Five years ago we did Free The Birds rally and I’m still proud of it

September 20, 2011 | Nestor Aparicio

There’s been plenty written about the Orioles demise and the AL East standings and the empty stands at Camden Yards speak for themselves as to what the Baltimore community feels the value of the baseball team is circa 2011.

The stadium is empty most nights. Fans stuck with tickets can’t find anyone to take them for free. The city has tumbleweed blowing down Pratt Street most nights when the Orioles play. The fan base is so angry, so disenfranchised, so beaten down and/or disillusioned that they’re literally all but gone.

It’s the Fall of 2011 — the most recent version of The Apocalypse for any lifelong Orioles baseball fan and baseball lover like me. With the tragic suicide of Mike Flanagan last month – and the subsequent tales of the trail of a broken baseball man who loved this city and the Baltimore Orioles more than words can express – the Orioles have clearly hit rock bottom.

Or have they?

Oh, I’ve now been hearing for well over a decade that “the Orioles have bottomed out.” Heck, Ken Rosenthal was writing that stuff 12 years ago when he was covering the Orioles for The Sun. I’m not sure any of us knew how far into the abyss this situation would go but “bottoming out?”

I’m not really sure any of us know where the bottom is anymore when it comes to the Orioles.

This cesspool of lies and shameless civic profiteering clearly has no signs of receding and why should it when losing is far more profitable than trying to win and the owner has no desire to really win a World Series.

And, apparently, the only “outspoken” and “honest” member of the community is, well – me.

And because I’m the only one who’s not a coward and willing to point out the gigantic orange elephant in the middle of downtown Baltimore, people will continue to write on the internet that “Aparicio hates the Orioles.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the Orioles. That’s why I fight for justice. That’s why I tell the truth. I’m the only one who writes this stuff. I’m the only one who cares enough to speak my mind. I’m the only one who challenges the king of Baltimore baseball, Peter G. Angelos.

So while Andy MacPhail came in here the summer after Free The Birds as “Vice President of Baseball Operations” and got four years worth of big paychecks every other Friday while the team never had a moment of relevance and has finished in last place each fall, he’s about to bow out and quit on this morbid experiment that was allegedly going return the Orioles to relevance by cutting payroll, increasing profit and lying to the media and the fans about the goals of the franchise.

After all, the team is serving hamburger and making $50 million per year in profit. So, then, why would Andy MacPhail and Peter Angelos ever conspire to serve you filet mignon?

Maybe the players on the field can’t pull up in the stretch like a lame horse but the fans of the Baltimore Orioles – even some of the most diehard and patient and former orange Kool Aid drinkers and baseball worshippers – pulled up a long time ago and moved on to other pursuits during the hot summers in Baltimore.

So, was I really wrong for shedding honest light on this issue five years ago when we did the “Free The Birds” rally on Sept. 21, 2006?

In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” you’re goddamned right I was right.

I’m proud of Free The Birds. I’m proud of what it stood for and as much as Peter Angelos thought it was some “personal attack,” it’s also pretty clear he never read any of the 19 chapters I wrote preceding the walkout where in 75,000 words I expressed why the Orioles were the love of my life and why everything I’ve ever done in my professional life can all be traced back to the first time I picked up a Wiffle ball and bat in Dundalk.

Here’s a link to 19 chapters worth of “Why Nestor Loves Baseball and The Orioles”…

To be honest, I spent that summer of 2006 in the midst of my own midlife questions and answers and I was struck then by how easy it was for many people to simply walk away from baseball and the Orioles and never come back. Oriole Park at Camden Yards was already getting pretty empty even back then but five years later it has been even harder for me to watch the fun and joy of doing sports media for a living be completely sucked out of me because of the way Angelos has treated virtually everyone in my life who loves the Orioles as well.

And then there’s the losing that chases Baltimore sports fans away from the only sport that matters in the spring and summer.

People in Baltimore simply don’t care about the Orioles anymore. In the heat of the summer, the Orioles are annually mired in last place amidst some more failed policies and cheap payrolls while Angelos sucks tens of millions of dollars from your wallet and every wallet in the state via your cable television bill.

A high-ranking person in the baseball community asked me last week if I really believed that if a change in ownership (he called it a “messiah”) were to appear in Baltimore that the “old Orioles” could be restored.

Honestly, given the price tag of skyboxes and box seats and the lack of sponsorship money in the marketplace, I’m not really sure. I do know that people could easily care about and follow a winner. I’m not sure if the Orioles will ever draw 3 million people again given the Washington Nationals proximity and the atrophy of the sport in Baltimore.

But my Free The Birds campaign was designed to bring awareness to the plight of the baseball franchise and the helplessness of the fan base of the Baltimore Orioles. It was designed to give a voice to the fans in the bleachers who were fed up with losing and lies from Angelos.

I feel there’s great value in what I did. And I feel like my words, en masse, have been the most relevant words written about the baseball team over the last decade.

Where is the journalism being done on behalf of Mike Flanagan and his family? Why is it that one of the team’s favorite sons – a former Cy Young winner who dedicated 38 years of his life to a franchise – would take a gun to his head on a Wednesday night in August 2011?

And where are the journalists to ask questions about how this could possibly happen and the circumstances that led to such desperation for a wonderful community man like Flanny?

And where is Angelos to answer questions about what the Orioles are doing for Flanagan’s family, who understandably are trying to digest and mourn and make sense of why a 38-year employee of the franchise and one of the most prominent athletes of our generation would take his life on a summer night in Baltimore County.

But this city is full of cowards. Cowards in the business community who won’t speak the truth. Cowards in the media – all with out-of-town, corporate management councils who seek to profit off of the Orioles at any cost and “journalists” who are as soft as the Pillsbury dough boy. And cowards in the political system, who are too eager to take a campaign contribution and look the other way as more than 2.5 million people have been chased out of downtown every summer over the last decade.

Shameful isn’t a strong enough word for what’s happened in Baltimore. It’s more like a civic tragedy.

I called them all cowards five years ago when I did Free The Birds. And I’ll call them cowards now because their ability to “take a check and cough” has led the Orioles and the downtown business community and any ancillary business (like mine at WNST.net) into the abyss with a baseball team that is guaranteed tens of millions of dollars in profit every year and contributes nothing to the quality of life of Baltimoreans who foot the bill for a greedy franchise that leeches off of the banner “sports” in a way that doesn’t bring any sense of pride to our community.

If you really think about it, the Orioles are a source of civic despair. Who in Baltimore wants to brag about a team that finishes in last place every year and seems to have a black could of tragedy and darkness follow it everywhere — from Steve Bechler to steroid scandals to the suicide of their Cy Young Award winner who went on to hold every role in the organization except manager.

And here’s the dirty little secret – there’s absolutely no incentive for Angelos to improve the team and have it compete. And, like Willy Wonka, he never seems to appear, answer questions or give clarity to the direction of the franchise.

The dirty little secret for this segment of MLB owners is very clear.

Here’s the new formula:

LOSING = PROFIT

And that’s a very, very difficult concept for most people to grasp because I can’t think of another line of work or a business in any sector where you can guarantee profit lines by serving the worst product in your industry.

Of course, I don’t know many companies that use their television network as a public utility to print money from every home from the state that subscribes to a cable television package.

Just like the folks at WBAL-AM, who call themselves the “news leader” who had people chanting “Free The Birds” repeatedly on their airwaves for an hour on Sept. 21, 2006 and never mentioned what the chants represented. And even then, Angelos stripped them of the radio rights and made them grovel before ditching CBS Radio last year to continue their cozy “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” style of journalism.

As I wrote in my 19 chapters in 2006, until more people in the Baltimore business community and political scene and what’s left of the “media” challenge these issues and ask hard questions, the Orioles will continue to profiteer, hide, dodge questions and accountability and inevitably finish in last place in the American League East Division.

I’m not passing the buck. It’s the fans of the Orioles and the citizens of the community who have given this franchise a hall pass and allowed and made excuses for how this team could be irrelevant for 14 years running.

If you want the truth, I believe that we get the baseball team that we deserve.

Tomorrow, on the 5th anniversary of our walkout, I will present a current state of the franchise and on Thursday we’ll look to the future to examine how the Orioles will ever become a relevant and/or beloved franchise again in Baltimore.

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