In 1997, the Baltimore Orioles finished 98-64 under manager Davey Johnson. The O’s won the AL East, edging the New York Yankees by two games. The O’s had it all. They had some power (Rafael Palmeiro: 38 HR’s), speed (Jeffrey Hammonds: 15 steals in 16 attempts) and pitching (Jimmy Key: 16-10, Scott Erickson: 16-7, Mike Mussina: 15-8). However, it has been the last winning season the O’s have enjoyed in 11 full seasons. Since 1997, the O’s are a combined 791-989 (.444 winning percentage) and have made countless mistakes. After a disappointing playoff loss in 1997, manager Davey Johnson left. His role was taken by Ray Miller, who finished 157-167 in his two seasons, which is very good compared to O’s managers of the last 11 seasons.
Mike Hargrove led the team from 2000 to 2003, and he was dreadful, with 275 wins and 372 losses. In his four seasons, the O’s lost 90 games three times, including 98 in 2001. In 2003, the team finished 71-91. They had a very potent offense, with a rookie second basemen named Brian Roberts providing speed as a leadoff man and Tony Batista (26 HR’s, 99 RBI) and Jay Gibbons (23 HR’s, 100 RBI) providing power. What was epitomized the O’s in this run of losing is lack of pitching. And the O’s had just that. Jason Johnson was the ace and had a less then impressive 10-10 record and 4.18 ERA. The 2-3-4 pitchers (Rodrigo Lopez, Rick Helling, Pat Hentgen) combined for a 21-26 record. The only consistent pitcher throughout the rotation was Sidney Ponson, who ended the season 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA. He wasn’t near enough. The Orioles' closer, Jorge Julio, had zero wins—and seven losses.
Buddy Groom, the main set-up man, had an anemic 5.36 ERA and 1-3 record. All in all, pitching killed the O’s. So they decided to draft Rice starting pitcher Wade Townsend with the eighth overall pick. At 6’4”, 225 pounds, he was a big guy and his fastball ranged from 89 to 93 MPH. Wade starred at Rice University in 2004. He was 12-0 with a 1.80 ERA, allowing just 80 hits in 118-2/3 innings. The O’s had their ace of the future—or so they thought. Townsend wanted a big signing bonus; preferring $2.2M. The O’s thought that was hefty and only offered $1.85M. The O’s lost their rights to the star and he went back to college. In 2005, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted Townsend—again with the eighth pick.
Tampa made their offer—and Wade signed. Months later, the O’s decided to toss manager Mike Hargrove and hire former Met Lee Mazzilli.
Mazzilli was 48 years old when we has hired on Nov. 7. He had played 24 seasons in Major League Baseball and never had much of a role. He had jobs with the Mets, Rangers, Yankees, Pirates and Blue Jays. While he never really made a name for himself, he managed to bat .259 with 1,068 hits and 460 RBI. 1979 was Mazzilli’s best year. He played first base/outfield for the Mets and well, at that. He batted .303 with 16 homers and 79 RBI, making the National League All Star Team. In 1986, he hit just .245 with three homers, but was a member of the World Champion Mets. He struggled in 1987, 1988 and ’89. He was even released by the Mets in 1989 and claimed by the Blue Jays. After the season, he retired. Mazzilli managed the Single A Tampa Yankees in 1997 and 1998 and was an assistant under Joe Torre in 2004. That’s when he took the job for the Orioles. "Lee Mazzilli was the right man at the right time for the right job," Orioles executive Mike Flanagan said.
The O’s had plenty of holes. They had absolutely no pitching besides Sidney Ponson, shortstop was worrisome with Deivi Cruz occupying it and Brook Fordyce was not ideal for the backstop. Also, David Segui was not cutting it at first base. He was always getting hurt and only managed 25 RBI during the regular season. The O’s took care of it all—in one offseason. On Dec. 14, 2003, the Orioles signed free agent shortstop Miguel Tejada to a six-year, $72M deal. This was coming one month and one day after the O’s had let Deivi Cruz become a free agent.
Tejada, 29 at the time of the signing, was the hottest free agent in the market. From 2000 to 2003, he was one of the main sources for the Oakland Athletics offensive production. He had over 100 RBI each season and even won MVP in 2003, with 131 RBI and a .311 batting average. Tejada was an enthusiastic player who baseball fans loved to watch. "Miguel continues the tradition of great Orioles shortstops," Orioles vice-president Mike Flanagan told The Associated Press. He was small (5’10”, 170 LBS), but he had a huge presence on the field that nobody could match.
Eight days later, the O’s grabbed the hottest catcher free agent: Braves slugger Javier Lopez. He signed a three year deal worth $22.5M. "Javy Lopez provides us with a solid catcher and another explosive bat for our lineup," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan said in a statement. He would not only provide a veteran presence, but he could produce in the middle of an already thick O’s lineup. With the Atlanta Braves in 2003, Lopez hit .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBI. He’d even finished fifth in NL MVP voting, quite an accomplishment for a catcher.
On Jan. 10, 2004, the O’s got former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro back. Palmeiro, a first basemen, was aging. However, there was no doubt he could still hit with the best of them. His beautiful swing made any scout smile. From 1994 to 1998, Palmeiro was the main power source for the O’s, with a combined 172 homers and 553 RBI. On May 11, 2003, Palmeiro hit his 500th home run—as a member of the Texas Rangers. Palmeiro had limited time left in the majors, being 39 years old. Wisely, the O’s signed him to a one-year contract with an option for a second.
"It brings another powerful hitter to the middle of our lineup," Flanagan said.
Despite grabbing three superstar bats, the O’s continued to ignore a true gaping hole on their team, the thing that killed them from 1998 to 2003: pitching. The O’s didn’t get any young pitchers and didn’t have a pitcher in the minors worth writing home about. The only signing in the offseason the O’s made via pitching was Mike Dejean, an unreliable reliever who was 5-8 with a 4.68 ERA in 2003 with the Brewers and Cardinals. In February, the O’s re-signed reliever B.J. Ryan (4-1, 3.40 ERA in 2003) and Jay Gibbons (23 HR’s, 100 RBI in the past season).
But the O’s literally didn’t do anything in the offseason to improve their pitching staff and spring training was coming up. March 31 hit: still no improvement. Actually, that’s not true. In 2003, the O’s had let Sidney Ponson go the the San Francisco Giants. In the offseason, they got him back. But, the 2004 rotation would be very little improved from the 2003 staff. The 2003 staff consisted of Jason Johnson, Rodrigo Lopez, Rick Helling, Pat Hentgen and Ponson.
The 2004 staff consisted of Sidney Ponson, Rodrigo Lopez, Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Eric DuBose. Because the team didn’t bring any big-name pitchers in, the 2004 O’s didn’t bring much change. On May 30, the O’s were 23-23. It would be the last time the O’s were at .500 the entire year. The O’s finished 78-84. It was a seven game improvement, which was very nice and the O’s showed promise. Rodrigo Lopez was the most consistent pitcher, going 14-9 with a 3.59 ERA. Sidney Ponson proved to be a disappointing acquisition. He won 11, lost 15 and posted a 5.30 ERA. Highly touted prospect Daniel Cabrera was very encouraging, finishing 12-8, but he walked 89 and struck out 76 in his first 147 2/3 innings.
Closer Jorge Julio had a bad year—again. He finished 2-5 with a 4.57 ERA and 22 saves. The offense was again a strength.
The new acquisitions (Tejada, Lopez, Palmeiro) all turned out well. Tejada hit 34 homers, drove in 150 runs and batted .311. Javy Lopez took a step back from 2003, but did manage to hit .316 with 23 home runs and 86 RBI. First basemen Rafael Palmeiro was very productive, with 23 homers and 88 RBI. But yet again, pitching was the problem. But the O’s believed they had some viable options. Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera had all the potential in the world and Bruce Chen emerged late in the year as a competent starter, finishing 2-1 with a 3.02 ERA in seven starts.
On Dec. 20, 2004, the O’s got some bullpen help. They signed free agent relief pitcher Steve Kline to a two-year contract. Kline had a phenomenal 2004 with the Cardinals, finishing 2-2 with a 1.79 ERA and allowing just 37 hits in 50-1/3 innings. Kline would be the primary set up man. On Feb. 2, 2005, the O’s made a trade that they thought put them in contention. "My legacy is there, but I haven't finished yet. The best of Sammy Sosa is coming now," he said. "I wanted to finish my career there, but it didn't happen. I'm here now in Baltimore and I'm going to win the crowd."
The Orioles traded outfielder Jerry Hairston, Jr., infielder Mike Fontenot and pitcher Dave Crouthers to the Chicago Cubs for legendary slugger Sammy Sosa. In 2004, Sosa struggled. While hitting 35 home runs and driving in 80 runs, he hit just .253 and had a lowly .332 on base percentage. Hairston actually showed signs of being a capable infielder in 2004, hitting .303 with two homers and 24 RBI in 86 games. Fontenot, a 5’8”, 160 pound second baseman, hit .279 with eight homers and 49 RBI for the Triple A Ottawa Lynx and appeared on his way to the majors.
Crouthers was touted as an elite pitcher, but struggled in 2004, finishing just 9-9 with a 5.01 ERA that year with the Double A Bowie Baysox.
However, the O’s had done absolutely nothing to improve their starting staff and very little to improve their bullpen. But, it didn’t appear to matter. On Opening Day, the O’s shut down the Oakland Athletics, 4-0. The O’s rocked A’s started Barry Zito for four runs over six innings and Rodrigo Lopez tossed six shutout frames for the Orioles.
It wasn’t fluke.
On April 30, the O’s were 16-7. They were even playing well on the road. Through the month, they were 8-2 away from Camden Yards and 8-5 at the yard. The O’s even finished the month with six straight wins: sweeps of the Blue Jays and Devil Rays. Sammy Sosa wasn’t producing very much. He was batting .281, but had just 11 RBI on four homers. Into May, the O’s were rolling while sustaining injury-after-injury. On May 6, Sosa was placed on the 15-day disabled list. 18 days later, he was activated. A day later, on May 25, Javy Lopez was placed on the DL.
The following day, Erik Bedard was placed on the DL. Two days later, Larry Bigbie was also moved to the long list of injured Orioles. But in those five days, the Orioles won three and lost two. When May was over, the O’s were shocking the world, at 31-20. On June 21, 2005, the injuries and lack of pitching would catch up with them. They were 42-28. They were dropping the jaws of baseball fans everywhere. The O’s were then swept by the Jays and Braves, dropping to 42-34.
After beating the Yankees at home, 5-4, the Birds continued their inconsistent ways. After starting 42-28, the O’s were 47-40 at the All Star Break. To say the least, it was a discouraging way to enter a three day break. On July 30, the O’s traded troubled outfielder Larry Bigbie to the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Eric Byrnes. The O’s came out of the break – and looked good. They won two straight over Seattle, 5-3 and 6-3. But, their lack of depth caught up with them.
When August was over, the O’s were suddenly 51-53. The next day, O’s slugger Rafael Palmeiro was busted for steroids and suspended 10 days. "When I testified in front of Congress, I know that I was testifying under oath and I told the truth," he said during a telephone conference call Monday. "Today I am telling the truth again that I did not do this intentionally or knowingly." The O’s were already out of it in the tough AL East they play in. On Aug. 31, the O’s beat the Devil Rays, 7-0. But, they were 62-70. The O’s finished 74-88 and became the first team to be 14 games above .500 as late as they were and finish 14 games below .500. Wow, what a heartbreaker.
Sammy Sosa was incredible. Incredibly disappointing. He hit .221 with 14 home runs and 45 RBI. Miguel Tejada tailed off, with 100 RBI, compared to 150 in 2004. Javy Lopez had just 49 RBI, missing 59 games. In Eric Byrnes’ 31 games with the O’s, he hit .192 with 11 RBI. Sidney Ponson posted a 6.21 ERA and had his fair share of legal problems. Jorge Julio posted a 5.90 ERA. The Sammy Sosa trade could be known as the nobody trade.
In 2005, Mike Fontenot hit just six homers for Triple A Iowa, Crouthers quit baseball all together and hit .261 as a benchwarmer for the Cubs. Wade Townsend was 0-4 with a 5.49 ERA. This is the story of a sad baseball season for the Baltimore Orioles.