Carroll County Times

Commentary: Fans enjoy return of playoff baseball

There was Brooks Robinson gliding through the air in 1966, then leaping into Mike Cuellar's arms in 1970 after World Series wins. There was Scott McGregor jumping up and down in 1979 to cap the American League Championship Series and Cal Ripken raising his arms after snaring a line drive in 1983 to secure another world title.

In the run-up to the Orioles' first home postseason game in 15 years, grainy clips of the team celebrating big wins from postseasons past were easy to find on TV and the Internet.

What was hard to find was a highlight that showed the warehouse.

Camden Yards has virtually no postseason history and what did transpire here in 1996 and 1997 is etched into the minds of long-time fans because of what went wrong.

There's a reason the Orioles didn't bring back Armando Benitez to throw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Sunday night.

It seems like ancient history, but the Orioles entered this year's ALDS against New York having lost six of the 10 postseason games played at Camden Yards with the Yankees advancing to the World Series on Baltimore's home field in 1996 and the Indians doing the same thing a year later when Tony Fernandez, infamously, took Benitez deep in the 11th inning of the last postseason game played here.

So Sunday night was not only a chance for fans to celebrate the Orioles' long-awaited return to the postseason, it was also a chance to exorcise a few demons.

That didn't happen on this night, thanks to a ninth-inning implosion started by a Russell Martin home run that allowed the Yankees to get away with a 7-2 win. But the 47,841 in attendance did get to see a well-played, competitive game.

Most important, they got to see a postseason game.

The fans started pouring in as soon as the gates opened, festive, adorned in orange and clutching their precious tickets as if they were invitations to an exclusive party they never expected they'd get to go to.

When game-time finally, mercifully arrived after a two-hour, 26-minute rain delay - hey, when you've waited 15 years, what's another 146 minutes? - the fans were amped up and loud, albeit a bit soggy.

They stayed positive when the scoreboard read 1-0 for the visitors - the same thing the scoreboard read at the end of the last postseason game played here - after only two New York batters had come to the plate.

They spontaneously clapped and chanted "Let's Go O's" and spelled out "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" as if exhorted by the ghost of Wild Bill Hagy. They rose in unison, cheered and waved their orange towels whenever a New York batter got to two strikes. In a nod to the other professional team in town, they sang the riff from the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" that has become the unofficial theme song of the Ravens.

They booed Derek Jeter. They booed Alex Rodriguez. And, oh, did they boo Maryland native Mark Teixeira, who committed the unpardonable crime of spurning the local team and signing with the hated Yanks as a free agent before the 2009 season.

And when Nate McLouth ripped a two-run single into right field in the bottom of the third to put the Orioles on top 2-1, they sounded every bit as loud as those Memorial Stadium crowds sounded back when every Marylander believed in "Orioles Magic" and every season, seemingly, featured a postseason encore.

When the Orioles started playing at Camden Yards 20 years ago there was no reason to think postseason highlights would be hard to come by. This was an organization that got to the postseason eight times from 1966 to 1983 and had a passionate fan base that loved filling up the new ballpark. As expected, it didn't take long for the new park to host meaningful October baseball.

And things started so well. Brady Anderson homered in the home team's first postseason at-bat at Camden Yards and the wild-card Orioles rolled to a 10-4 win over Cleveland in the 1996 ALDS. They won 7-4 the next day with three in the eighth to break a tie.

That year's ALCS didn't go as well. With the "Jeffrey Maier game" in New York still a sore topic, the Orioles lost all three to the Yankees in Baltimore. They blew a 2-1 lead when the Yanks scored four in the eighth in Game 3, got blasted 8-4 the next night when Rocky Coppinger gave up three home runs, and ushered the Yankees back to the World Series when Scott Erickson gave up six runs in the third en route to a 6-4 loss in Game 5.

The Orioles went wire-to-wire to win the AL East the next year and Camden Yards' first World Series games seemed likely. Nothing in the ALDS changed that perception. Though they lost Game 3 to Seattle in Camden Yards, they won Game 4 and advanced when the immortal Jeff Reboulet hit a key home run to help Mike Mussina beat Randy Johnson.

The Orioles opened that year's ALCS by beating the Indians 3-0 on an Erickson gem that included another Anderson leadoff homer. But the entire series shifted the next day, after Baltimore took a 4-2 lead into the eighth. Just four outs away from a commanding two games to none lead, Benitez served up a three-run homer to Marquis Grissom that gave the Indians a 5-4 win.

Back in Baltimore for Game 6, trailing three games to two, Mussina pitched one of his greatest games as an Oriole. He blanked the Indians on one hit over eight innings, striking out 10. Unfortunately for him, the Orioles and their fans, Baltimore's bats were equally silent and the game went to the 11th inning still scoreless.

Benitez fanned his Game 2 nemesis, Grissom, and got Omar Vizquel out on a bunt. That brought up Fernandez.

The Indians' second baseman, never known as a power hitter, blasted Benitez's first pitch deep into the night to right field for the only run of the game. (Benitez has henceforth been remembered as the goat, but the Orioles stranded 14 base runners, going 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position, with Rafael Palmeiro being the chief culprit.)

Fernandez played in 43 postseason games over eight series, getting 150 at-bats. That was his only home run. The Indians went to the World Series. The Orioles went home. And postseason baseball in Baltimore went on a hiatus.

That hiatus ended on Sunday, an interminable 15-year wait finally at an end for Baltimore fans. With that accomplished, fans can only hope the team will pick up its first playoff win at Camden Yards in 15 years tonight and that Martin's name will never be mentioned in the same sentence as Fernandez's.