Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How Long It's Been: The Baltimore Orioles Won a Division Title

Last night, the Baltimore Orioles clinched the American League Eastern Division Championship, but beating the Toronto Blue Jays, 8-2, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

They had previously won the AL East in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1983 and 1997, and just missed winning it in 1977, 1980, 1982, and one of the split-season halves in 1981.

So they won 5 of the 1st 6 AL East titles, and 7 of the first 15. But only 1 of the last 30 until last night.

The last time the Orioles clinched a Division title was on September 27, 1997, beating the Milwaukee Brewers 5-4 at Milwaukee County Stadium, thus eliminating the Yankees. (This was the Brewers' last series as an American League team. Oddly, the Yankees won 92 games in 1996, enough to beat the O's out for the AL East title; but the 96 games they won in 1997 wasn't enough to do it, as the O's won 98. Never again has an AL East team won 96 games without winning the Division.)

September 27, 1997. That's 11 days short of 17 years. How long has it been?

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Their starting lineup included Cal Ripken Jr., future Hall-of-Famer; Roberto Alomar, future Hall-of-Famer; Rafael Palmeiro, who would have made the Hall of Fame had he not been caught using steroids; Brady Anderson, an All-Star who was almost certainly using steroids; B.J. Surhoff, a future All-Star; Jeffrey Hammonds, a future All-Star; Chris Holies, an All-Star catcher; Mike Bordick, an All-Star shortstop;and Geronimo Berroa, the only one of the usual starting nine who would never be an All-Star, but was coming off a 36-home run season for the Oakland Athletics, and hit 26 between the A's early in the year and the O's later.

The pitching staff included Mike Mussina, the future Yankee who is now eligible for the Hall of Fame and should be in; Jimmy Key, a former Yankee who should be considered for the Hall; Scott Erickson, a former All-Star for the Minnesota Twins; longtime bullpen star Arthur Rhodes; former Mets closers Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers; and future Mets closer Armando Benitez.

This team should have won the AL Pennant. But after beating the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series, they lost the League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians in 6 games, as Benitez, having already given up key homers to the Yankees in the previous season's ALCS (including the Derek Jeter/Jeffrey Maier home run), gave up an 11th-inning homer in Game 6. Not to a slugger like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar Jr., Matt Williams, or even Travis Fryman, but to Tony Fernandez -- good fielder, but not much of a hitter.

The Orioles have played 6 ALCS games at Camden Yards since it opened in 1992. They have won exactly 1 of them. And that it why they haven't won a Pennant, never mind a World Series, since 1983. (That's a "How Long It's Been" post for another day.) It's also a big reason why Davey Johnson was lucky to manage the Mets when they won the World Series in 1986. He should have won more with the Mets, and also had good teams in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Washington, but has only won 1 Pennant. He was a Bob Stanley wild pitch -- maybe a single Houston Astro run -- away from being Gene Mauch with a bigger budget: The worst big-game manager in baseball history.

On their left sleeves, the Oriles were wearing a commemorative patch with the number 200 on it, in honor of the anniversary of Baltimore's incorporation as a city in 1797.

In 1997, the Boston Red Sox had not won the World Series in 79 years. The Chicago White Sox, 80 years. The San Francisco Giants, 43 years (and they were still in New York at the time). The Florida (now Miami) Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks had never won a World Series. The Marlins, Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers had never won a Pennant. The D-backs and Rays had not even begun play yet. All have now done so.

As I said, the Brewers were still in the AL, and the Houston Astros were still in the National League. Of the 28 teams playing that season, 15 have since opened a new ballpark, including the Detroit Tigers, who were then still playing in a stadium built in 1912. Of the 9 teams playing major league sports in the New York Tri-State Area, all but the Knicks and Rangers have either moved to a new building (and their building has just been seriously renovated), or, in the case of the Islanders, are about to do so.

The Montreal Expos had not yet moved to Washington, D.C. The Houston Oilers were playing their one and only season in Memphis, as the Tennessee Titans, and would move to Nashville the next season, and wouldn't become the Tennessee Titans until they opened a new stadium the year after that. The Cleveland Browns were in the 2nd year of a 3-year hiatus because of the Baltimore Ravens move. The Seattle SuperSonics hadn't yet become the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Vancouver Grizzlies had not yet moved to Memphis. The Charlotte Hornets hadn't yet become the New Orleans Hornets or the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Charlotte Bobcats had neither been founded or changed their name to the new Charlotte Hornets. The Hartford Whalers were about to debut as the Carolina Hurricanes. The Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild had not yet begun play. Neither had the Atlanta Thrashers, who have since become the new Winnipeg Jets.

The defending World Champions in sports were the Yankees in baseball, the Green Bay Packers in football, the Chicago Bulls in basketball, and the Detroit Red Wings in hockey. The Heavyweight Championship of the World was split between Evander Holyfield (WBA), Lennox Lewis (WBC), Michael Moorer (IBF) and Henry Akinwade (WBO). Most people considered either Holyfield or Lewis to be "the real champ."

Baseball legends Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller and Warren Spahn were still alive. Of the defining baseball players of my childhood, all were now retired, and except for the banned Pete Rose, pretty much all of them were in the Hall of Fame or would be in the next couple of years.

Derek Jeter was 23 years old, and in his 2nd full major league season. Jimmy Rollins was about to turn 19, Adrian Beltre was 18, Robinson Cano and David Wright were about to turn 15, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto were 14, Matt Kemp was 13, current Oriole star Adam Jones was 12, Yoenis Cespeds was about to turn 12, Felix Hernandez was 11, Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw were 9, Masahiro Tanaka was about to turn 9, Giancarlo Stanton was about to turn 8, Mike Trout was 6, and Bryce Harper was about to turn 5.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America, Canada, Britain, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, Greece and Italy. The World Cup has since been held in France, Japan, Korea, Germany, South Africa and Brazil.

The President of the United States was Bill Clinton, nobody was publicly suggesting that his wife Hillary run for any office, and Monica Lewinsky could walk into just about any building in the country, introduce herself, and no one there would recognize her name. (Come to think of it, so could any Kardashian except Robert Sr., who was still alive.)

Gerald and Betty Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Lady Bird Johnson were still alive. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and George and Barbara Bush were, and still are. George W. Bush was preparing to run for re-election as Governor of Texas. Barack Obama was in his 1st year in public office, the Illinois State Senate. Joe Biden was in his 25th year as a U.S. Senator from Delaware.

The Governor of New York was George Pataki, gearing up for a 2nd run at the office he'd won from Mario Cuomo. Mario's son, Andrew Cuomo, was Clinton's Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, and he'd hired Bill de Blasio, now Mayor of New York, as his regional director. The Mayor of New York then, about to be elected to a 2nd term, was Rudy Giuliani. The Governor of New Jersey was Christine Todd Whitman. Chris Christie had just been defeated in a primary for re-election as a Freeholder for Morris County; at age 35, his political career seemed to be over.

In the State and City where the Orioles were playing, the Governor of Maryland was Parris Glendening. Current Governor Martin O'Malley was a City Councillor in Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke was about to announce that he wasn't running for re-election.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Jean Chretien. The Prime Minister of Britain, in his 1st 5 months on the job, was Tony Blair. The head of state of both nations was Queen Elizabeth II, still dealing with the public-relations fallout from the death of Princess Diana. England's Premier League had been won the preceding May by Manchester United, and its FA Cup by West London club Chelsea, only the 5th major trophy in their 92-year history. (They have since won 14 in 17 years.)

Major novels of 1997 including J.K. Rowling's 1st Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (released as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.), Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version, and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City, the basis for the TV series. Non-fiction books of the year included Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.

Major films of the fall of 1997 included L.A. Confidential, Soul Food, Kiss the Girls (the first of James Patterson's Alex Cross novels to be made into a film), Seven Years In Tibet, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Gattaca. The new 1997-98 television season saw the debuts of Ally McBeal, Dharma & Greg, and Bear in the Big Blue House.

On the very night that the Orioles clinched the AL East, Bob Dylan played a concert in Bologna, Italy, as a Catholic youth rally, headlined not by Dylan but by Pope John Paul II. He had just released his album Time Out of Mind. Within weeks, Bill Berry would leave R.E.M., ending the group's original lineup. Janet Jackson released The Velvet Rope. The Bouncing Souls, who made their name in the Rutgers music scene in New Brunswick, New Jersey, released their self-titled debut album.

Mobile telephones were still roughly the size of the communicators on the original Star Trek series. There was America Online and Netscape, but, as yet, less than half of all Americans were Internet users. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest, no Vine.

In the early autumn of 1997, Wales voted for "devolution" in the United Kingdom, and both they and Scotland formed their own parliaments, to give themselves some autonomy. (Shades of what's going on with Scotland now.) An Islamic-terror massacre in Algeria killed 53 people, and a plane crash in Indonesia killed 235.

Red Skelton, and Roy Lichtenstein, and baseball legend Johnny Vander Meer died. Actress Bella Thorne, and drummer Alex Wolff, and figure skater Leah Keiser were born.

September 27, 1997. The Baltimore Orioles clinched the American League Eastern Division title.

Now, nearly 17 years later, they have done it again. Will they have better luck in the postseason this time? Stay tuned.

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