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Spitballin’

“What The Fuck!”

When it comes to putting the ball in play, the Orioles strike out more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on J-Date.

In sports, some years are special and they are to be savored. For me, it’s 1989. That 1988 was such a spectacular crap fest helped. The O’s started the ’88 season with 21 straight losses to set the major league record for worst start ever. It was so bad they fired the manager, poor Cal Ripken Sr., just six games in. They went on to lose 107 that year and built a club-record shit-sandwich so grand even the awful Birds of the aughts couldn’t match it.

But ’89, man, what a sweet, sweet season! The O’s shocked the baseball world and battled the mighty Toronto Blue Jays for first place until the last weekend of the season, when fate and a rusty nail in the foot of Pete Harnisch ended the miracle. I caught a couple dozen games that year and, between all the improbable winning and the beer vendor in the bleachers who sold to 16-year-olds, became a lifelong fan (of both the Orioles and delicious beer).

That unexpected run of success, coming hard on the heels of epic and utter despair, captured the city. Baseball fans in these parts still talk about that second-place team—and these were the days before the Wild Card, so they didn’t even make the playoffs—just as passionately as they do any of the Orioles’ six World Series squads. The rotation of young aces was a joy to watch. Harnisch, Curt Schilling, and Big Ben McDonald were a trio of fire-ballers, sure to carry us to pennant after pennant. Gregg Olson, the Otter, with his remarkable waddle to the mound, closed games with a hook so wicked you could use it to clear a vaudeville stage. Catcher Mickey Tettleton used his inhuman lust for Froot Loops to power dinger after dinger out of the park. It seemed like every other game one of the young outfielders, Steve Finley, Mike Devereaux, or the baby-faced, ’roid-free Brady Anderson, snatched a ball from over the wall. Then, in the middle, there was the double-Ripken, double-play tandem of Billy and Cal, a tour de force of leather and will. That team was built on mean pitching and remarkable defense, and I still can’t believe it worked.

The city called ’em “Why Not.” I still think that name sucks, but it inspired one of the worst, great musical anthems any team has ever produced. “Why Not” still gets stuck in my head on the regular, right down to its late-’80s power-sax solos. But “Why Not” was a pretty good philosophy for that team. I mean, ’88 was terrible, but the Birds were only six years from winning the World Series. Their rotation was full of fire, with a hell of a lot of upside; they were one of the best defensive teams ever to take the field, their young hitters put the ball in play, and they were fast. Stupid fast. So why not?

This 2012 squad, on the other hand, is 29 years removed from that same World Series. Last year’s squad only lost 93—better than the ’88 team—but it was their sixth straight season losing at least 90. As for fielding, they don’t need a coach, they need an alchemist to turn their lead gloves into gold. If they could manage to catch a cold, they’d miss the cut-off man and hit the mascot throwing it back in to the plate. And when it comes to putting the ball into play, they strike out more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on J-Date. You want to talk speed? The Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout has, as I write this, stolen more bases than the entire O’s lineup, and most of the infield would lose in a footrace to an actual trout.

But as I write this, they’re 60-52, with just 50 games to go, a half-game back in the Wild Card race, and only 5.5 behind the Yankees, with their 70-trillion-dollar payroll, for first place in the East. They are winning at home. They are winning on the road, in Boston, in Tampa, and in New York. They’ve won 11 straight one-run games, and their last dozen extra-inning games—a club record. They play like they know they’re going to win, they’re never outhustled, and with Buck Showalter at skipper, they’re never outthought. They love the game and they love being Orioles.

This team is special. This year is special. If you haven’t been yet this year, and I can understand why you’ve been waiting, get down to the Yard. This has the makings of one for the books, the kind of season you’ll be talking about at the bar 20 years from now. The only thing this year needs is a name. Comedian and WBAL-AM radio host Marc Unger suggested “WTF?” I think that’s as good as any, because, seriously, I expect this team to win now, but I have no idea how they do it.

So, after a game, tweet “WTF!” Go to the Yard with two of your fattest, least-shirted buddies and write it on your chests, scream it after another crazy 14th-inning win, and, for the love of God, someone please round up some sleeveless shirts, headbands, and a mediocre saxophonist and make a song: “It’s really happening/ Now the birds are on the wing/ Come on O’s, we can win this thing/ What the Fuck!”

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