You can't predict it.
That's the beauty of the Orioles' season -- any baseball season, really.
It's also the curse.
You can't predict the endless twists of a 162-game marathon, the puzzling slumps that even the best teams face.
You can't predict whether the Orioles will recover to win the AL East in a romp, or whether they'll fall to their old nemesis, the New York Yankees.
On June 3-4, they swept the Yankees at Camden Yards, and went up 9 1/2 games. On June 22, in the middle of a grueling road stretch, their lead was still nine.
But eight days, that's all it took for the doubt to emerge, for the offense to crumble, for the lead to dwindle to 5 1/2 games.
Not to worry.
This thing will turn, and turn, and turn again before it's over.
Oh, the Orioles had a magical first half, complete with a pitching-and-defense revival, a start that ranked with the best in franchise history, even road sweeps of the Yankees, Seattle Mariners and (gasp) Atlanta Braves.
But what happens next?
If you think you know, perhaps you should think back to spring training, when expectations were at their usual ridiculous heights, and Geronimo Berroa was still with Oakland.
Who would have thought the Orioles would be in first place with Cal Ripken making 13 errors? With Brady Anderson hitting fewer than 10 homers? With Rafael Palmeiro batting under .260?
Who would have thought that longtime enigmas Scott Erickson and Arthur Rhodes would stabilize the pitching staff? That Randy Myers would blow only one save through June? That Scott Kamieniecki would thrive as the No. 4 starter?
So much you couldn't predict.
Berroa. Rocky Coppinger. David Dellucci.
The bottom line is, the Orioles stand an excellent chance of returning to the postseason. To this point, they've produced their most compelling season since 1983, their last world championship year.
Oh, '89 was special, but was an overachieving team, a lucky team, a team destined to its fate. Last season, too, proved rewarding, but the Orioles were self-centered and one-dimensional -- not all that likable, frankly.
This team is different. This team demonstrates a knack for winning that its predecessors never grasped. This team is defined not by Bobby Bonilla and David Wells, but by Davis and Jimmy Key.
With this team, the World Series is a reasonable goal. And to appreciate fully the evolution of the franchise, consider where it was five years ago, when Eli Jacobs was owner, Roland Hemond GM and Johnny Oates manager.
The Orioles contended that year, too -- they were only a half-game back on Sept. 5. But did anyone seriously expect them to win? Not with Jacobs unwilling to commit the necessary finances and Hemond unable to make the necessary trade.
You remember '92.
It was the year Pat Gillick stole David Cone for Toronto, and Hemond countered with Craig Lefferts. The trade was a disaster, and, even worse, it addressed the wrong need. The Orioles finished third after a record scoring slump in September. The Blue Jays, of course, went on to win the World Series.
The difference now is immeasurable, and it starts with the owner. Peter Angelos spends in the off-season, spends during the season and spends on future seasons. Thus, the Orioles get a Roberto Alomar. They get a Berroa. And they get to keep their own stars, like Mike Mussina and Cal Ripken.
Whatever your opinion of Angelos, his commitment to winning cannot be questioned.
Then there's Gillick, whose savvy and vision separate him from almost every other GM, not just Hemond. Gillick probably will trade for another pitcher and another hitter before September -- and those players probably will help the Orioles win.
Finally, there's Johnson, and he, too, is a critical part of the equation. Oates was, and is, a gifted strategist, but he lacked Johnson's cocksure demeanor, his edge. It's evident every night in his pitching changes. Johnson does what he thinks is right. And, as Bobby Cox can attest, he usually is.
So, some things are predictable -- and the active minds of Angelos, Gillick and Johnson are three good reasons to like the Orioles' chances. Still, nothing is guaranteed. Key, Mussina and Erickson aren't likely to go a combined 32-9 in the second half. And no one knows how much Hideki Irabu will lift the Yankees.
Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Crazy things happen. And even if the Orioles won the division, they would be no lock to reach the World Series. Their first-round, best-of-five playoff series could open against Randy Johnson in Seattle.
At times, you get the feeling that this is the Orioles' year, the way last year was for the Yankees. But the season is so long, and contains so many variables, even the most informed analysis is nothing more than an educated guess.
You can't predict this game.
You can only sit back and watch the drama unfold.
Usually, the best team wins.
Pub Date: 7/06/97