Hate the outcome, not the players

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Jim Johnson Card

Oct. 11, 2012

The Orioles' dream season is providing some nightmare endings in the postseason, none more painful than Wednesday's 12-inning, 3-2 loss in the Bronx. Britt Ghiroli described it thusly in her game story: "Orioles Magic ran dry in a callous end to a pivotal postseason game they had in hand." A callous ending is exactly what it was.

Emotion emerges before reason and the two rarely meet in equal portions, so irrational sentiment among Orioles fans following that loss - THAT loss - is common and, frankly, understood. But this year, with this team, it's more important than ever to use whatever ounce of perspective remains to focus on hating the outcome, not the players. No matter the end result of this series or, in the best of worlds, future series, the 2012 Orioles are to be celebrated.

I get angry about sports. Too angry at times. But unlike past years when I might have cursed players I celebrated months, weeks, days or even moments earlier, I find myself feeling bad for the guys making atypical mistakes. 

Jim Johnson gets shelled for five ninth-inning runs in Game 1. It's stunning. It's uncharacteristic. And I think, "That's not Dirty Jim."

J.J. Hardy lets one through the wickets in the second inning of Game 2. Defense is what the guy does best. He's solidified a position that had become a carousel for the Orioles prior to his arrival. I think, "That's not J.J." 

Adam Jones misplays a Derek Jeter fly ball into a triple in the third inning of Game 3. He was blowing his traditional bubble prior to the ball landing just beyond his reach. I think, "The bubble? Okay, that is A.J. But the misplayed ball is not. The bubble means he's going to make the catch."

And on it goes. Johnson (again). Brian Matusz. A team full of unsung heroes is producing potential goats in October. None of these guys should become a scapegoat for fans. There are no Bill Buckners on this team (not that his situation was exactly fair).

Let Yankees fans boo Alex Rodriguez. There's baggage there, none more burdensome than his hefty contract. Besides, Yankees fans treating winning as a birthright, which would help to explain the seeming absence of crowd enthusiasm relative to other ballparks prior to the late innings. It's not their money, but anything short of winning the World Series seems to New York fans like they're not getting what they paid for with a $197 million payroll.

The Orioles have gone that route. In 1997, the Orioles went toe-to-toe with the Yankees on payroll and wire-to-wire in the A.L. East standings. One season later the O's outspent the Yankees - no one else has done it since - and finished with a losing record. That was a different era in Orioles baseball.

The 1996 and 1997 seasons were thrilling, but it was much easier to gripe and groan about both the players and the results given the costs and the expectations. The first half of the 1996 season didn't exactly have fans feeling affectionate toward the team's high-cost players. They were underachievers. Meanwhile, the 1998 season was an extended exercise in venting about players, and the Orioles didn't even sniff a playoff berth.

The 2012 Orioles - abounding with overachievers and captivating personal narratives - have been, relatively speaking, a low-cost investment with a high return. Along the way, they've inspired a different sort of investment among fans - the emotional kind. That's no small thing for a fanbase scarred by 14 years of losing and false starts like the 2005 season.

As rewarding as the rise in collective excitement is for those who have yearned for Baltimore be a baseball town once more, it does come at a cost. Often, the greater the emotional investment, the smaller the perspective, and never is that more true than in the playoffs.

A postseason that inherently involves a small sample size shouldn't obscure the larger 162-game sample that preceded it, especially when it comes to players' individual efforts. I wouldn't want the O's to sign a guy to a hefty contract simply because he had an uncharacteristically good run in the postseason. Likewise, I'm not going to abandon ship on guys who have found ways to get it done all season simply because they make mistakes now. That's the difference between being frustrated and being irrational.

No matter how high your expectations have risen this year - and I've gone from simply hoping for a winning season to dreaming of World Series games in Baltimore - there's no room to use the team's unanticipated success against it now that the stakes are at their highest.

One of my favorite moments of this postseason is a simple one. Game 2. Middle of the ninth inning. From my seats near the left-field foul pole I can see Jim Johnson, fresh off that Game 1 loss, descending the bullpen stairs toward the outfield grass. The gate opens, and the crowd rises in unison to cheer its record-setting closer. Jim Johnson gets the reception he deserves. 

Here's hoping the entire Orioles team gets the reception it deserves regardless of what happens next.

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