink hat-wearing Red Sox fans weren’t too far behind.  Camden Yards was hit as hard as any stadium in the country to this Red Sox fan epidemic.  It was a perfect storm really – low attendance due to years of losing, a relative proximity between Boston and Baltimore, and the fact that the Orioles and Red Sox played in the same division made it all to appealing and convenient for Red Sox fans to invade Camden Yards.  And invade they did.  That 2008 series described earlier  was, and in some cases still is, par for the course when the Red Sox are in Baltimore.

Like any massive infestation, the Red Sox fans simply don’t annoy through sheer quantity alone.  It’s their actions – their ability to disrupt, disturb, and thoroughly take over at stadium at will – that makes them such thoroughly annoying pests.  The fans that come to Camden Yards don’t act like visitors, they act like they are taking over.  They come dressed head to toe in Red Sox gear of all colors – green, pink, and red, it doesn’t matter.  Red Sox colors these days seem to be as far-reaching as the colors in a rainbow.  They seemingly bring their entire families, all of their friends, and any other straggler they might have picked up along the way.  They roam the streets of Baltimore and set up shop all day long at the Inner Harbor. At game time, it simply isn’t enough for them to be seen in the stadium; they must be heard as well.  Rhythmic chants of “Let’s Go Red Sox” are repeated on a continual loop, even when there is little to cheer about.

Worst of all, they treat Orioles fans as outsiders at best and as some lower class of fans and human beings at worst.  A prime example of this is their usage of the term “Fenway South” when referring to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  At Red Sox games, I have been yelled at to sit down, been taunted, and on one occasion had peanuts thrown at me all because I had the audacity to cheer on MY team in OUR stadium.  I’ve seen Red Sox fans tell an older woman to sit down which she stood up to cheer an Orioles’ RBI single.  I’ve listened as Red Sox fans boo the introduction of the Orioles’ starting lineup.  These “fans” carry themselves not as visitors in an opposing team’s stadium, but as conquers.  In 2008, they unfurled a championship banner over the wall in left field.  They mock Orioles fans by referring to Camden Yards as Fenway South.  There is no respect shown in the slightest for their fellow fans.  For Red Sox fans at Camden Yards, it is all about them and their team – nothing else really matters.

The way the Red Sox fans have overrun Camden Yards when Boston is in town has made these games a miserable experience.  If you have attended a Red Sox/Orioles game in the past decade, you know this to be true.  It is an unpleasant experience to feel like a stranger in your home ball park, but that is what it is like at these games.  It does not help that the Orioles routinely are on the losing ends of these games, leaving us Orioles fans open to even more unwarranted ridicule from the masses of Red Sox supporters.  Going to Red Sox games at Camden Yards is often a chore.  That is why I resent the Red Sox.  They have succeeded, at least in part, in taking something I love doing – watching a baseball game at the best stadium in the country on a clear summer night – and turned into an activity I dread doing.

The final series of the 2011 season provided a rare opportunity with long-suffering Orioles fans who had tired of seeing Red Sox fans celebrate in Camden Yards.  If, somehow, the Orioles were able to beat the Red Sox on that night, the roles would be reversed.  We would be the ones loudly, perhaps obnoxiously, cheering as the Red Sox fans shuffled out of the stadium in defeat.  I have long referred to attending O’s/Red Sox games at Camden Yards as a high risk/high reward endeavor.  A loss hurt more than a normal loss, as tens of thousands of Red Sox fans were there to rub it in and make the night miserable.  A win, however, was as satisfying of a win as there was.  September 28thlooked to be the ultimate high-risk/high-reward moment – a chance for us Oriole fans to take back our stadium, if only for one night.

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 “. . . they [the Red Sox] are going to whine and complain about it because they think they are better than everyone else . . . We are not scared of them and their $180 million payroll.”

-          Kevin Gregg, Orioles relief pitcher

For the past decade, the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles have been at separate ends of the baseball spectrum.  The Orioles, once the model franchise for all Major League teams, are currently viewed as a joke in many baseball circles.  The team has suffered through 14 straight losing teams, the result of poor player development and the inability to supplement the roster through impactful free agent signings.  The Red Sox, on the other hand, have been one of baseball’s golden teams these past ten years – they draft well, develop players, and spend big on major free agents.  That has resulted in consistently winning teams in Boston.

It isn’t a simple case of Boston doing everything right and Baltimore doing everything wrong.  Nothing is ever that clear cut.  By that some token, it is not fair to say that Boston is where it is simply because the team can and have spent as much as anyone in baseball, not named the Yankees, over the past decade plus.  However, Boston’s ability to spend big on payroll – the team has been in the top four payrolls in MLB 10 times out of the past 11 seasons and has had the second highest payroll 7 out of those 11 seasons – has certainly played a role in their success.

Regardless of how the Red Sox got to the pinnacle of the baseball world, they are there and with that success usually comes some amount of resentment.  That resentment is only magnified when there is a league wide perception that the entire Red Sox organization feels a certain sense of entitlement and carry themselves in a manner that reflects that.  It is difficult to watch a Red Sox game and not notice all of the little things the team does that gives off the impression that the entire organizations carries a false sense of entitlement.

Take stalling for example.  To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a thorough study completed on how much stalling, both on offense and defense, actually helps a team but the idea is that a batter or pitcher can throw off the rhythm of the opposition by stalling.  If stalling was an official statistic, the Red Sox would lead the Universe in it.  Jacoby Elsbury steps in the batter’s box to start a game, before immediately stepping out and taking a ten second walk around the area between the dugout and home plate.  David Ortiz goes through the same multi-step ritual of adjusting his batting gloves between EVERY pitch.  Jonathan Paplebon densely stares towards home plate, sometimes for twenty seconds or more, before delivering a pitch.  All the while, the opposing batter or opposing pitcher is forced to calmly wait for the Red Sox player to decide he is ready to actually play. If an opposing pitcher holds the ball for a couple of seconds long than normal, maybe due to a mix up in signs, you can bet the Red Sox player will immediately call for time.

The message behind these stall tactics are clear – the game will be played on the Red Sox clock.  It might be a smart strategy, but that doesn’t make it any less arrogant.

This arrogance manifests itself in other ways as well.  Kevin Youkilis no doubt has a strong understanding of the strike zone given his seemingly innate ability to draw walks.  That doesn’t justify his pouting and yelling every time a ball-strike call goes against him.  Ortiz might be the worse in this regard, whipping his head around and jawing with the umpire nearly every time he fails to swing at a pitch that the umpire calls a strike.  Paplebon was ejected from a game last season for arguing balls and strikes in a game out in Oakland.  Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Paplebon was in the midst of blowing a large lead at the time and seemingly came to the conclusion that it must be the umpires, not his own pitching ability, that was causing it.  Again, there is that sense of self-entitlement – that notion that the Red Sox can do no wrong and should have everything work out in their favor.

On July 8, 2011, Orioles reliever Kevin Gregg threw three straight inside fastballs to Ortiz in the 8th inning of a game that the Red Sox were winning 10-3.  Ortiz took exception to the third inside pitch and squawked at Gregg.  Despite having a large lead, Ortiz took a big swing at the 3-0 pitch, no doubt trying to hit one out in an attempt to “give it back” to Gregg for the inside pitches.  Ortiz popped up instead, but decided to watch the ball in the air rather than run to first.  Gregg, losing his temper just a bit, motioned for Ortiz to run to first.  Ortiz chose to run to the mound instead, setting off a bench clearing brawl between the two teams.

The cause of the brawl itself – Ortiz getting angry because a pitcher had the gull to throw three inside pitches to him – demonstrates the Red Sox sense of entitlement and arrogance.  However, it is the aftermath of the incident that really hammers the point home.  Post-game, Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett referred to the Orioles as an “irrelevant organization”, seemingly implying that the Orioles have no right to get upset about Ortiz’s actions given the state of the franchise.  Some Orioles players later informed the media, that the team was also angered by former teammate and current Red Sox reliever Matt Albers pumping his fist and shouting obscenities towards the Orioles’ dugout following a strikeout earlier in the game. 

The next night, Red Sox starter John Lackey hit Nick Markakis and Derek Lee, the latter of which was clearly intentional.  Ironically, Lackey lead the majors in hit-batsman in 2011 and the Red Sox, as a team, also lead the league in that category.  In the final game of the series, the Red Sox hit another Orioles’ batter (though it appeared to be unintentional).  With the tally of hit batsman now at 3-0, O’s reliever Mike Gonzalez unsuccessfully tried to hit Ortiz later in that game, causing him to be ejected.  When MLB handed out punishments a week later, it was the Orioles that got the worst of it.  Gregg and Ortiz were suspended for 4 games apiece for their roles in starting the entire mess.  Mike Gonzalez was suspended three games, despite not actually hitting a batter.  John Lackey, who hit two batters, was “disciplined” (still not quite sure what that means) and O’s manager Buck Showalter was suspended a game for “ordering” Gonzalez to throw at Ortiz.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Red Sox) and Jim Johnson (O’s) were also fined for their roles in the July 8thbrawl.  To recap, the final tally was 3 O’s batters hit to 0 Red Sox batters hit and 3 O’s suspensions to 1 Red Sox suspension.  Something doesn’t add up.

Needless to say, all of this – the high payroll, the constant stalling, the complaining to the umpires, the holding other teams to different standards, verbally showing up and putting down other organizations, and the perceived partial treatment to the Red Sox from MLB – doesn’t go unnoticed by the players on other teams.  There are some bitter feelings from the Orioles players towards the Red Sox organization.  You can rest assured that the players on the Orioles were tired all of that and when given the opportunity to exact a small measure of revenge by keeping the Red Sox out of the playoffs presented itself, they looked forward the oppurtinity.  And why not?  It is not the players’ faults that Orioles teams over the past decade and a half have been less talented and less expensive than Red Sox teams.  Orioles teams of the past decade, by and large, have been destined to finish behind the Red Sox as soon as rosters were finalized.  All the players can control is trying to win each day and picking up those small victories, the kind that keep us all moving forward on a daily basis, whenever possible.  September 28, 2011 provided the Orioles’ players with a chance to standup to a team that had bullied them on and off the field and had advantages they only wished their team had.  For the players, September 28th wasn’t about making Boston miserable – it was about pride, revenge, and winning regardless of the size of the reward.

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“I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll.  You got Carl Crawford because you paid more than anyone else, and that’s what makes you smarter? That’s why I like whipping their butt.  It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?’”

-          Buck Showalter, Orioles Manager

I try not to make too much about any single moment, game, or day in baseball.  You get yourself in trouble when you start reading too much into one event and you risk missing out on the big picture.  It isn’t always prudent to look at a single happening as a microcosm of a larger issue.  With that said, it is hard not to look at September 28, 2011, the final day of the 2011 MLB season, as a microcosm of the current financial disparity facing the sport.  Major League Baseball is an organization of haves and have-nots.  You can draw lines between the top-spending teams in the big markets, the middle market teams, and the low-spending teams in baseball.  With few exceptions, the teams in the first group win on a more consistent basis, receive more media attention, and attract more high-profile free agents than the other groups.  The disparity is there – it is real for everyone to see.  We could argue the extent of the disparity, but it is impossible to deny that it exists on some level.

Teams like the Rays and the Twins of the mid-2000’s buck the trend from time to time, of course.  Just because teams are able to overcome the odds, doesn’t mean the odds are fair.  The Yankees and Red Sox of the world have advantages that start with their ability to spend large sums of money and branch out into other facets, such as increased media attention and favorable treatment.  It is a broken and unbalanced system.  The Orioles and other teams don’t and shouldn’t use it as an excuse, but that doesn’t make it less of a valid problem.

On September 28th, the AL wildcard race boiled down to a battle between the haves and the have-nots.  It was Tampa and Baltimore against New York and Boston.  Two lower to middle market teams against the teams with the two highest payrolls in the sport.  It was, at the risk of being overly dramatic, two Davids vs. two Goliaths.  The Yankees, who have and probably always will be the Golden Boys of Major League Baseball, were able to rest many of their regulars, patch together a rotation where none of their starters or three best relievers pitched, and STILL get out to a 7-0 lead through 7 innings against Tampa.  The Yankees at 40% strength were still strong enough to do that amount of damage to the Rays, who had their best starter and best players in the game.  I don’t think anything illustrates the David vs. Goliath dynamic of that game better than that.

The Red Sox, crowned by many as World Series Champions before the first pitch had been thrown for the 2011 season, had squandered all of their advantages away by the time September 28th rolled around.  The Rays were a team that had to get the most out of their talent and had to have a lot break their way (they were the least injured team in the majors in 2011) just to sniff 90 wins.  Meanwhile, the Red Sox had taken a possible 105+ win team and turned them into a 90-win team through sloppy play, over-confidence, and a general lack of effort.  One team fought up to 90 wins, another team had to fight down to 90 wins.

September 28th was, more than anything else, about baseball’s 99%’s taking into the 1%.  The night was about true underdogs fighting the odds and beating them in spectacular fashion.  ForgetSchadenfreude – who can’t enjoy a story like that?