In 1997, I lived in downtown Baltimore. Federal Hill, to be exact. I was 1 year removed from college and working for peanuts and coffee, which is to say, I made even less than I do now (coffee is no longer free).
For $7, though, one could legally attend an Orioles game at Camden Yards with the purchase of a standing room only ticket. The pocketsfull of whiskey where less legal, but aforementioned financial limitations dictated a certain level of creativity in matters of inebriation.
So my friends and I reveled in the fact that walking the 9 or 10 blocks from my front door to the Yard was not only a great time, but one of the few life luxuries we all could afford. I attended approximately 35 games that summer and watched my beloved Baltimore Orioles go “wire-to-wire.”
Managed by Davey Johnson, that team was about as good as I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. From Robbie Alomar to Eric Davis to Rafael Palmiero, it was the first time I could recall having a supporting cast worthy enough to surround the living legend who had just that year moved over to third base. On the mound, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson anchored a rotation that was good, but largely propped up by a “lights out” bullpen that featured Randy Myers, who wore fatigues when not in uniform and kept (live?) hand grenades in his locker.
Stung by an early exit from the 1996 Playoffs at the hands of two young punks – one of whom would become something of a legend himself (that’s as close as I can get to acknowledging the highly talented Yankee shortstop with whom I share a birthday) – the 1997 squad spent 162 games in first place.
Eric Davis (“E.D.” as we called him), a free agent pickup that year who some thought just might be over the hill, was – in my recollection – perhaps the most exciting player in baseball. His casual stance at the plate and beer-league softball swing was a thing of beauty. He played the outfield with reckless abandon and could throw bb’s on a line from anywhere in the stadium to home plate. In mid May, he was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. After having the better part of his large intestine removed and suffering through various treatments, E.D returned to the team in September. He hit a game-winning home run in the ALCS.
In late May I was on a first (and last) date in Canton when our waiter mentioned that Mussina had a perfect game going into the seventh inning. Traditional dating etiquette suggests that excusing yourself from the table to catch the last innings of a baseball game is poor form. Clearly Emily Post knows nothing of the rarity of the perfect game! Like I said, last date.
When the playoffs started, O’s manager Davey Johnson secured his place (was pretty secure prior to this, but still) in baseball lore by starting Jeff Reboulet over Robbie Alomar in Game 1 of the ALDS. Rebs rewarded his manager by going deep off of Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson. This set the tone for that short series and helped propel the Orioles to the ALCS . . .where they sadly lost to the Cleveland Indians (when Armando Benitez, thrower of 99 MPH gas, hung a puffball slider to an aging Tony Fernandez who deposited it just over the right field wall).
The ensuing chain of events went from sad, to troubling, to downright bizzarre. Davey Johnson’s contract squabbles (and personality clashes) with Orioles owner Peter Angelos quickly turned into a pissing match of grand proportion. And in what is perhaps the most well-orchestrated “Fuck You” of all time, Davey resigned from the Orioles the very day he was named American League Manager of the Year.
Be it curse, karma, or plain-old mis-management, the 1998 O’s remained competitive before crumbling in August of that year. Save for the “additions” of aging veterans like Joe Carter and Doug Drabek, the team was strikingly similar to the dominant squad from the year before. Rather than contributing, previously reliable veterans just seemed to be withering. Even Jessie Orosco, who, according to some accounts, pitched a scoreless frame for the 1869 Reds, was beginning to look long in the tooth. And, of course, there was Albert Belle.
1998 would be the last year that ANY team in baseball had a higher payroll than the New York Yankees*.
Over the course of the next 14 years, the Baltimore Orioles would devolve in ways few could have really seen at the time. Blustery expectations became a never-ending state of “re-building.” Money thrown at over-priced free agents was robbed from the coffers of a once legendary player-development infrastructure. Peter Angelos replaced the late George Steinbrenner as baseball’s most offensive, yet incompetent, owner. Cal Ripken – stoic and graceful during all of this – was reduced to museum side show. Camden Yards, the epicenter of baseball’s post-strike re-birth, became a second home for Yankee and Red Sox fans who had trouble getting tickets in their home parks.
In some ways, the ascendance of the Baltimore Ravens only served to underscore just how far the historic baseball franchise had fallen. The 2000 Super Bowl champions remained – even in off years – an example of “how a team should be run.”
A life-long Yankee hater, I realized I had very little to say when the topic of conversation ebbed to baseball. Suffering through historic 30-3 losses (talking baseball team here) and watching teams like Tampa Bay reach the playoffs with half the fans and half the payroll made baseball, for me, a sad reminder of how low an organization can go.
My running joke with baseball fan friends has been that my interest in the sport typically wanes by late April, when the O’s are safely out of contention. A few times over the last 15 years, I’ve been teased by squads holding things together as far into the season as late May or even June. But even the most cautiously optimistic man must protect himself from impending doom when it’s so clearly on the horizon.
And this is why, after the most exciting, competitive, and fulfilling 5/6ths of a baseball season I’ve witnessed in 15 years – I’m only now (sort of) comfortable tossing a proud and public shout-out to my beloved Baltimore Orioles.
It’s September 3, Labor Day. Bad Ass Buck Showalter has the Orioles believing in themselves. And we just took 2 out of 3 from the Yankees IN New York. What’s more, our remaining schedule features 2 more series vs. Boston, whose fanbase has become infinitely more hate-able than even the lowly Bronx bleacher bums.
All this to say (seriously, I wrote all of this to put a simple question into proper context):
HOW BOUT DEM O’S?!?!?!!?