Sunday, July 29, 2012

Characterizing the Fanbases #3: Baltimore Orioles

Welcome to the latest installment of Characterizing the Fanbases! In this series I’m attempting to present the psychology of every MLB fanbase. This series, as you would expect, comes with a disclaimer: These characterizations are based on my own perceptions and opinions, and no offense is intended by them. I freely admit that I’m only one man, and my view is therefore limited. I’m fully aware that many fans will not fit the profile I depict, and that’s to be expected, because it’s impossible to make blanket statements about large groups of people. If you want to contest anything I write here, feel free to leave a thoughtful, civil comment. Otherwise, sit back and have fun reading. Perhaps I might even say something insightful!

The phrase “East Coast” conjures up images of big cities with sizable media presences. Baltimore, however, is the east coast city with a small-town feel. Back in the day Memorial Stadium was located in the middle of a residential area, with nothing but treetops and houses visible past the top of the upper deck. This setting had the effect of making the Orioles into the fans’ neighbors. Instead of local hired athletes, they were members of the community.

When a new venue was needed, it was inevitable that they’d have to move into the heart of the city, but they couldn’t afford to sacrifice their bond with the people in the seats. Memorial Stadium’s successor, therefore, was beautiful Oriole Park at Camden Yards, built to be a fan’s paradise. It was designed for maximum comfort and aesthetic value, and it served as a living monument to the city’s history and ties to the game. It’s now known as the first “retro” ballpark, and it perfectly suited a team that had such a proud tradition of respectability. The Orioles were too good to play in some dime-a-dozen cookie cutter stadium that reeked of cold corporatism; they deserved something classic, and they got it. It became the standard by which all future ballparks would be measured, and it’s arguable that none of its followers has duplicated its charm.

What makes the Orioles so special? Well, in the days before Peter Angelos they were known for doing things The Oriole Way, a top-to-bottom organizational philosophy that emphasized loyalty, intelligence, fundamentals and class. In the big cities they could crassly throw money around on whatever talent was available, but in Baltimore they cared about maintaining a family atmosphere. They weren’t just out to get good players, coaches and executives, they wanted them to be Orioles at heart.

With the organization running itself like a family, the fans embraced the Orioles as such. Brooks Robinson, for instance, became a Baltimore icon for being a great player on the field and a gentleman off it, and to this day he’s so revered that Oriole fans name their children after him. You’d think he was a relative who made good with the personal connection they feel. The Orioles even allowed Robinson to remain on the active roster for about two years after he was no longer effective simply because he was the kind of guy who’d earned the right to leave on his own terms. The thing is though, Brooks Robinson wasn’t a player who put up huge numbers or gave off a charismatic glow. The only thing that qualifies him as a Hall of Famer is the fact that he was perhaps the greatest fielding third baseman of all time, and he was a good enough hitter that the whole package added up to an elite one. He wasn’t even the greatest player to spend his entire career with the Orioles, but to many he symbolizes everything that the franchise represents. St. Louis has Musial, New York has Gehrig, and Baltimore has Brooksie. He’s clearly not the same caliber of player as those two, but beyond a doubt he’s theirs.

In the 1970’s the team began a tradition (which continues to this day) of playing John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the Seventh Inning Stretch. Baltimore wouldn’t be considered rural by any means, but the song itself obliquely manages to embody the fans. It’s not lyrically deep (is any John Denver song?), but if there’s a general message that goes beyond the surface, it’s to take pride in what one has. The singer tells us he’s just a humble farmer, but he wouldn’t trade his lot in life if given the choice. He knows how to find joy in the simple things, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s got everything he could ever dream of between his farm, family and fiddle. It’s quite the parallel to Oriole fans’ pride in their city and love for their local heroes. That’s not to say that Oriole fans don’t wish for things to be better, only that their franchise has traditionally aspired to a higher ideal than racking up the trophies at all costs. Even though The Oriole Way is considered a relic from the past nowadays, the fans would still prefer a team that adhered to its principles.

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