In 1996, I became an Orioles fan and it almost makes me want to cry re-living this.
This was because that was the first year that I can consciously remember watching the entire playoffs from start to finish. In previous years, starting around 1991, I had flirted with watching a few games here and there, but this was the first year that I made an effort to watch the entire set.
One of the reasons, was it was a new team to the playoffs, having last been there in 1983. I liked their veteran-laden lineup which included:
Todd Zeile, Cal Ripken Jr., Rafael Palmiero, Roberto Alomar, B.J. Surhoff, Brady Anderson, Jeffrey Hammonds, Chris Hoiles, Mike Devereaux, Pete Incaviglia, Bobby Bonilla, and Eddie Murray—and that was just the hitters.
On the pitching side, they had Mike Mussina, Jesse Orosco, Scott Erickson, Alan Mills, Arthur Rhodes, and Randy Myers. I remember listening how a very young Armando Benitez was the heir apparent to aging Randy Myers whenever he was no longer effective. I remember hearing similar praise about Estaban Yan, who never amounted to anything, bouncing later from team to team.
I remember this especially veteran bullpen, where it was believed that if you could get the pen to Mills and Myers the rest was automatic. The only problem is, Mills struggled and the young Benetiz blew games. During the regular season, this quality bullpen accounted for thirty of the team's 88 wins.
Game One of the playoffs went according to plan with the O's crushing the Indians 10-4 at home, with reliable vets Bonilla, Anderson, and Surhoff hitting homers. The veteran David Wells got the win.
Game Two saw the O's take it, 7-4, with the promising Benitez taking the win. Anderson provided the power.
Game Three saw the O's slip to the Indians, 9-4, with Orosco taking the loss.
Game Four saw the O's rebound in a squeaker, 4-3, with the youthful Benitez picking up yet another win. Vets Alomar, Surhoff, and Bonilla hit HR's (notice a trend)?
ALCS vs. Yankees
Game One, which included the infamous "Jeffrey Maier play", is the sole reason why I am an O's fan to this day. Eventual Rookie of the year stud, Derek Jeter hit a long fly to right field. Tony Tarrasco was waiting, and like Moises Alou seven years later, probably would have caught this ball for an out, if not for blatant interference by the 12-year old immortal.
Many people believe this changed the fortunes for each franchise, as it signaled the beginning of the end for the O's and the rise of the Yanks. At this point, The Bronx Bombers were viewed simply as happy to be in the playoffs as nothing was expected of them. The Yankees won this game 5-4.
Game Two, the O's won 5-3, but one still has to wonder what could have happened had the O's taken a commanding 2-0 going to New York. Would the Yankees, faced with winning 4-of-5, felt up to the challenge? Remember, prior to 1995, this team hadn't even been to the playoffs since 1981, despite what was considered then, like it is today, a very high payroll.
Based on the Yankees recent past there was no reason to believe they had staying power. Boy were we wrong.
The Yankees went on to win the next three games 5-2, 8-4, and 6-4 leaving O's fans wondering what could have been.
1997 saw the O's make the playoffs again this time winning the AL East with an impressive 98 wins under heralded manager Davey Johnson. This team featured most of the above lovable vets but also included a direct coup from the rival Yankees in Jimmy Key who defected to Baltimore going 22-13 in his two seasons there.
Another key vet was the addition of Harold Baines filling the role of DH vacated by the immortal Eddie Murray.
1997 the team boasted three 15+ game winners during the regular season led by Key who went 16-8. Once again the playoffs started beautifully with the O's beating the Mariners in four games 9-3. 9-3, 2-4 and 3-1. The O's hit 6 homers-Baines with two andAnderson with one among the notables.
Baltimore took Game One over Cleveland 3-0 behind homers from Anderson and Alomar but stumbled in games 2-3 losing a pair of one-run heart-breakers 5-4 and 1-0 in 12 innings. Particularly in Game Two, the O's bullpen gave up three runs in the eighth in route to defeat. Again this probably swung the series similar to Jeffrey Maier's play the year earlier.
Game Four was once again a one-run loss for the O's 7-8 with the usually reliable Mills going down to defeat. What made matters worse was their bullpen led by Benitez and Myers had similarlyblown the previous two games.
What made it difficult to me was I remember racing home from school to watch "my O's" in the playoffs because in these two seasons it looked like the O's were a team to stay and had been the recipientof bad luck but with a good mix of young and old, no one had any reason to believe they would falter.
Even though the O's rebounded in Game Five to win 4-2 the damage was done. Having blown so many oppotunties the previous three games it shouldn't been surprising to see wily vet Tony Fernandez seal the O's fate with his 11th inning walk off homer to the right field seats. I remember watching this whole game and it didn't seem right that the Indians with only three hits on the night, had just stolen this game and ended the season for Baltimore.
This shot heard round the world was significant in more ways that one, because that very next season the O's free fell to fourth in the division, 79-83 and a whopping 35 games behind the rejuvenated New York Yankees who took a page out of the O's success by fielding an insanely veteran laded team. Most notably, defending AL Manager of the Year, Davey Johnson had been replaced by Ray Miller, who, let's just say, was never able to come close to the success of his predecessor.
From this point on, the O's were never the same. The Yankees would become baseball's premier power house andthis along with baseball shifting economics meant that the normally competitive Orioles could no longer compete financiallywith the bigger, badder Bronx Bombers for the same coveted free agents that had seemed to flock to Baltimore only years prior. Their playoff window was effectively slammed shut and nailed never to open again.
2005 saw a 62-game aberration where the Birds sat alone in first place before succumbing to pressures from the other notable AL East powers, the Sox andYanks. What makes this story even sadder is major media outlets along with MLB seem to forget that Baltimore was not just once a premier major league city, but players actually wanted to come here. It was the closest O's fans came to reminiscing about the '90s and questioned whether they could possibly be here again.
For a franchise that regularly sold out its beautiful stadium, ranging from 1st-2nd in league attendance from 1992-2000, a game I attended in 2002 saw no such fanfare as only 14,000+ bothered to run through the turnstiles against the depressing Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
This is why a pair of free agents this offseason are so improtant to the teams' future, ability to compete, and give us our best chance as re-living those old nostalgic 90's teams that I grew up watching.
Those players would be A.J. Burnett and more importantly, Mark Teixeira.
While neither is expected to actually sign with the club, embattled owner Peter Angelos, must make a sincere, legitimate, above-market offer to each player in hopes that each sign. Teixeira is from Severna Park, MD, just twenty miles from Camden Yards. If the O's sign anyone it has to be him since rivals Yanks and Sox are also after him.
I get the feeling if any free agent would actually consider coming home to the O's, its Teixeira, even though I'm likely too optimistic about this reality. Still, the O's with just a $67 million payroll last season are in place to spend as much as $25-30 million this offseason in upgrades if you believe the reports.
Most think Teixeira would command $20 million per season much out of the O's affordability. But let's consider a hometown discount option of $16 million. Suddenly this inflates payroll to $83 million with $10 million left to spend.
Should crafty and the first capable GM the Orioles have had since the glory days of Pat Gillick back in the '90s. Andy McPhail, be able to cut more payroll most likely Ramon Hernandez, Jay Payton, Danys Baez, and Aubrey Huff, among others whose to say they wouldn't have a shot at Burnett, whose wife is from the area?
2009's roster could look like this:
SS rumors of Izturis, Crosby, or Greene (all would be an upgrade) since this would be a trade, more salary would be shed)
3B ol' reliable Mora
RF Markakis (the best trio they've had since the '90s)
C Weiters (best C/prospect one since Hoiles, but whose ceiling in uncomparably higher)
DH? wily vet like during the ol' days
Albers or FA
Clearly they have some work to do and Burnett and Teixeira aren't cure-all's as once again the bullpen is a glaring need. The O's need to do what made them good at the deadline each year and that is not being afraid to pull the trigger on deals even if that means losing potential similar to the nixed-by-Angelos 2005 deal for one A.J. Burnett, or by not trading fan favorite Brian Roberts last off season.
Another thing they need to do is get a mix of young and old to mentor the kids which Teixeira and Burnett would provide. Even though Burnett would be expected to be the ace, (which he clearly is not but would be regulated to because of the salary and expectations it would command) he could still remind people of Jimmy Key in directly leaving a division rival for the O's benefit, a welcome sign from earlier times.
Finally, many people believe that this is finally and truly McPhail's team and the two steals, I mean deals, he made in the off season: the 5:1 of Erick Bedard andthe Tejada trade remind me of the Gillick days.
Sure, the Jays or some other mid to small market team can sign a top notch free agent now and then and I might get excited because I want a variety of teams to win, but nothing would make me happier than to see the "breaking news" box on ESPNEWS flashing to read: "Breaking News Orioles sign Mark Teixeira" etc.
Heck, nothing would make me happier than the O's if they do something. The last time I felt any similar excitement was 2003 when the O's signed veterans: Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmiero, and landed the elite free agent of that off season, Miguel Tejada. I thought "Finally! A mix of young and old, back to '90's baseball!"
If only the O's can somehow jump out of the gate similar to 2005, make that daring deadline deal in June/July that they always had a penchant for in previous competitive seasons, and then finish up strong rather than the .300 baseball we are accustomed to seeing in August on, this is the formula to success.
Will the O's make the playoffs in 2009 if they do these things? Probably not, but with the way the Rays seemingly had it all come together if only for one season, whose not to say it can't be the O's next?
Especially if they have the hometown support of two prodigalsons playing inspired baseball for them. With any luck, fans would show back up like in 1996 all over again which would create the necessary revenues to make that big deal at the deadline like in years' past.
Its all up to McPhail and Co. but they have two big birds sitting in their own backyard. The only question is, will they simply allow them to fly off to a division rival or will they fight to get them where they belong?
Give us reason to believe again.
We'll be watching.