Now, with no reason to expect a showdown, the fans can only hope for a showcase, and the 43,290 that showed up at Camden Yards last night got their money's worth from two of the sport's most beloved players.
Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken delivered a four-hit performance that kept him in range of his 3,000th career hit later this season, and potential Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez carried the Mariners' offense with a run-scoring hit and his 37th home run.
The Orioles eventually emerged with a 5-4 victory on Mike Bordick's 12th-inning homer, which added still another layer of interest to the proceedings, because Bordick was the one top-name, past or present shortstop in the building not known for his power.
But the club's fourth straight victory was largely incidental to the second big offensive performance by Ripken since he returned from his second long stay on the disabled list.
Ripken, who hit his 400th career home run in his second game back, entered last night's game a combined 6-for-30 (.200) since his return.
"It's kind of weird," Ripken said. "When I came back, I didn't have much skill time. I pushed it to get back. You feel good for an at-bat, and you try to hold onto it. That's not always easy to do, when you've missed the amount of time I missed last month. I kind of take it as it comes. I just hope to see the ball well and react to it."
The legendary shortstop-turned-third baseman singled in each of his four at-bats to increase his career hit total to 2,978, which means that he needs 22 more in the final 21 games of the season to become the 24th player in baseball history to reach 3,000.
He could do it next year, of course, but the quest to get there this year may be the only intrigue left in an otherwise lackluster Orioles season.
"I think Cal's having as much fun as he's had in a while," said manager Ray Miller, "because his swing is just terrific right now."
Rodriguez, who has long identified Ripken as his idol and inspiration, is only in the early stages of his already stellar career but appears to be well-positioned to challenge Ripken's distinction as the greatest power-hitting shortstop of all time.
He already has 143 home runs in only his fourth full season in the major leagues. Ripken holds the record for home runs by a shortstop with 345, which would appear reachable for a player who hasn't reached his 25th birthday.
"I think when people watch him play, they don't realize that he's a big guy," said Miller. "And he's just starting to fill out. He's what, 24? That's scary."
In their wildest dreams, Baltimore baseball fans even can envision him doing it in an Orioles uniform, because it appears that the Mariners won't be able to afford both Rodriguez and superstar Ken Griffey after their contracts expire in the next couple of years.
The Mariners are making their first and only stop in Baltimore this year. The institution of interleague play in 1997 was intended to increase opportunities for fans to see the top stars from both leagues. But it also cut into the number of games each club plays against non-divisional opponents in the same league.
So, Orioles fans have only this four-game series to enjoy the exploits of Rodriguez and Griffey, two of the sport's most popular players, and Orioles pitchers have only four games to try to contain a Mariners lineup that leads the majors with 217 home runs.
Rodriguez provided the game's first offensive highlight in the top of the first inning, when he delivered a two-out, opposite-field single off spot starter Doug Linton to give the Mariners a short-lived lead.
No surprise there. Rodriguez has made a habit of dinging up the Orioles' pitching staff. He entered the game with a .353 career average against Baltimore and had driven in eight runs in the first six meetings this year.
Mariners starter Paul Abbott kept the Orioles' lineup quiet for a couple of innings but fell victim in the third to an error and an infield hit that helped load the bases for sizzling slugger Albert Belle, who lined a double into left-center field to drive home two runs and put the Orioles on top.
The double extended Belle's hitting streak to 10 games and increased his team-leading RBI total to 102, but -- almost amazingly -- it was only his first hit with the bases loaded all season.
The Orioles added a third run in the fourth inning after loading the bases again, this time with no outs, on Ripken's second hit of the game, a muffed-tag play by Seattle second baseman David Bell and a walk to rookie Jerry Hairston.
Ripken would score on a sacrifice fly by Mike Figga, but that was all the Orioles would get from the promising opportunity, and Rodriguez would make them regret it.
He added to his impressive numbers against the Orioles in the sixth inning, slicing a towering fly ball into the right-center field bleachers for his 37th home run of the year.
The two-run shot tied the game, and designated hitter Edgar Martinez immediately untied it with a drive into the left-field bleachers for his 23rd homer of the year.
Linton completed the sixth inning before giving way to the bullpen. He allowed four runs on seven hits but struggled only in one inning. In fact, the sixth was the only bad inning he has thrown in his last two starts.
He held the potent Cleveland Indians lineup to just a run on four hits to record his first major-league victory in three years last Saturday.
The Orioles took Linton off the hook in the eighth. B. J. Surhoff led off the inning with a single and stole second base to set the table for Ripken, who slapped a line drive into right field to tie the game.
Surhoff nearly won the game in regulation with a two-out single in the ninth inning, but left fielder Brian Hunter made a strong throw to the plate to cut down Hairston and send the game into extra innings.
The bullpen did the rest until Bordick's big swing, pitching six scoreless innings after the Mariners' three-run sixth. Right-hander Al Reyes worked the final two innings to record his second victory in as many nights.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 4: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Freddy Garcia (14-7, 4.28) vs. O's Doug Johns (4-3, 4.67)
Tickets: About 1,000 remain