When you grow up rooting for the Baltimore Orioles, you learn a few things. You learn that an old brick warehouse is the ultimate backdrop for a baseball stadium, and you learn that John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" is just as essential during the seventh-inning stretch as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game".
But perhaps most of all, you learn how to be a loyal sports fan.
From 1998 to 2011 — the bulk of my childhood — the once-proud Orioles compiled a losing record every season. There were few things I wanted more than for the Orioles to be good. Every February, as pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, youthful naivety filled my head with delusions of grandeur. No matter that the Orioles' rosters were thoroughly mediocre — I would lay in bed at night envisioning them forming a dog pile on the mound in front of a raucous crowd at Camden Yards, while Joe Buck made some corny call about the franchise capturing its first title since 1983.
The Orioles did finally clinch a Wild Card spot in 2012, launching a five-year stretch during which the club won more games than any other American League team. But they never won that elusive World Series. And while their postseason success helped erase some of the haunting baseball memories of my youth, it also made me soft. I had gotten so used to watching a winning team that I forgot how to deal with a bad one. And now, things are as gloomy as they ever were.
So far this year, the Orioles have been — to put it kindly — purely awful. Sitting at 28-69, they're competing with the Kansas City Royals for the worst record in the majors. They just traded their best player. As a kid, I had all the time in the world to focus on the Orioles, but now, I have to ask myself: Why am I wasting my precious waking hours watching a team with a minus-159 run differential?
The honest answer is that I hope the O's can mimic the Houston Astros' dramatic reversal from losing 100-plus games every year to most dominant team in baseball. I keep watching in case they do the improbable.
But I'm wiser now. Rather than tune in blindly for the Birds' every loss, I've developed a strategy for enjoying the game despite their spectacular failures. If you're a fellow Orioles fan — or maybe you root for the Royals, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets, Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, or San Diego Padres — here's a guide for staying engaged with your flailing favorite team.
1. Keep up with minor league prospects
In the decade after their 2005 World Series title, the White Sox were the epitome of mediocrity, annually hovering around the .500 mark. But last year, the team's brass took a more radical approach. Knowing that the Major League team would struggle for a few years, the front office traded star pitchers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana along with center fielder Adam Eaton to the Boston Red Sox, the cross-town Cubs, and the Washington Nationals, respectively. In return, they collected a haul of elite prospects, including MLB.com's No. 2-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez. In just the span of a few months, the Southsiders went from having one of the weaker farm systems in the league to one of the most formidable.
So, White Sox fans, don't focus too heavily your team's 33-62 mark. Spend some of your designated baseball time following how the kids are doing down in the minors instead.
2. Root for the No. 1 draft pick
It may seem embarrassing to root for the literal worst team in the league. I know I personally have felt the relief of some sad-sack squads falling below the O's in the standings during our darkest days. But in reality, there is little difference between winning 74 and 64 games in Major League Baseball — and if your team is going to be bad, you might as well hope they're really, really bad so that you can compete for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
So here's to you, Royals fans. As an era of great baseball pride comes to an end in Kansas City, the Royals are one of the frontrunners for next year's top pick — which means it's time for you to start researching potential newcomers. It can be challenging to follow draft prospects, as projections change more rapidly in baseball than in other sports, but that doesn't mean Royals fans can't dig up YouTube clips of next year's current top prospect — high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. — and convince themselves he's the next Troy Tulowitzki.
3. Invest your time in specific players
Because of the pace of baseball, it's easy to focus on individual players. You can flip the game on when your favorite hitter is up at the plate — lineups are usually available a few hours before each game — or try to watch the games that your favorite pitcher starts. This is a particularly sound strategy for beleaguered Mets fans, who are notoriously hard on themselves and their team. They're fortunate, though, to have two of the most exciting pitchers in baseball — Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard — in blue and orange. In particular, deGrom is in the midst of an incredible season; if it weren't for Washington's Max Scherzer, the lanky right-hander would probably be the National League Cy Young favorite.
Nowadays, the time a player spends in one organization is fleeting, and deGrom's name has popped up in trade rumors (though it will take quite a king's ransom to pry the ace away from Queens). Above all else, Mets fans should hope for a contract extension — but if one fails to materialize, they would do well to set aside their disappointment one night per week, tune in when deGrom is on the mound, and appreciate his artistry while he's still in town.
4. Play spoiler
Baseball is a great sport. But I admit it's a lot more fun to watch if you care about the results. While the Padres are in the midst of another painful season, San Diegans can take solace in the fact that their squad could potentially play spoiler to one of their division rivals. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, and San Francisco Giants are all separated by just four games, setting up what should be an exhilarating four-team race to the finish in the second half of the season. The Friars will be on the outside looking in, but they'll get a crack at upending one or more of their nemeses' seasons, which can bring a lot of joy to a fan base. One of my favorite memories as an Orioles fan, beyond their years of success, is still the final game of the 2011 season, when the last-place O's came from behind in the ninth inning to steal a victory from the Red Sox, knocking them out of the playoffs.
You might think this sounds petty. You'd be right — but it's also quite fun.
5. Enjoy the reprieve
As much fun as baseball is, it's also draining and time-consuming. There are 162 games — and that's before you get to the playoffs, when the anxiety really sets in. When the Orioles were competing, I was a wreck emotionally, physically, and socially, for 162 nights. Back in 2014, the Orioles' best year during their fruitful stretch, I was a junior in college, and I'm positive my friends hated me. I'd bail on plans to watch a game, or make them wait as the game I was watching stretched deep into extra innings. But after waiting so long for the O's to win, I didn't want to waste a second of it.
Now, although I'm disappointed by the team's performance, I appreciate the fact that 162-plus nights of my year don't consist of a pounding heart during the ninth of inning of a baseball game. I'm free.
Now, would I trade that freedom for the Orioles to be good again? Of course. But seeing as I don't have any say in that happening, I've convinced myself to enjoy it while I can.