NEW YORK -- Barely a month into the season, the Orioles have reached their first crossroads. Tonight they face the New York Yankees on the occasion of Scott Erickson's first start of the season.
Erickson is barely two months removed from undergoing arthroscopic surgery for removal of bone chips from his elbow. He may be graded on a curve. The Orioles are a season removed from being outclassed within their division, but have shown more in a 15-12 start. The conclusions reached may be more conclusive.
"It'll give us a good idea of where we are," said catcher Charles Johnson. "I know it's still early, but it'll definitely give us an idea. It'll definitely be a good challenge for us."
Said shortstop Mike Bordick: "Regardless of what happens, there is still going to be plenty of season left. Our success or failure isn't going to be determined in New York this weekend."
To a man, the Orioles aren't hyping the series as some kind of tell-all about their prospects as playoff contenders. However, they will say this weekend allows them a chance to measure themselves, not only against the world champions, but also against a stretch of division opponents who repeatedly splattered them during last season's fourth-place finish.
Among the mysteries of 1999 is how the Orioles were 15-34 against the AL East, including 4-9 versus the Yankees. The Orioles actually pounded the Yankees' renowned pitching staff for a .273 average, 18 homers and 70 runs, but were undone by the world champs' offensive patience. They worked the Orioles for 60 walks, contributing to 142 base runners in 113 1/3 innings. More than half, 82, scored. Three of the losses came by one run.
"I don't look at it as if we should be trying to figure out why we're winning. I wonder why we didn't win last season," said outfielder Rich Amaral. "This team expects to win. With the talent we have, we should. Last year is the mystery in my mind."
In each of the past two seasons, the Orioles' travels to Yankee Stadium have exposed them. In 1998, Armando Benitez touched off an ugly brawl when he hit Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades, eliciting an apology from embarrassed manager Ray Miller and a decided lack of support from teammates. Arthur Rhodes responded last July 3 to his promotion from middle relief to closer by surrendering a game-ending home run, then ripping Miller afterward for placing him in an uncomfortable role.
The alleged rivalry between the Orioles and Yankees has become a decidedly one-sided affair. The Orioles have captured the season series only twice since 1982 and are 7-18 the past two seasons. While the Yankees were rallying to defeat the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night, the Orioles christened a sign-toting patron as Fan of the Game.
Never mind that the Orioles were playing the Anaheim Angels.
Never mind the sign insulted the Yankees as the Angels were winning a compelling 6-5 game.
While the Orioles flatter the Yankees with imitation -- it's the Orioles who use George Steinbrenner's hand-me-down spring training facility and time-worn owner-centric management style; and wasn't the grab for Albert Belle to keep him out of Yankees hands? -- the two-time defending world champions prefer to focus their antipathy to the north, where the Boston Red Sox fought them for the division title last season before losing a seething rematch in the American League Championship Series. The Orioles? Since Sept. 6 of the Orioles' wire-to-wire 1997 division title season, the Yankees have outplayed them by a staggering 67 1/2 games (not counting Thursday).
Though there are many differences between the two franchises, they do share some things in common beside exorbitant payrolls.
Mike Hargrove and Yankees manager Joe Torre have taken teams to the past five World Series. Like Torre, Hargrove has shown himself adept at handling a clubhouse full of veterans, but unlike Torre, Hargrove has yet to convert pockets of critics with a world championship.
No matter. In less than three months of exposure to what is acknowledged to be one of the toughest clubhouses in the game, Hargrove has impressed his players with his bluntness and understated discipline. He has chastised and levied fines, but done so outside of headlines. Though his abilities as a tactician may still be vague to some, his qualities as a leader are apparent.
"What's not to like?" said one player. "You want to play in this environment. For whatever reason, that wasn't here last year."
Neither was the Orioles' ability to overcome adversity within a game. Tuesday night, they righted themselves after blowing a 5-0 lead to win, 7-6, with a two-run, ninth-inning rally. None other than third baseman Cal Ripken likened the night's feel to the days of Oriole Magic. Often criticized for being baseball's oldest team, the Orioles do possess the kind of experience that should tell during adversity. So far under Hargrove, it has proven an asset.
"I don't think three games in May are going to make or break your season," Hargrove said. "I don't think you build this series as more important than any other. But if we sweep, get back to me."