Neal Shaffer: A burden, lifted

What do sports mean to a city, after all? Of what value is a team? What do we really gain from having handsomely compensated athletes organize themselves in uniform to play games in a city most of them don't call home?

In a word, it's community. From economic impact to camaraderie, everyone can find their own favorite reason why sports matter. Regardless of which one you favor, a team is one of the few things that still has the power to impart a real sense of "us."

Rooting can be a remarkable bonding experience. When you're at a game or watching one at an establishment, you're united by purpose with the people there to share it with you. There's no room for politics or racial divides. No room for lengthy debates about lifestyle or religion. There is the team and the game they play, and there is hoping they come out on top.

There's a less direct impact, too, which affects even folks who don't actively care. It's a mood. Impossible to quantify, yes, but evident to anyone paying attention. Think Purple Friday and, lately, its orange counterpart.

None of it makes much sense, if you stop to think. Therein lies the beauty.

Of course, therein also lies a problem. All of these things are diminished by losing, and they are damaged when losing becomes a habit.

When things don't go well, those good vibes go bad quickly. When things don't go well for an extended period of time, the whole endeavor becomes an albatross. Some cast it off, others soldier on. Everyone feels it one way or another, even if only by osmosis.

Such had been the case in Baltimore for 14 consecutive summers. What started as a breakdown in 1998 became a seemingly endless series of failed rebuilding efforts and would-be saviors who were, each in his own way, not up to the task.

It got so bad that baseball became an afterthought. The team of Cal and Brooks and Frank and three World Series titles became a punchline and a burden. It was sad, and it was bad for the city.

There are many reasons to celebrate the Orioles' return to the playoffs but it is through this lens - community - that it truly matters.

This is not to minimize the importance or excitement of winning baseball in and of itself, as entertainment and as a source of joy. But we should think, as well, of the bars and restaurants that got a boost in sales thanks to more people caring about the games. Of the street vendors who probably had their best summer in years. Of the kids that got to experience what it's like to watch a winner for the first time. Of the grandmas, grandpas, and retirees who got to feel that again.

Neal Shaffer regularly blogs about the Orioles at The Loss Column, and his work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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