The Washington Times - April 5, 2009, 03:51PM

I grew up in Massachusetts and agonized along with the rest of Red Sox Nation as the Yankees time and again snuffed out Boston’s hopes of ending its championship drought. I was close to tears when Grady Little painfully left an out-of-gas Pedro Martinez in too long in the 2003 American League Championship Series and would have cried tears of joy when the 86-year drought ended the following year if I wasn’t in the company of several lifelong friends who would have understood but ragged on me anyway. I’ve ordered the MLB Extra Innings package every year since I moved to Maryland so I could watch my beloved Sox - an investment more than justified by Boston’s 2007 title. But with the first pitch of the 2009 season just hours away, I’m having more trouble than ever before coming to terms with the current state of my fanhood.

It all started with Cal Ripken Jr. My next-door neighbor growing up was, of course, a Red Sox supporter, but also a huge fan of the Iron Man. It gradually rubbed off on me, as even the most ardent Oriole hater had to respect the way Ripken played the game and went about his business in general. In 1992 Camden Yards opened and seemingly every night I was treated to SportsCenter highlights of O’s outfielders Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux reaching over the beautiful new park’s short outfield wall to steal another homer with an exciting grab. I became a big Anderson fan and may be the only person alive who still doesn’t think he took performance-enhancing drugs during his infamous 50-homer campaign of 1996. I enjoyed Mike Mussina’s surgical precision on the mound and believed, along with everyone else, that Jeffrey Hammonds was the next big thing (He wasn’t). When my parents and I made a trip to Camden Yards in 1994, I got Ripken’s autograph on my favorite Topps baseball card and fell in love with the park and Boog’s barbecue ribs.

SEE RELATED:


The result is that for years I’ve been a Red Sox fan who also rooted for the Orioles. That both of these teams play in the A.L. East would seemingly make this a difficult arrangement, but the Sox and Orioles haven’t really ever been good at the same time since the strike-shortened 1994 season. The O’s staggered to a 71-73 record when Boston won the division title in 1995, and the Red Sox fell off over the next few years as Baltimore became an annual World Series contender. By the time the Sox rose to prominence early this decade, the Orioles had sunken into the hole they’re still attempting to climb out of. Entering this season, Baltimore - bogged down in part by the signings of free-agent busts like Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa - hasn’t made a postseason appearance since 1997 or even posted a winning record during that span. Meanwhile, the Red Sox made the Curse of the Bambino a distant memory, then added a second championship for good measure three years later.

Moving to Maryland in September 2006 gave me a short commute to my new job at The Washington Times but complicated my allegiance issues. Since I love baseball and enjoy chatting with people, I often found myself talking Orioles with my new neighbors. I’m not into sitcoms, reality TV or most of the other trash you’ll find on the tube nowadays, so I watched the O’s on MASN when the Red Sox weren’t on, and it didn’t take long for Nick Markakis to become my favorite player (especially since he always ends up on my fantasy teams). I enjoy nothing more than going to ballgames and Camden Yards is a half-hour away and the Orioles have four minor league affiliates in Maryland. Since I started this website last May I’ve interviewed eight of the Orioles’ top 10 prospects (according to Baseball America) for my Prospect Q&A column, including quite possibly the most hyped catching prospect ever, Matt Wieters. I liked every one of those guys and won’t be able to help but root for them once they reach the bigs.

Last year I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the club level seats at Camden Yards when Manny Ramirez - another of my all-time favorite players, and still with the Sox at the time - slugged his 500th home run. I attended the game with a bunch of friends from Massachusetts and wore Red Sox gear. I cheered for my first love, of course, but went out of my way to give proper respect to the O’s and their fans - I did jump for joy when Manny blasted his milestone longball into the centerfield stands, though. Every other time I saw the Orioles or one of their affiliates play last year, I cheered for them and often sported O’s gear. When I watched the Sox and O’s play on TV I rooted for the Sox, but it was primarily because the wins mattered more to contending Boston than lowly Baltimore. All in all, I think I handled it well. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Like I said before, the fact that the Red Sox and Orioles have never been good at the same time is what has made my dual fanhood possible, but those days are about to end. With Markakis and All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts locked up for the next several years and a farm system ranked in the top 10 by Baseball America, the Orioles are on the verge of contending once again. The Red Sox have a roster stacked with good young homegrown talent and have lots more on the way, and even if their farm system were to fail them, their deep pockets would ensure continued competitiveness. In other words, it won’t be long before September Sox vs. O’s matchups will matter for both teams, and I’ll have to choose sides once and for all. I still consider myself a Red Sox fan first and foremost, but I attended Orioles Fanfest on Saturday in a Brady Anderson throwback jersey, and though I’ll be pulling for the Sox in their opener on Monday, I won’t be watching it. Instead, I’ll be in the upper deck rooting for the Orioles as they take on the Yankees. At least I know for sure that I’ll always despise them.

In case you were wondering I’ve definitely got love for the Nats too, but at least they’re in the National League. I hope they never play the Sox or O’s in the World Series, though. Yikes!

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.