But we all know the Orioles haven’t won since 1997. That sure was an eventful season for the franchise. The O's went wire-to-wire, winning the AL East and advancing to the ALCS before falling short of the World Series.
Manager Davey Johnson and owner Peter Angelos had a stunning baseball divorce after the season was over, and Johnson stepped down before completing his third and final contract season.
And the O's haven’t produced a winning season since.
I hadn’t intended to revisit all this in such detail when I sat down recently with Johnson, now 69 and the manager of the Washington Nationals, before a recent game. My goal was to catch O's fans and others up on Johnson, who – once again – is managing a team to a winning record. Johnson is well known, of course, in Baltimore. He spans more than one generation of Baltimore fans because he played for the O's in the 1960s and managed the team in the 1990s.
What I noticed about Johnson is how much affection he continues to hold for Baltimore. You can understand it. In my story for Monday’s paper, I said the O's were the team of Johnson’s youth. So while he talked a bit about the current ballclub, he also spoke about breaking in with a team that featured Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell. “Then came the Palmers, the McNallys, the Cuellars, the Dobsons. Frank Robinson was the best hitter in the league – triple-crown winner his first year [with the Orioles in 1966]. He kind of set the tone and the tempo,” Johnson told me.
That’s the prism in which he still looks at the O's – the prism of good days and good memories. Of winning.
Johnson didn’t talk too much about Angelos. “I’m not one that looks back,” he said. What he meant, I think, is that he doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting. But ask him to relive a decades-old baseball moment and – as you can tell by his quotes -- he’ll usually offer a precise recollection. Ask him to describe the night he signed with the Orioles in 1962, and he’ll tell you what time of day it was and which scouts were present. It’s as clear as if he were describing a double play from the previous day.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if he remembers every detail about what happened after the ’97 season. Nor would it surprise me if there were still a few bruised feelings. Johnson, the team’s best manager since Earl Weaver, often talked back then about hoping to see tangible signs of support from the owner.
For the record, Johnson said he has moved on, and I'm certain he mostly has. But he sure talked lovingly about the ranch-style home in Baltimore County that he and his wife had remodeled. You just know it had to sting to put that house on the market.
Then I called Peter Angelos. He doesn’t give many media interviews these days, particularly during the season. But he agreed to talk.
I’m guessing there were a few reasons. After all these years, I think he would like to move past any remaining awkwardness with Johnson. I also think he believes the facts of the 1997 split may not be entirely well known. If you read many of the old accounts and talk to some of the principals, you get the idea that Angelos felt he had little choice but to let Johnson resign. He felt he had been presented with an ultimatum and Angelos, the toughest of negotiators, considered that unacceptable.
It was a rough period. If you’re a fan, sometimes you simply don’t care who is right in an owner-managerial dispute. You just want it worked out so your team can win.
Editor's note: Read Jeff Barker's story about Angelos and Johnson putting their differences behind them here.