The last time the Orioles were fun -- pure, unadulterated fun -- was 1989. Since then, it's always been something with this team.
The '90 and '91 clubs weren't any good. The '92 and '93 teams were contenders, but former owner Eli Jacobs wasn't committed to winning.
The '94 season was marred by the strike and the war between Peter Angelos and Johnny Oates. The '95 season was doomed by the hiring of Phil Regan.
The Orioles returned to the postseason for the first time 1983 and upset Cleveland in the playoffs before losing to the New York Yankees.
It was a major breakthrough, but the season was an unseemly soap opera, marked by internal spats and selfish agendas.
Which brings us to 1997.
This, at last, is the year.
Not necessarily for the Orioles to win the World Series.
For the fun to arrive at Camden Yards.
All the pieces are in place now. Owner Peter Angelos commits the money. General manager Pat Gillick spends it wisely. Davey Johnson is a year smarter. The players are serious professionals, not immature whiners.
The one threat to the club's equilibrium is the prospect of friction between Johnson and Angelos. But Johnson is safe with the Orioles off to an 8-2 start, at least until the first apocalyptic showdown with the Yankees.
Just kidding, Peter.
Just kidding, Davey.
Much as those born antagonists might be tempted, they won't disrupt this summer of love.
Johnson fought his clubhouse battles last season. Now Bobby Bonilla is gone, and Cal Ripken is at third base. The players no longer challenge his authority, and he no longer criticizes them to the media.
One of Johnson's most appealing qualities is that he admits his mistakes, and learns from them. Last season he saw how easily an AL club could be embarrassed without a deep and versatile bullpen. And so now he has one.
Which isn't to say the Orioles will win the East -- they've beaten up on weaker opponents, Kansas City without Mike Macfarlane and Chili Davis, Texas without Juan Gonzalez and Will Clark.
Last night's 4-2 victory was more of the same, coming against a Minnesota club missing four starters -- Paul Molitor, Marty Cordova, Scott Stahoviak and Roberto Kelly.
Next, the Orioles visit Chicago.
Robin Ventura already is out.
Isn't it about time for an Albert Belle suspension?
The quality of opponents aside, the importance of a fast start can not be overestimated. The Orioles opened last season 11-2, then played sub-.500 ball for 3 1/2 months before rallying in August and September.
This team should be more consistent. And this team won't be haunted by the Yankees, whose bullpen collapsed again last night. Toronto looks like a more realistic threat. And the Blue TTC Jays, for all their pitching prowess, are batting .222.
The Orioles have physical concerns on their pitching staff -- Mike Mussina, Rocky Coppinger and now Alan Mills. But if they stay reasonably healthy, they stand an excellent chance of returning to the playoffs.
The easiest thing for Gillick to do after last season would have been to stay the course, maybe add one more starting pitcher. But the GM correctly identified the Orioles' flaws -- their me-first culture and one-dimensional offense.
Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken are among those who bristle at the criticism of the '96 club, saying it doesn't get the credit it deserves. They have a point. But this team looks so much more balanced, so much better.
Bonilla and David Wells were reasonably productive and only occasionally disruptive -- Bonilla, in fact, was immensely popular with his teammates. But the classy Eric Davis and Jimmy Key are far preferable.
For years, Key tormented the Orioles as a member of the Blue Jays and Yankees. Now, he's working his magic for the Orioles. The guy is forever underrated. He's the AL's answer to Tom Glavine.
Davis won't hit as many homers as Bonilla, but his speed is such an asset. Last night, he scored the an insurance run in the eighth after beating out an infield single and advancing to second on a hit-and-run grounder by Ripken.
Jeffrey Hammonds drove Davis home with a single -- Jeffrey Hammonds, a living, breathing product of the Orioles' much-maligned farm system. It's still early to judge Hammonds. But at least he's making things happen.
Gillick will revive the farm system, just as he has revived the major-league club. Davis, Key, Mike Bordick, B. J. Surhoff, Pete Incaviglia are perfect veteran complements. No longer is this simply a team of Rotisserie All-Stars.
The Orioles are living right, just as they were at the start of last season -- Scott Erickson is 2-0 for the first time in his career, and Randy Myers is 5-for-5 in save chances. Slumps are inevitable. So are internal squabbles.
This, finally, looks like a team to enjoy.
Pub Date: 4/15/97