The Rebirth Of The Baltimore Orioles

They say timing is everything, and having just completed the final season of The Wire has successfully elevated my interest in all things Baltimore.  Whats this, you say there is a baseball team in Baltimore?  Where have they been?  Playing meaningful baseball games into September for the first time in over in a decade, the Baltimore Orioles begin a crucial four game set at Camden Yards tonight against the New York Yankees. 

It feels like a lifetime since the Orioles were a real player late in a pennant race, and in baseball terms it has been.  Baltimore had a two year run in 1996 and 1997 in which they fielded teams that were strong enough to make significant noise in the playoff.  It’s funny looking back at the landscape of baseball and how much has changed since 1996.  Back then, Peter Angelos had only owned the Orioles for a few years and had yet to crush the spirits of an entire community, Derek Jeter was a rookie on an up and coming Yankees team, Barry Bonds still had a head that fit his body, and the Red Sox were still living the curse. 

Baltimore had a stacked team at the time; built by the great Pat Gillick and managed by Davy Johnson, Cal Ripen, Jr. and Roberto Alomar provided strength up the middle of the field, Rafael Palmeiro was one of the game’s top first basemen, Brady Anderson (hitting 50 home runs in ’96) was at his chemically enhanced best, Bobby Bonilla put up respectable numbers, and the term “professional hitter” could easily be applied to a pair of Orioles in future HOF’er Eddie Murray and journeymen B.J. Surhoff. 

The 1996 Baltimore squad made it all the way to the ALCS, falling to the Yankees in five games.  That ALCS is best remembered for the Jeffery Maier incident (and underrated Tony Tarasco tirade) late in Game 1, an event which is largely credited for changing the momentum of the series in the Yankees favor.  It is impossible to know how the series would’ve played out had that event not occurred, but the Orioles were unable to recover from it. 

The Orioles had another great year in 1997, rolling through the A.L. East and making it back to the ALCS. Dark times were on the horizon though, and the fortunes of the franchise began to change almost immediately following their defeat to the Cleveland Indians in what was a competitive six game series.

For many years, Peter Angelos enjoyed the dubious distinction of being branded with the moniker of “worst owner in professional sports”.  It was a reputation derived as a result of a myriad of terrible front office decisions, decisions that effectively alienated a loyal fanbase and set the franchise back for years on end.  It was virtually a revolving door in and out of Baltimore; Angelos frequently dumped his managers and general managers, offering no chance for continuity to be established.  He spent a good portion of the 2000’s trying to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox by spending money on high profile free agents, almost all of which were well past their respective primes and washed out in no time.  From the outside it seemed like he was having difficulty time deciding what he wanted the identity of his team to be.  He’d bring in the big names one minute and then hold a fire sale the next, eventually turning the focus to the youth in the minors in hopes of replicating the success of the Tampa Bay Rays.      

Angelos eventually found his fire starter in Buck Showalter, bringing him in as manager at the end of the 2010 season.  A baseball man through and through, Showalter has long been regarded as one of the smartest men in the game, the type of coach that gets the most out of his players.  He has a history of turning teams into contenders, reviving the Yankees franchise in the early 90’s and turning the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks into a force in the late 90’s.

Although Showalter wore out his welcome in his previous managerial stints, at the moment he clearly has his team playing good baseball and buying into the program he has established.  With a run differential of minus 21, it’s difficult to gauge whether Baltimore is the real deal or if they are doing it with a little bit of smoke and mirrors at the moment.  Either way, they keep winning.  My only hope for Buck is that he doesn’t burn himself or team out, though given his track record would likely mean that the Orioles would win the World Series in the following year. 

The Yankees arrive in Baltimore in survival mode.  They have been scuffling for weeks, with practically the entire lineup outside of Derek Jeter struggling through a slump of some sort.  Swisher and Granderson have been especially brutal, likely giving Brian Cashman a lot to think about as he debates the pros and cons of offering either a long term deal this offseason.   

With 26 games still remaining, this series won’t necessarily make or break the season for either team.  From a fans perspective though, I am looking forward to it as I honestly can’t recall a Yankees/Orioles series that has meant something this late in the season since 1997.  There was a time when these teams were at each other’s throats, constantly fighting for A.L. East superiority.  The culmination of their rivalry was probably the wild brawl they engaged in 1998 after Armando Benitez drilled Tino Martinez in the back with a fastball.  That is still one of my favorite clips to watch when the YES Network shows the Yankees Classics documentary on the 1998 team, as you get to see Strawberry doing his best Triple H impersonation and going after Benitez in the Oriole dugout.

Though we might not see a full scale brawl this weekend, Buck has surely brought back the interest and a level of intensity to this long dormant rivalry.  For my money, Camden Yards is still one of the best parks to see a game in all of baseball and should experience a bit of revival if the Orioles continue on their current path. 

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