In my youth, there was no baseball player who infuriated me more than Kenny Lofton.
While the Orioles were regularly playing big games against the Cleveland Indians, their center fielder was regularly
making the types of plays
that would make you experience every stage of baseball grief in a span of seconds. His robbery of B.J. Surhoff in August 1996 (happy 20th anniversary, nightmare fuel!) was perhaps his most famous, but it was far from the only baseball crime he committed against the Birds.
But a funny thing happened as I matured as a baseball fan (and later a baseball analyst). At some point, my hatred for Kenny Lofton dissipated, and it was replaced by a respect I had for getting the opportunity to watch a very good player perform at a high level -- even if it happened to be against my own favorite team. In fact, when Hall of Fame voting comes around every year, I regularly ask something along the lines of "why does Tim Raines get so much Hall of Fame attention but Kenny Lofton never did?" -- mostly because of my memories of Lofton playing absolutely ridiculous baseball against the Orioles.
Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th member of baseball's 3,000 hit club in Colorado Aug. 7. In an honor that I'm certain means just as much to him, he's also the greatest opposing player I've had the pleasure to watch as an Orioles fan. (As is customary, that earns him one free foodstuff item with crab dip unnecessarily layered of his choice.)
It's not as if the future Hall of Famer needed to be good against the Orioles specifically for us to be able to appreciate his greatness. Tony Gwynn never played even a single game either in Baltimore or against the Orioles at all, yet Baltimore baseball fans' appreciation of the late San Diego Padre was on full display when he entered the Hall of Fame alongside Cal Ripken Jr. in 2007.
But we all know baseball is largely a regional sport. Whatever disappointment exists via national TV ratings are more than made up by local TV interest in respective teams. In particular, Baltimore's interest in baseball is significantly localized. The Orioles had the
third-highest TV ratings in MLB
for the first half of the season. In a study I just made up in my head, I'm probably about 98 percent more likely to watch an Orioles game than I am a game involving two other teams. (I did a lot of research for that study just now, so feel free to quote it.)
The point being, our respect is greater for a player like Suzuki because we've actually seen him play. And it just so happens that when we've had the chance to see him, he's been really good.
How good? While others have played more games against the Birds, Suzuki's dominance has been undeniable. In nearly an entire full season worth of games against the O's (149 to be exact), Suzuki has collected 186 career hits. That's good for a .333 average, which he's combined with a .823 OPS. Among opponents he's played more than a handful of games against (at least 17), there is only one opponent, the Kansas City Royals, he's had a better career average against.
Suzuki's numbers have been even better in the games he actually played in Baltimore. At Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Suzuki has 91 hits, good for a .354 career average, in 66 games. Sure, it helped the Orioles were largely very bad during the best years of Suzuki's career, but they still just don't give you hits just for showing up.
(And none of these numbers can even possibly begin to reflect the larger argument about Suzuki's greatness, the "what if" that exists had he began his career in MLB instead of Japan.)
For the better part of the Suzuki era, the Orioles didn't exactly provide a lot of reasons to show up and watch them play. Attendance was largely driven by the quality of the opponent or the desire to see an individual play. Suzuki provided exactly that during his 11 seasons in Seattle. His appearances in Baltimore were "must-see" at a time that fell almost exactly between the end of Ripken's career and the arrival of the likes of Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Manny Machado.
I have no idea if Suzuki would have been the greatest hitter in baseball history had he played in America for his entire career. But I do know I'm grateful to have been able to watch one of the greatest in the history of the game perform at a high level up close and personal.