Dec. 10, 2017
Greatest Teams Never to Win a World Series in the Past 30 Years-97 Orioles
I had a tough time deciding whether or not to put this one up. We haven't often thought Baltimore as THE front-runner in baseball for a very long time. Even when the 90's Orioles teams were good, it seemed like there was a few teams always better, whether in their division, league, or in the Majors in general.
1997 was to me, an odd year in baseball. The players strike was becoming more and more distant, but fans weren't overly coming to the gates. The economics of baseball were another thing as well. While we still see the same phrase of the "rich get richer" today with likes of the Yankees (who just acquired Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton-uh oh), Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, and to a lesser extent, the Angels, we saw it back then with the Yankees, Braves, Indians, Dodgers, and the Orioles.
In fact, Baltimore was a lavish spender in the 90's. They ranked right up there with New York and Atlanta of getting those big name players. And it seemed like every year Baltimore would be the winner of the top free agent sweepstakes. In that time period, the Orioles signed Rafael Palmeiro, BJ Surhoff, Roberto Alomar, Mike Bordick, Jimmy Key, etc. while trading for Scott Erickson among others. You think, aside from Palmeiro and Alomar, those guys don't sound like big stars. Well, back in that time period, they absolutely were. And it means they would be in contention.
Ever since the Orioles moved to the revolutionary Oriole Park in 1992, fans came out in droves and constantly sold out the place. And in the 90's, revenue meant money and money meant spending. The Orioles and Indians took charge of that theory. However, Baltimore was always the bridesmaid in the AL East. Early on, they were put down by the mighty Blue Jays in 92 and 93. And then 95 they were a fiddle to the Red Sox and Yankees. In 1996, they kicked up the wheels of spending signing Alomar and Surhoff and getting the AL Wild Card and stunning the powerful Indians, but only to be put down in the 1996 ALCS by the eventual champion Yankees.
In 1997, the pieces were in place. Baltimore led from beginning to end, and save for the final month, held control of the East with ease. Better, the Orioles struck down the NL favorite Braves in a 3 game series sweep in the first year of Interleague. With the Indians not being as dominant with the losses of Lofton, Baerga, and Belle, the Yankees scuffling, and the Mariners not being as consistent as many had hoped, Baltimore was regarded as the favorite to win it all in 1997.
HOW WHERE THEY GOOD? We talk about lineups being fierce and stout, Baltimore had it. 8 out of the 9 position players (DH included) were in double digits in home runs. Palmeiro led the charge with 34. The averages were not high (.268 as a team, ranked 9th in the AL), but they could get on base (6th in AL) on a respectable level. Adding on, it was a veteran bunch, where the two youngest guns were Alomar (29 years old) and Jeffrey Hammonds (26 years old). Everything seemed to click as the offense was at the very worst, consistent.
Even then, we thought Baltimore's pitching wasn't as strong as others. But actually, the Orioles had the 2nd lowest ERA in the AL in 1997. The rotation was really a 4-man rotation, which to say is impressive now today. Mike Mussina was the ace of the staff, followed by Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki. While nobody had an ERA under 3, only Kamieniecki had an ERA over 4 (and that was 4.01). Again, it was another veteran bunch with Mussina (28) and Erickson (29) being the youngsters of the crew. Baltimore's starters went 57-31 with their combined pitcher's record while Mussina garnered Cy Young votes while Key, entering the twilight of his career had his last great year.
The bullpen while wasn't lights out, was excellent. Randy Myers was nearly unhittable, having a 1.51 ERA with 45 saves. And Baltimore had a flame-throwing youngster in Armando Benitez, who served as a setup guy while closing if Myers needed the night off. He went 4-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 9 saves while having a K/9 rate of 13. Adding to the pen was Arthur Rhodes, who was if anything solid (10 wins, 3.02 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.09) and the ageless Jesse Orosco who at 40 was still dealing (6-3, 2.32 ERA, WHIP of a 1.17 and a K/9 of 8).
So if anything, the 1997 Orioles were probably the most complete team heading in October (save maybe for the Marlins). And definitely the most complete team in the AL.
In the ALDS against the Mariners, Baltimore handled them easily, thumping Randy Johnson in Game 1, and then raiding Seattle's incompetent bullpen in Game 2. After getting stymied by Jeff Fassero in Game 3, Baltimore came back in Game 4, taking down Randy Johnson again, but more of a pitcher's duel as Mussina outperformed the Big Unit. The Orioles did everything right almost, including having some role guys like Geronimo Berroa take Johnson deep twice (once in Game 1 and again in Game 4).
Then it was the ALCS against the Indians, the same Indians team that Baltimore took down in 4 in the 1996 ALDS. And many figured Cleveland not to be as strong. Belle left for the White Sox before the 1997 season and the Indians traded Lofton away to Atlanta a week before the regular season started for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. While Justice filled in for Belle's absence, Grissom really scuffled in his lone season with the Tribe. That said, Cleveland's offense remained strong with Thome and Manny Ramirez leading the way. On the other side, the Indians pitching was a giant mess in 1997, thus why their record wasn't as strong as before in 1995 and 1996. Many figured Baltimore would take the ALCS in 5 or 6 especially after Cleveland's grueling 5-game ALDS win over New York.
After the first game, it looked like it was going to be the case. Baltimore's pitching kicked in as Scott Erickson shut down the powerful Indians bats in a 3-0 win. However, the next three games Baltimore's bullpen imploded upon itself, with Benitez blowing a 2 run lead in the 8th to give the Indians a Game 2 win. A 12-inning duel which was about pitching gave Cleveland the surprise win off of Randy Myers. And then Erickson imploded in Game 4, giving up 7 runs in less than 5 innings which the Orioles tried to come back but the deficit was too much as Cleveland netted a 9th inning run off of Alan Mills to give the Tribe a 3-1 lead. After a series saving win where the Orioles nearly blew a 4-run lead in the 9th with Myers on the mound, Baltimore returned to Oriole Park for Game 6, thinking homefield would take over.
Instead, the Orioles bats failed to deliver, going 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position. While Mike Mussina outdueled Charles Nagy in only giving up 1 hit in 8 innings and having 10 K's, the Indians stung the Orioles on a Tony Fernandez home run in the 11th off of Benitez. And then with a runner on in the bottom of the 11th, Roberto Alomar took a third strike down the middle to end it for the Orioles. And Cleveland made their 2nd World Series appearance in 3 years.....which would add into the Cleveland heartache lore in their Game 7.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Baltimore picked the wrong time to implode on itself with their pitching and their hitting. You thought, "well, Erickson's Game 1 gem will set the pace as great pitching beats great hitting." But the bullpen imploded as a whole, notably the two guys they relied on most, Myers and Benitez. Both gave up a combined 7 out of the 17 runs in the ALCS (8 out of 17 if you count Mills). And then Erickson imploded in Game 4.
But to say that Benitez and Myers should get the blame for the ALCS loss is asinine. The hitting wasn't horrible (though Roberto Alomar, Chris Hoiles, and BJ Surhoff all had woeful series numbers), but numerous chances the Orioles blew of scoring more runs and Game 6 was indicative of that. The Orioles went a horrid 9-for-47 in the series with runners in scoring position (.191 average). So adding to the bullpen woes, the clutch hitting failed. And anytime you are not getting those key and your bullpen struggles in the post-season it is a recipe for disaster.
AFTERMATH: A veteran bunch? Yep. An ALCS loss shouldn't have an effect, but however, owner Peter Angelos and manager Davey Johnson did not like each other too well while it seemed like there was a conflict with Johnson and Alomar as well. Johnson stepped down after the season ended and Ray Miller took over. However, Baltimore, despite having a BETTER offense in 1998, struggled mightily and fell under .500 because the starting pitching bottomed out. Erickson didn't pitch as well. Mussina missed a few starts and pitched "okay," but not anywhere near his normal self. And the O's added a young gun in Sidney Ponson who experienced those rookie pains (8-9 with a 5.27 ERA) and added another veteran in Doug Drabek who was a shell of what he was in Pittsburgh (6-11 with a 7.29 ERA). It would end up being the beginning of the end.
Angelos, the Orioles owner, has never met a big move he didn't like and continued spending money on the top free agents or trying to get that attraction to keep the fans going. After 98, instead of rebuilding, Baltimore signed Albert Belle and the O's offense kept pace with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians, but the pitching as horrendous. Only Mussina had an ERA under 4 in 1999 while the others including Erickson hovered around 5 or higher. But after 1999, the offense slowed down badly and the Orioles were irrelevant to the AL East and the AL in particular. Because of Angelos's driven goal every year to win it all, the Orioles continued to keep their older players past their primes and then not build from within. Mike Mussina left after 2000, leaving the "ace" duties to Jason Johnson while Sidney Ponson continued to unimpress. But they kept on throwing money and not improve the system (Aubrey Huff and Sammy Sosa are key examples), and what you got was more futility until 2012 when Buck Showalter took the reins and the team gained young pieces over time.
It goes to show that the Orioles then, the Phillies in the early 2010's, and the Tigers in the mid portion of the 2010's if you hold on to these veterans a little too long and try to keep adding more pieces to a team that really needs to be broken up, you will have years of just uninspired baseball and fan bases who won't come out to see the team, regardless of what kind of gem of a ballpark you may have.
And I think Angelos, while the intentions are good of wanting to field a competitive team EVERY YEAR, it may have backfired as the Orioles got veterans past their primes, failed to build from within for the most part (they did have some good players come through like Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis). If he ended up having a small rebuild, it probably wouldn't have lasted 15 years. And by the way, he may have done the same mess again in 2017.
OTHER GREAT TEAMS WHO NEVER WON A WORLD SERIES
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat