Back and forth, back and forth--
my one point of rest
is the orange and black
Orioles swinging nest!
An off day in a pennant race is torture. Last evening, I paced the room mumbling lines from Robert Lowell poems. There is only insomnia now. After leading the division for most of the season, the Baltimore Orioles are tied for the second wildcard spot and fading.
It’s not our year. This mantra has a calming influence. The team has been assembled like a Long Island slow-pitch softball team in a perpetual home run derby. Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and Chris Davis have clubbed 152 home runs combined --but that's the only offensive weapon the team possesses here of late. The defense and bullpen are solid but the Orioles starting pitching has flown south too early. They've lost their ace, Chris Tillman to the disabled list. The seasons rests on the shoulders of his supporting cast.
I’ve been an Oriole fan since I was old enough to crawl. I watched the O’s dismantle the Dodgers in 1966 on my father’s knee at Memorial Stadium. I wept alone in the apartment clubhouse as Met fans spilled onto the field in ’69. In ‘70, my dad took me out of school in a blue blazer and knee socks (e.g. John-John attire) to Memorial Stadium on the day that Dave McNally hit the only World Series grand slam in the history of baseball, destroying the will of the Big Red Machine. I can still see the ball going over the left field wall.
A few years later, my first lines of poetry appeared on a poster in the left field bleachers: Yankees Beware/Here Comes Paul Blair.
I’ve spent a lifetime in Birdland—including an ear tuned to nearly every game during 14 consecutive losing seasons with one exception. In the summer of 2001, I began dating my wife Christina and stopped listening in July.
“You hid the baseball obsession well,” she told me after the wedding.
I rode the rails to the Bronx in 2012 to watch C. C. Sabathia hold my team at arms length in the deciding game of the playoffs. The largest human being on a pitching mound that I’ve ever seen, his pants rippling in the wind, he stood there like an installation in Monument Park.
I sat in the icy rain warming myself with an oozing tranche of Nathan’s cheese fries until Curtis Granderson ended the Orioles season by sending a ball just inside the right field foul pole. Even in victory, the new Yankee Stadium was as quiet as a Forest Hills tennis court.
The Yankee fans knew it wasn’t their year.
Now I listen to Oriole games under the under starlit skies of Western New York. We haven’t won a World Series since 1983. We were also close in 1979 but the Pirates and Willie Stargell denied us. Poet Campbell McGrath had followed the O’s that year observing in Capitalism Poem #25:
…the crowd hums with energy, excited but not all that nervous, certain of victory, because this is the magic summer of 1979 and fate is on the side of Baltimore.
The recharged Bronx Bombers are coming to Camden Yards for a Labor Day weekend series that begins tonight. Last weekend, they bludgeoned the O’s, 29-7 in the first two games in New York. The Orioles thankfully salvaged the Sunday finale.
New York showcased an arsenal of young sluggers including their latest phenom Gary Sanchez. His name sounds like he could be a poet. He’s already accomplished a Ruthian feat that no other player in major league history can lay claim to—not Mantle, Ruth, or Henry Aaron. He hit homeruns in 11 of his first 23 major league games and three against the Orioles.
That’s right, the six-foot two, two hundred and twenty pound poet Gary Sanchez.
The Yankee’s are morphing into the future before our eyes. They’ve gone from an aging and moribund franchise in decline to an energized, playoff-contending ball club. There hasn't been a youth movement like this since Buck Showalter was their manager. They’re only two and a half games behind the O’s. After 23 straight winning seasons, the Yanks define failure as not winning the World Series.
They always scare me.
The Orioles are just trying to stay alive. Orioles skipper, Buck Showalter is the key to keeping us in the playoff hunt. He manages his team during the course of a season like a poet revising a 162-line poem. He tinkers and tweaks and sometimes sleeps in his office. This Ogden Nash poem hangs on a wall there.
You Can't Kill an Oriole
Wee Willie Keeler
Runs through the town,
All along Charles Street,
In his nightgown.
Belling like a hound dog,
Gathering the pack:
Hey, Wilbert Robinson,
The Orioles are back!
Hey, Hughie Jennings!
Hey, John McGraw!
I got fire in my eye
And tobacco in my jaw!
Hughie, hold my halo.
I'm sick of being a saint:
Got to teach youngsters
To hit 'em where they ain't.
I can’t wait to hear the words, “Play Ball!”
Dean Smith is a poet, sportswriter and director of Cornell University Press. He grew up in Baltimore and learned to catch fly balls by mimicking centerfielder Paul Blair. He's written about baseball and poetry here. His book of poems American Boy was published by Washington Writer's Publishing House in 2000. He also published Never Easy, Never Pretty about the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl season with Temple University Press in 2013. He is a regular contributor to PressBox Magazine and is a poetry editor for The Baltimore Review.