Cleveland -- It had to end sometime, the Orioles' mad, mad -- for the final spot in the American League divisional playoffs, but no one could believe that the 1994 season finally was over.

"I can't believe it's finally over," said Orioles owner/manager Peter Angelos, who had taken over the club in mid-September and led the Orioles to the string of 14 straight victories that set up yesterday's all-or-nothing, wild-card game at Jacobs Field. "If I had known that I couldn't win the big one, I would have hired someone else."

"I can't believe it, either," said general manager Frank Robinson, who had been appointed general manager soon after the whereabouts of Doug Melvin became the subject of an all-new episode of "Unsolved Mysteries."

PTC "I haven't known what to believe since Bill Veeck passed away," said new Orioles vice chairman Roland Hemond, "but I guess you have to recognize that our chances don't look very good right now."

The Orioles were one out away from a playoff showdown against the Chicago White Sox when left-hander Sid Fernandez served up a fat pitch to Cleveland outfielder Albert Belle and watched the ball disappear in the general direction of Lake Erie. It landed in foul territory -- at Cleveland Municipal Stadium two miles away -- but it stayed fair long enough to carry the Indians to a 3-2 victory and their first postseason appearance since 1954.

It was sweet vindication for Belle, whose reputation had been sullied by scandal when he was suspended for using a corked bat earlier in the season. He has maintained his innocence throughout, claiming that the industrial drill press he keeps in his locker is just a conversation piece, but lost some credibility when hit just two other home runs (both inside-the-park) after the bat was confiscated.

It was a bitter disappointment for Angelos, who had spent $173 million to buy the club and committed another $43.75 million to add several big-name free agents. He had promised to bring a winner to Baltimore, but inadvertently signed Fernandez instead.

The clubhouse was deadly quiet afterward, and Fernandez was nowhere to be found. The silence was broken only by the sound of chewing in the training room, then nothing.

"I don't want to overstate this," said longtime Orioles fan George Will, "but I feel like my heart has been ripped from my chest and thrown -- still beating -- onto the grill at Boog's barbecue. The only thing worse I can think of would be to have the same thing happen under a single-payer health care system."

The entire 1994 season had been a series of near misses. Angelos failed to sign first baseman Will Clark, who led the Texas Rangers to a 57-105 record and the AL West title. The Orioles settled for Rafael Palmeiro, who finished the season with a .352 average, 39 home runs and 121 RBIs, but lacked the leadership skills to get the Orioles moved to a weaker division.

"If I had known this was going to happen," Angelos said, "I never would have spent the $300 million to buy the players and owners out of that labor dispute in August. I've spent $518 million, and all I've got to show for it is a nice luxury box and some nut who keeps calling me and making cash-register sounds into the phone. I think it's that Eli Jacobs guy."

To make up for the club's financial deficit, minority owner Tom Clancy cranked out a 1,600-page baseball/spy thriller titled "The Hunt for the Reds in October," but his $100 million advance also depended on the Orioles getting into the postseason. His next book, called "The Sum of all Fehrs" -- a techno-spy thriller about the Major League Baseball Players Association -- is expected to do much better.

Angelos' only triumph was the imaginative revenue-sharing plan that he devised to help settle the labor dispute. He gave $9 million to Fernandez, and Fernandez agreed to contribute 40 percent of the money to the Little Caesars pizza chain, which owns the small-market Detroit Tigers.

But overall, it was a rude initiation into the world of baseball labor relations for Angelos, who complained loudly about the ownership voting rule that required 21 clubs to ratify a settlement. In response, the owners voted 28-0 to make him financially liable for all labor-related losses and directed him to make Barry Bonds' alimony payments for five years.

"I still can't understand how they can get 28 votes every time they want to do something like that," said Angelos, who chose to vote along with the group when it became apparent that the motion would pass.

They got the season in. That was the important thing, even if the final weeks of play did not produce the historic finish that many had anticipated.

San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams, who was ahead of Roger Maris' record home run pace when the players went on strike for two days in August, hit his 60th home run three weeks ago, but fell victim to the tremendous stress that accompanied the chase. He began growing large clumps of hair all over the top of his head and had to sit out the rest of the season.

San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn had a chance to become the first batter in 52 years to hit .400, but the club -- citing continued financial distress -- sold his contract to the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League with a month left to play.

Seattle Mariners star Ken Griffey also made a run at the Maris record, but had several home runs disallowed because the conditions at the club's temporary home stadium (Tacoma Junior High School) were not up to major-league standards.

"Funny," groused a disappointed Griffey, "that never seemed to matter at the Kingdome."

Still, it was a season to remember, a thing of such pastoral beauty that it could not be appreciated fully by anyone who wasn't a poet, a philosopher or a ranking member of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

"It was just another timeless strand woven through the multicolored fabric of American life," said filmmaker Ken Burns, who is planning to produce a 26-hour documentary on Major League Baseball's attempt to make games shorter. "It was quintessential . . . whatever that means."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad