After beating the Yankees last night, the Orioles are now 16-9 and a game behind Tampa in the AL East. The team that most pundits picked to finish a distant last has a better record than the Yanks on May 3rd. To date, they are hands down the biggest surprise of the 2012 baseball season.
Of course, its early as we have seen many teams look like champs in April; even the Orioles. Back in 2005 the O’s had a 4-game lead in the division on June 10th. Former Mets star and Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli was in his second year managing the team. He wouldn’t make it till the end of the season as Sam Perlozzo took over the reins for the final 56 games. The Orioles struggled the last two weeks in June and went 8-18 in July. First place was a distant memory by September and they would finish 74-88, 21 games behind the Yankees.
The Pirates futility has been well documented. Since Francisco Cabrera‘s hit sent Sid Bream running home and the Braves to the ’92 World Series, the Buccos haven’t finished at .500. The economics of baseball have hit the city of Pittsburgh hard, so it’s partially understandable they have been so bad for so long. Quietly, Baltimore has not had a winning season since 1997. That was the year Tony Fernandez homered off Armando Benitez in Game 6 of the ALCS in Camden Yards. The Indians surprised an Orioles team that appeared to have a great chance of winning the World Series.
A year earlier they had lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. That ’97 AL East title made the O’s the last team to finish ahead of the Yanks until Boston did so a decade later in 2007. The Yankees and Red Sox are the big baseball rivalry for years, but it was the Orioles that were the Yankees chief competitors when Joe Torre took over in 1996.
Remember the big early season series at Camden Yards when Tino Martinez finally broke out of his slump? Remember the furious run the Yanks made in the second half of ’97 to fall just short of the Orioles? Remember the ALCS battle in ’96 that finished in 5 games, but was much closer than that? There was Jeffrey Maier, George Steinbrenner vs. Peter Angelos, and who could forget the vicious brawl between the two teams in 1998?
Since then its been awful free agent signings, penny pinching and tons of meddling by Peter Angelos. He is so difficult to work for that an up-and-coming executive bailed out of the interview process after learning of the lack of autonomy he would have. Despite that, this Orioles team has some interesting storylines that could make them an even more interesting rival this year than the Red Sox.
First there is Peter Angelos, who is every bit as meddlesome as a young George Steinbrenner, but without the desire to spend like him. Angelos hates the Yankees with a deep passion. He dislikes them so much he has refused to allow his general managers to make any deals. That why players such as Ty Wigginton and Mike Gonzalez, who would have fit so well into the Yankees roster the last few years, were shipped to other destinations at the deadline. Silly, but that is how Angelos’ works.
Buck Showalter is the field general who was fired a year too early by the Yankees. Many still wonder if Showalter would be revered in New York today if he piloted those late nineties Yankees. Many forget it was under his leadership the Yanks went from a joke to a force in the American League. Showalter has a solid managerial record, but the knock on him is he cleans up messes and hands them over to someone who can get the team over-the-top. It happened in New York, Arizona, and to a lesser extent, Texas. Now he has a chance to not only turnaround a team, but does it against the organization where he cut his teeth.
The roster is the antithesis of the Yankees as it’s full of young players that finally have come into their own and scrapheap veterans. Matt Weiters, Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Norman Reimold are leading the way offensively. Former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson was named the Director of Pitching Development this past offseason so it should be no surprise that Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz are finally pitching to their potential.
The real key is whether veterans like Jason Hammel, J.J. Hardy, Robert Andino, Jim Johnson and Luis Ayala can continue to play key contributions. Can the pitching staff that currently leads the American League in ERA keep this pace into the dog days of summer?
Since the ’97 division title the Orioles are 80-164 against the Yankees. We laugh at home the Yanks have turned the Minnesota Twins into the Washington Generals, but the Orioles are probably a better example. It’s ironic they are just outside DC since their recent baseball plight resembles the Washington Senators in the musical “Damn Yankees.” Ironically, the Orioles new General Manager, Dan Duquette, starred in an off-Broadway edition of that musical.
We saw this story line in Baltimore back in 2005 and they turned out to be pretenders. Personally, I am tired of Yankees-Red Sox, so I welcome any change. The Rays are a nice story but their roster lacks the color to be a real rivalry with the Yankees. It’s surprising since the Steinbrenners made Tampa their adopted home, so the Rays are actually the second team in a city they don’t even share. The ballpark is also drab and empty, so half the games take on the feel of an exhibition. Toronto has similar problems as they would be an interesting rival if people actually showed up to watch the Jays. Right now they are in the bottom third of the league and averaging only 24,000 a game.
This is why the Orioles are the most likely to challenge the Sox as the Yankees chief rival. They play in a ballpark that is still beautiful 20 years after it opened. It’s been a shame that summer games at Camden Yards resemble Yankee Stadium South when they are in town. I actually think Camden has more charm than the House that Randy Levine built in the Bronx. It could be a great home field advantage for the O’s. Unlike Tampa and Toronto, the fans of Baltimore will show up in droves if this team is for real.
The Orioles have the owner, manager, young players and stadium to make this work. They were swept by the Yankees the first week of the season, but unlike prior years you could see they were more competitive. If not for some errors it was possible they could have taken 2 of 3. That is exactly what happened this past week at Yankee Stadium. The Orioles finally won a series at the Stadium, a place they had won only 7 times in their last 30 tries going into last night. Make it 8 for 31 after the 5-0 victory. Even more surprising was they achieved this against the unbeatable Ivan Nova, who was aiming for his 15th straight victory.
I don’t want to say the Orioles are back, but it sure would be fun if they were.