I will be forever nineteen driving a white Impala convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway...– Wild Thing, Campbell McGrath
The Baltimore Orioles’ season ended abruptly on Tuesday night with a walk-off three-run homer by Blue Jay Edwin Encarnacion in a Wildcard playoff game. The orange-and-black hot air balloon of the Orioles soared across the heavens through the All-Star break, clubbing round-trippers at a record pace only to descend slowly back to earth through a hole in the Toronto SkyDome roof, collapsing in a rumpled swath of canvas on the infield.
Thirty–three years ago, the Orioles last appeared in a World Series. I left my poetry workshop co-taught by Charles Wright and Gregory Orr, borrowed a friend’s metallic blue Volkswagen Beetle and drove three hours from the University of Virginia to Memorial Stadium to watch Mike Boddicker defeat the Phillies 4-1 in the second game. The Orioles won the series.
On the brink of the World Series in 1997, we lost an excruciating game to the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards with Tony Fernandez lining a solo shot into the right field bleachers to end our season in extra innings. A chilling rain fell upon the city and fourteen losing seasons followed.
Last week, I stayed close to the radio and monitored every game and score that affected the Orioles making it to the postseason. The Orioles were fighting for a consolation prize known as a Wildcard berth and faced a steep challenge playing both the Blue Jays and the Yankees away to end the season. The Rodgers Centre in Toronto has been a horrific experience for the better part of a decade and 161st Street in the Bronx is where would-be playoff teams go to die.
After taking two of three from the Jays, the Birds battled the elements in the first game against the Yankees launching two home runs in one inning for the eleventh time this season into a driving sideways rain to win 8-1. They were in control in the second game on Saturday, leading 3-2 entering the seventh. Manager Buck Showalter had walked a tightrope with his starter Wade Miley through six innings, one of the best outings from the veteran hurler since joining the O’s. Tyler Austin homered and tied the game. Leaving Miley in was criticized by the media and it ultimately led to the Orioles ending up in Toronto for the one-game playoff on Tuesday.
The criticism was nothing like the media storm he has faced in the last few days for not using his closer Zach Britton on Tuesday night.
Buck rarely uses his closer in a tie game. Yet he had called Britton's number during an extra inning game in Toronto on July 31st of this year in the same situation and the Orioles won. Britton’s untouchable 2016 season has propelled him into contention for a Cy Young award. In 47 appearances, he delivered 47 saves – a major league record. This time Showalter and Britton both watched Ubaldo Jimenez serve up a three run dinger.
Campbell McGrath’s poem “Wild Thing” is, on one level, about a former closer who played for the Cubs and Phillies named Mitch Williams. It’s also about the “inexorable closer” of death. It's one of my favorite poems of his from the book American Noise.
Look, out in the bullpen, he’s warming up:
The main man, the big guy, the stopper, the ace…
…he’s coming in to face you, he’s making his way slowly across the grass.
The inexorable closer is coming, believe me,
it isn’t Mitch Williams.
As the innings rolled by after the Blue Jays tied the game 2-2 in the fifth, I felt a sense of impending doom. The Orioles couldn't salvage a hit after the sixth inning. They lunged and flailed and were impatient. Sluggers Machado, Davis and Jones looked hapless as the innings wore on. Buck knows his hitters and what they are capable of. It was life or death, feast or famine, hit or miss for the offense this season, no in-between. Pitched away all night, they weren’t looking to hit to the opposite field. The home-run machine was off-balance, anxious, and ineffective.
Death came in the form of Blue Jays pitcher Francisco Liriano who was settling in for the long haul. Buck countered with his best available option to play a certain kind of long game – more a testimony to the lack of quality starting pitching than anything else. As flawed as the Orioles are, it may have been his greatest managing job ever to lead them this far.
Ubaldo’s first pitch was wild and high. Gravity was upon them, the balloon’s gondola appearing in the center of the retractable roof. Jimenez looked fatigued. In one season, he had gone from goat to hero to goat again—and likely now, gone for good.
Two days removed, I look at Buck's decision as a kind of euthanasia--a way to end the pain and suffering. I've watched baseball for forty-five years and know what a World Series contender looks like. These Orioles are not there yet. There are too many intangibles in baseball to catch lightning in a bottle. That is, unless you have a Madison Bumgarner. Maybe now the Birds will finally obtain the starting pitching they’ve needed for at least three years and Zach Britton will make his way slowly across the grass for something bigger than a one game playoff.