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It Keeps Getting Harder to Believe in Oriole Magic

For one Baltimore fan, Manny Machado’s trade isn’t a smart rebuilding move; it’s a painful reminder that the team’s all-too-brief return to relevance is ceding to an era of despair

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of my favorite memories is of my father first telling me about the 1982 Orioles. I don’t remember how old I was, or even why it came up—probably because I thirsted for stories about Earl Weaver, and his love of the three-run homer, and his riotous rage. But I remember how it felt to hear about those Birds, who started the year 5-12, then worked their way back into contention in what Weaver had said would be his final season. Baltimore needed a four-game sweep of Milwaukee in the closing series to take the division crown from the Brewers, and the O’s won the first three. Then, with 51,642 fans in attendance for the last game of the regular season and possibly the last game of Weaver’s tenure (ultimately, he returned in ’85), they lost. They lost badly, 10-2, a five-spot from the Brewers in the ninth inning putting the comeback for the game and the season alike beyond reach.

And do you know what the fans did? They stayed. They filled Memorial Stadium with their voices and their love. They chanted O-R-I-O-L-E-S as Weaver wiped tears from his eyes. I remember my dad telling me about this miraculous moment, this encapsulation of fandom and community, and about how Howard Cosell couldn’t quite believe what was transpiring.

“You are bearing witness,” Cosell told viewers everywhere, “to one of the most remarkable scenes maybe that you will ever see in sports. Yes, the fans have stayed! They have stayed to cheer!”

I think about this often. I thought about it constantly on Tuesday, when, at long last, I could no longer ignore the inevitable: My favorite team was going to trade away my favorite player. I thought about it ceaselessly on Wednesday, as the trade slipped back into limbo over uncertain prospect medicals, my misery stretching on, seemingly into the ever after. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, official word came down: The Orioles and Dodgers had a deal, Manny Machado for a five-prospect package built around power-hitting outfielder Yusniel Diaz.

Manny isn’t Earl. The 2018 O’s definitely aren’t the ’82 O’s. But that moment in Memorial has always felt like a touchstone to me, a boiled down display of why we love sports. In the end, it’s not actually about winning—at least not only. It’s about finding something worth believing in, and then sharing it with people who believe in it, too. Manny made me believe. He made me smile. He gave me hope. And now he’s gone.

I can still feel the euphoria that swept over me when the O’s drafted him. It was June 2010. The Bryce Harper draft. The Birds were on their way to a 66-96 record, another last-place finish. Since selecting Nick Markakis seventh overall in 2003, they’d spent first-round picks on Wade Townsend, Brandon Snyder, Garrett Olson, Billy Rowell, Pedro Beato, Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, and Matt Hobgood, a series of who?s and a catcher who went from “Can’t miss!” to “Meh, OK” in a damn hurry. Even amid the Wieters hype that was still very much in full swing at that time, Manny felt different, a high school phenom excelling at the game’s most important position, a shortstop so gifted even Baltimore’s snake-bit player-development system couldn’t break him.

He was A-Rod. He was non-hometown Cal. When he earned the call in 2012, a 19-year-old straight from Double-A moving from his natural shortstop position to the team’s chasm at third base, he was Brooks Robinson. He was a revelation, and his 51-game regular-season debut propelled the O’s to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Their wild-card-game victory over Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers meant more to me than any sporting event before or since, proof positive that anything is possible.

I’ll spare you the play-by-play recounting of his entire Orioles tenure. There were ups and downs. There were two season-ending knee injuries; there were brawls and suspensions. There were also more web gems and smiles than I can count. He turned his doubles stroke into 30-plus-homer power. He made four All-Star teams. He earned MVP votes in three seasons. The Orioles made the playoffs again in 2014 (their first AL East title since ’97) and 2016. He floated into and out of the conversation about the game’s best overall player, but he always remained a superstar, unambiguously the kind of cornerstone a franchise builds around.

And that’s where logic abandons me. I understand, rationally, why most analysts and even many fans feel that the only mistake here was waiting too long, failing to maximize the return for a player the Orioles knew they couldn’t re-sign when he hit free agency. Leaving aside that Baltimore made the playoffs in 2016 and Machado’s 2017 WAR was the lowest of his career in a full season, I’m just not capable of thinking about this through the lens of net gains. I don’t think I ever will be, because I can’t understand, can’t accept, can’t even really comprehend conceding defeat before even trying. Machado should have worn Orioles orange until the day he hung ’em up; instead, he’s in Dodger Blue at 26.

In an era when early extensions have become commonplace for young stars, the O’s failed, over the course of nearly a decade, to secure Machado’s services long term. Sure, they engaged in talks with his camp and made the required cursory efforts, but it never felt real. They seemed long ago to have accepted, as a matter of course, that they stood no chance of re-signing him on the open market. Why? How? It can’t be the money or the years—surely a team that was willing to relax its cripplingly rigid cap on contract cost and length to give Chris Davis, who’s now hitting .158 (.158!!!!) while posting a minus-2.5 WAR, $161 million over seven years wouldn’t draw the line here? I get that Machado will likely net double that, maybe more; I realize that the Orioles are currently playing .289 baseball. I also know that this team can spend when it wants to; I’ve seen proof over the last seven seasons that Manny can help make a loser a winner again.

Even now, they could attempt to bring Manny home this winter, but there’s no wink-wink-we’ll-see-you-again-soon element to the discourse. Remember when the Red Sox shipped Jon Lester to the A’s? Short of admitting to predetermined collusion, the club all but vowed to pursue any means necessary to securing a reunion. It didn’t matter that their efforts ultimately fell short; it mattered that Boston fans knew the team tried. For Orioles fans, the narrative has already shifted fully back to the rebuild—a word it feels like we escaped only a fragment of time ago. How are we back here already?

That’s part of it, too: Increasingly, baseball teams win in one of two ways—aggressively spending or aggressively tanking. The Orioles aren’t doing either. They’re caught in the middle, carrying bad contracts, watching the probability metrics on their run differentials and we’re-smarter-than-you player-refurbishment efforts catch up to them at last. There was something brilliant and beautiful about the Frankenstein’s monster Baltimore rode into October three times this decade, but the stitches were always going to come out. Without a player like Machado to tack the limbs back onto, the carcass is all that’s left.

Despair isn’t a strategy. Perhaps you’d encourage me to focus on the return the Dodgers sent? Well, fandom requires suspension of disbelief, but even the most open-minded, willing mark would have a hard time looking at Baltimore’s recent prospect-development history and finding much inspiration there. Manny was, in many ways, the exception that proved the rule. What’s more—and I’ve said it so often at this point that I feel like a broken record … even a broken record about saying I feel like a broken record!—the whole point of trading an established stud is to try, one day, to get a player like Manny in return. The O’s already had him. And now they don’t.

All-Star Games don’t matter, but since that draft night in 2010, I’ve longed to see Manny start one at shortstop, smile on his face, cartoon bird on his cap. It felt more important than it was—some sort of confirmation, a declaration that the next great era of Orioles baseball really had arrived. In reality, it marked the end. Manny sauntered down the red carpet, hair slicked back, shades on, chest bare. He looked ready-made for Hollywood, like someone who was always just passing through.

It killed me. It feels important to note that there are much more pressing things happening in the world—real problems, real stakes, real distress and pain. I know that it’s all relative, that a sports trade is a dust mite in the fabric of the universe’s misery. I know that to some, I sound ludicrously self-indulgent and out of touch. But I also know that fandom isn’t rational, and that sometimes, it can seem impossible to separate what’s logical from what’s in your heart.

There was joy in Manny’s heart on Tuesday night. He answered trade questions diplomatically, conducting himself calmly and respectfully, displaying the maturation the organization long craved to see. He also slipped into speaking about his time in Baltimore in the past tense, his rumored future in L.A. as a guarantee. He took a selfie with Matt Kemp during the game. Every interview question, every comment on the broadcast, every tweet reeked of trade talk and pennant races, blockbusters and California dreams. I felt robbed of the day I’d waited for, bitter that Manny felt more famous after one day under the Dodgers halo than he ever did in the orange and white. I also felt grateful for everything he’d given me, and so desperately sad that I’d never get it again.

I thought, once more, about the fans in ’82, and how they stood and cheered. I thought of how the fans stayed in Camden, too, all those years later, in 2014, a 17-year division drought over, an Adam Jones pie greeting face after face. They clinched on my birthday, and as I rewound and rewatched the celebration time and time again from my perch in L.A., my new Friday night home jersey draped around me, I cried with joy for the future that Manny and Jonesy and Buck had built. That was less than four years ago. It already feels like another life.

“The defeat will hurt,” Cosell said back in ’82. Moments later, he added: “And there they are, standing, and chanting, all of them, in unison. And the sign says it all. Goodbye, Earl, and you deserve it. You’ve been one of the greatest managers in the history of the game.”

I’ll never stop cheering. I’ll never stop caring. But I wish so deeply that I didn’t have to say it: Goodbye, Manny, and you deserve it. You’ve been one of the greatest players in the history of the Orioles.