I've been a lifelong Orioles fan, so you're going to have to forgive me this digression. I promise to tie it in to LSU sports.
There is no time in your life you will be a bigger sports fan than when you are eight years old - it's just the perfect age where you understand the game, you can pick out your favorite players for your own personal reasons, but you're not so old as to really care about all of the off-the-field stuff. You love the Team, and the Team loves you back.
And when I was eight years old, the Baltimore Orioles won the World Series. I loved them, and they loved me back.
That love turned sour pretty quick. From that World Series until I started high school and discovered girls, here's a brief list of the things that happened to shape the young Poseur as a sports fan:
- John Elway gets drafted by the Colts. Refuses to play for Baltimore.
- Irsay moves the Colts in the middle of the night to Indianapolis. I watched the team move, live on television, and cried. To this day, I still flip off any Mayflower moving truck I see, which sometimes leads to awkward moments on the highway. My brother, traitor that he is, started rooting for the Redskins, who won three Super Bowls in the 80s. His happiness reflected my misery.
- The Washington Capitals would make the playoffs every year, starting in 1983. They would not make the Conference Finals until I was in high school (they were swept) and they wouldn't make the Stanley Cup Finals until I was out of college (once again, they were swept). I'm still waiting on them winning the damn thing. They would also blow a 3-1 series lead to the Islanders, capped off with the Game 7 Easter Epic, a four overtime game that didn't end until well past 1 AM on Easter Sunday.
- The Bullets had the decency to just suck outright. No broken hearts here. The Bullets would post a winning season in 1982-83. Over the next twenty years, the Bullets/Wizards would have three winning seasons. Count ‘em. Three. The peak would be in 1997 when the now Wizards would go 44-38 and lose in the first round.
- Len Bias, who I was convinced was Superman, died of a cocaine overdose. Then Maryland basketball would fire their coach and eventually end up on probation. As a show of solidarity, Maryland football would start to suck, too.
- The Orioles would start the 1988 season by going 0-21. You read that right.
That's a lot of crappy stuff to happen to the teams you root for. Rooting for Maryland sports teams in the 1980s made you hard. To recap, teams found ways to lose in agonizing ways and set records for futility, our star player became a cautionary tale, the college program went on probation, and our football team moved away. Find a worse five-year stretch for local sports in history. I dare you. The best team was the Caps, and they never made the semifinals, and lost in record breaking fashion.
It's not hard to see why I adopted my parents' college football team. LSU, in the 1980s, was the only team I rooted for that ever won anything.
Things changed in 1989. The Orioles bounced back from their 0-21 season to spend most of 1989 not only in a pennant race, but actually in first place. The slogan was "Why Not?" and after five years of every team either losing, moving, or dying, it was the single greatest season I had ever experienced as a sports fan. It might still be. It's hard to explain how badly we needed just a little optimism. Something, anything, good to happen. We latched on and believed with all our hearts.
And the Orioles lost the pennant in the final weekend.
The O's would spend most of the next decade as one of the best teams in baseball with one of the largest payrolls. The Yankees big rivals in the mid-90's wasn't the Red Sox, but the free-spending big market Orioles.
Just as the Orioles finally got good again, LSU went into the tank. I don't need to recap the Curley Hallman era for y'all, but for our younger readers: whatever you heard, it was worse. I didn't quite bring the losing with me, but I did spend my college years watching Hallman and Dinardo coached teams. Just as my home team started winning, I moved to Louisiana so I could keep on losing.
Some people are bandwagon fans, never knowing the pain of losing so they will also never know the cathartic relief of finally winning. Those who only know good times will never know great times because the winning just doesn't mean as much to them. It is the way it has always been, and always will be. People who stick with a loser know suffering. And it is only through suffering that we truly appreciate joy.*
*Is it any wonder that I'm a Catholic?
I was meant to root for bad teams. I've spent most of my life rooting for them, and I know how to pick out that one ray of sunshine poking through the darkest cloud. When you root for a bad team, joy isn't derived from wins and losses, but the good play or the special moment. When something is rare, you treasure it more.
Even now that LSU is not only a good team, but a great one, I'm conditioned to root for a bad team. I still look for those little nuggets of joy tucked away in every disaster. Even though LSU has flooded the market with good moments, I still value them like it's the Hallman era. Why look for paucity when we now live in the land of plenty?
It's hard to pinpoint when LSU became a good team in the sense that I always expected them to win and the Orioles became a bad team that I always expected to lose. But I know when the change started:
October 11, 1997.
LSU fans know this as the day Herb Tyler led the Tigers to an upset win over the #1 Florida Gators. It was the first time LSU had ever beaten a #1 team in Tiger Stadium. After charging the field, re-enacting Billy Cannon's run, and then taunting the Florida band (who were remarkably accurate when throwing projectiles at me), I ran home to catch SportsCenter.
The top story? The Orioles losing Game 3 of the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians in 12 innings. You can tell fake Oriole fans because they'll complain about 1996 and Jeffrey Maier. Hey, lay off the kid, it was Rich Garcia who blew the call. But we hardcore Oriole fans have never fully recovered from 1997. That was our year until suddenly, it wasn't.
Just saying the name Armando Benitez around an Oriole fan is enough to set us off. I still can't talk about it. Oh, and Marquis Grissom did not legitimately steal home to win Game 6. It was clearly a bunt, and John Hirschbeck missed the damn call.*
*You can also tell obsessive fans because they remember the umpires/refs who screwed them.
Mike Mussina turned in one of the great performances in baseball history in that ALCS. His line: 15 IP, 4 H, 4 BB, 1 R, 25 K, and a 0.60 ERA. The Orioles' record in his two starts? 0-2. Oh well. We'll get ‘em next year.
But there was no next year. Peter Angelos fired Davey Johnson. The hitters got real old real quick. Mussina became a Yankee. 1997 was the Orioles last winning season until this year.
LSU, on the other hand, got real great real quick. OK, there was a brief stumble after 1997, but the team would win an SEC title in four years and a national title in six. Nick Saban built a powerhouse, and then turned the keys over to Les Miles, who would take the team to even greater heights. LSU not only won, but we expected them to win. They won so much we started to take winning for granted and actually started complaining about how wins weren't winning enough.
Rooting for a great team is fun, because winning is better than losing, but it's not as fun as rooting for a team that's winning for the first time in a long time. No one complained that the wins weren't impressive enough in 2003 because we were just happy to be winning. But now we win so often it's become routine. We complain that the wins aren't good enough because it might - might, mind you - lead to losses in the future. We don't want it to end, and we certainly don't want to end suddenly and terribly.
The Orioles have always kept me grounded. As much as one team I loved kept winning, another kept losing. If I wanted to know what it was like to not just lose, but to be utterly devoid of hope, well... I just had to ask myself.
And now the Orioles are back in the postseason. Even if they fail to win a game, this season has been a resounding success. It's also been a blast. I've enjoyed every single win because every single win has been so unexpected, so rare, and so valuable.
You need to enjoy the wins, because you never know when the winning will end. Is this season an aberration and the O's will go back to the basement next season? Is LSU's great run about to end? Will tomorrow bring losses?
Maybe. I don't know. Which means I should spend more time enjoying these wins. The future is unknowable, but the present is pretty great. So let's enjoy the present because right now, I don't think I've ever had a better time in my entire life as a sports fan. This is the peak, so I'm going to enjoy it.