In 1989, the Baltimore Orioles played the Toronto Blue Jays in the final series of the season, With two wins in the three games, they would have caught the Jays in the American League East and forced a one-game playoff. With a sweep, they could would have won the pennant outright. The Orioles had bounced back from 107 loses the previous season, with a record 21 losses to begin the year. That the 1989 team was just a game out of first place with three games to go was a near-certifiable miracle.
The Orioles lost the first two games of the series, and I began to grasp losing in professional baseball. I was nine. I went to my room and cried.
The Orioles were in contention but faded during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. In the 1993 All-Star game, held at Camden Yards, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston declined to play my favorite player, Mike Mussina. In 1996 and 1997, the Orioles went to the American League Championship Series. They lost the first time when the series momentum turned on a Yankee fan reaching from the stands to disrupt play. When they failed the next year, every game they lost was by a margin of one run.
In 1994, Mussina, by now a personal hero to my 14-year-old self, had a chance to win 20 games for the first time, but the strike ended the season. In 1996, Mussina in his last start had a chance again to win 20, but the bullpen lost his lead. In 1997, Mussina lost a perfect game with two outs to go. I was watching and blamed my brother for the loss. He had noted the possibility a batter or two earlier. In 1998, Mussina lost a perfect game with four outs to go. In 2001, he lost a perfect game with one out to go.
My love of Washington baseball has never gone much better. I grew up knowing Washington had lost two versions of the Senators, to Minnesota and then to Texas. And any baseball-card collector knew Topps had once printed Washington Padres cards, but the planned 1974 from San Diego had fallen apart. Washington lost league expansion competitions in 1993 and 1998. (I hadn’t been around for when we had lost to Toronto in 1976.) Attempts to buy other teams and bring them to D.C. failed as well.
But Washington finally landed a team. The team was in first place after the first half of its first season here. It lost most games subsequently. But this year, seven years later, the team finally made the postseason. The Nats lost a deciding fifth game to the Cardinals last night — after twice being one strike away from winning and advancing to the NLCS. I was there at Nationals Ballpark, cheering, as I had been for the two previous games.
A few years ago, Mike Mussina, in the last season of his 17-year career, whom by then the Orioles had lost through free agency to the Yankees (a move that somehow made sense in my opinion), finally won 20 games.
This year, the Orioles finally returned to the playoffs. They weren’t my team anymore, but I was happy for them. The chance of a local World Series was exciting. But the Orioles lost a deciding fifth game last night as well. I was sorry for them. They weren’t my team anymore, but twenty-three years ago, making that turnaround run for the playoffs, the Orioles had taught me losing in baseball wasn’t forever. Falling short, they had reminded me loss was forever, but losing was a only matter of timing.