Baltimore Orioles' manager Buck Showalter would know better than anyone what all of the enthusiasm and excitement at Camden Yards late this summer feels like. After all, he lived it in a previous life—ironically enough with his now-biggest rival, the New York Yankees— during his managerial tenure in the Bronx from 1992-1995.
Sitting in the gorgeous confines of Oriole Park this past weekend amidst the palpable excitement and unmitigated roars from the home crowd, it was hard not to reminisce about that special 1995 season when the New York Yankees reinvigorated the life of baseball in New York City.
That New York team turned the Big Apple back into a baseball town while continuing to build the foundation for what would become one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history. Buck Showalter would not be a part of that dynasty—one he helped to build along with general manager Gene Michael—but he played an instrumental role in positioning the building blocks for future Bronx Bombers' teams.
Of course, this year's Baltimore club did not build up to their new found success the same way that the 1995 Yankees club did. Just one year earlier, during the 1994 season, the Yankees had the best record in the American League and were primed for an October run at the World Series.
Then, the infamous strike came, ruining Yankee fans' hopes of their first world championship since 1978. Many younger fans may not comprehend this as well now, but this was a devastating blow—at the time—considering how mediocre-to-downright terrible the Yankees had been for over ten years.
Yankee fans would have to wait one more season for another exhilarating run at a World Series.
The 1995 Yankees season started in earnest on April 26th—many fans may not remember that the 1995 baseball season did not being until late April—and the Yankees stumbled for much of that season. Actually, the Bombers had a losing record in early September.
At 60-61 on September 5th, the Yankees went on to win an incredible 19 of their final 23 games feeding off of the unmatched enthusiasm and deafeningly loud support of their fans. Baseball was back in the Bronx.
The Bombers barely edged out the Seattle Mariners and California Angels for the inaugural Wild Card berth. Ironically enough, the Yankees would then meet Seattle in one of the most thrilling five-game playoff series in MLB history before losing on a walk-off hit in game five at the Kingdome in Seattle.
Further south in Baltimore, the past 15 seasons at Camden Yards have not been pleasant ones for the residents of Charm City. In fact, a once-proud franchise has watched their division competitors, Boston and New York, win a combined six world championships.
If that wasn't bad enough, Baltimore fans have had to endure the humiliation of watching the boisterous fans of their rivals overwhelmingly dominate the seats in their home park every time the Bombers and Sox come to town. Imagine that happening in the Bronx.
Baltimore has had to deal with an owner, Peter Angelos, that has been unwilling of late to spend the necessary bucks to field a competitive team. That was not the case during the O's successful seasons in the mid-90s. Baltimore had the second-highest payroll in baseball in 1997, when they made the ALCS for a second consecutive season.
Believe it or not, one season later, Baltimore owned the highest payroll in the big leagues. Angelos was still a relatively new owner in Baltimore, Camden Yards was still in its nascent stages and the O's had been knocking on the door of the Fall Classic the previous two years.
Just four years later, Baltimore's payroll declined by $20M and the O's were suddenly in the lower-half for team salaries in Major League Baseball. Gone were Mike Mussina, Cal Ripken Jr, Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro. The O's were looking to get much younger and with it came the growing pains and many losses that accompany such a movement.
Between then and now have been the losses—and more losses—that have converted many more Baltimore fans over to full-fledged and full-time Baltimore Ravens fans. Baltimore is a football town at its core, so the 1996 arrival of the Ravens (who effectively replaced the Colts from yesteryear) helped. But when the Orioles are hot, this town lights up for the brown and orange.
Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have defied the odds and fielded remarkably competitive teams over the last five years-- making the World Series in 2008-- with a minuscule team payroll in comparison to the Yankees. Though, the Rays are hardly the norm.
Oakland is another bona fide example of a team that is enjoying a fantastic 2012 season on a low payroll. Though, for all the Moneyball hoopla, this will be Oakland's first winning season since 2006.
More often than not, the teams competing for and winning world championships in professional baseball are teams that spend lots of money on their players. In fact, 2012 is a rare season with Tampa, Oakland and Washington all in position to make the playoffs while maintaining tidy, low payrolls.
The Birds' fans are hoping that a cash infusion will be on the horizon following this superb run by their home team in 2012.
Who will win the AL East?
Buck Showalter was shown the door by owner George Steinbrenner following the 1995 season and done so in an odd way, due to differences in how each viewed who should comprise Showalter's coaching staff. The New York media and many fans at the time were mystified at the hiring of Joe Torre, a manager who had a career managerial record below .500.
Of course, what no one knew then was that Torre's arrival in the Bronx came at the perfect time. The rest, as they say, is history.
Baltimore, like the Yankees, are a team built on the long ball. The Yankees lead the majors with 210 home runs and Baltimore is right behind them in second place with 182. Baltimore has a late-season call-up in uber-prospect Manny Machado that can play shortstop and third base and reminds some scouts of a young Derek Jeter.
Jeter was also called up during the middle of the Yankees run at the pennant—in '95—and provided an occasional spark for the Bombers. The O's have a young centerfielder, in Adam Jones, that may remind some of a player that the Bombers had right around the same time in 1995 that was just entering his prime— Bernie Williams.
There are certainly some parallels between the two teams but the greatest similarity exists in the noticeable vibe that you get in the ball parks around this time.
The 2012 Baltimore Orioles may win the American League East. They may not even make the playoffs. Heck, maybe this season is something of a fluke since the O's have a staggering -29 run differential. Only a select, few teams in history have made the playoffs with a negative run differential.
However, it's hard to deny the excitement, verve and electric feeling that the Orioles have given their fans over the course of this summer. It has continued into September where maybe-- just maybe-- the O's have a run in them to claim their first AL East division title since 1997. Is baseball back in Baltimore? Time will tell.
But it feels an awful lot like the late New York summer of 1995 right now in the Charm City.