The New York Yankees may be the three-time defending world champions and the Orioles may be an inexperienced club in the middle of a rebuilding phase, but that doesn't mean there is any less intensity to one of baseball's great East Coast rivalries.
Just ask Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who got himself thrown out of the series opener last night after a questionable play that helped the Yankees score a 7-5 victory before 40,218 at Camden Yards.
Hargrove was ejected by home plate umpire Charlie Reliford after Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano tagged up and scored the tie-breaking run in the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly by catcher Joe Oliver.
The Orioles felt Soriano left early from third base and threw back to the bag after he was safe on a close play at the plate. Reliford disagreed, which brought Hargrove out of the dugout for an argument that lasted just long enough for the umpire to treat the Orioles' manager to his second ejection of the season.
"Cal [Ripken] thought he left early, Brady [Anderson] thought he left early," Hargrove said. "That's the way we saw it, but the one person that needed to see it that way didn't see it that way.
"It was [Reliford's] call. Mechanically, they were in place to make the call. I disagreed with him and I still do, but it is his call."
Reliford declined to comment on the play.
It wasn't exactly Jeffrey Maier snatching a fly ball out of the glove of Tony Tarasco in the 1996 American League Championship Series, but it was a pivotal play in a game that probably was a lot more important to the self-esteem of a developing Orioles club than to the championship hopes of the playoff-bound Yankees.
And it was an emotional twist the Orioles didn't need. First baseman Jeff Conine had just provided one of the most uplifting moments of the young season when he launched a fifth-inning grand slam off Yankees starter Ted Lilly to bring the Orioles back from a four-run deficit and tie the game 5-5.
The Yankees would add a run in the seventh inning on a bases-loaded wild pitch by reliever Buddy Groom and improve to 16-13 with the victory. Now, they can trot out the big guns of their starting rotation - including former Orioles ace Mike Mussina - for the remainder of the series as they inch closer to their familiar perch atop the American League East standings.
"We wanted badly to win," said Orioles starter Chuck McElroy, whose place in the starting rotation remained in question after he surrendered five runs on six hits over five innings. "They are the world champions. I know a lot of people don't think we can compete with them, but we did. We couldn't have played any harder than we did tonight."
McElroy also could have complained about a few close pitch calls by the home plate umpire, but he held his tongue.
"There were some pitches that I thought were right there, but I'm not going to complain about the umpires," he said. "I don't do that. [The Yankees] put the ball in play like they needed to. The umpires were trying their best."
The Yankees returned to Baltimore for the first time since the retooled Orioles pulled off an unlikely three-game sweep here on the final weekend of last season. It didn't mean that much in the greater scheme of things - the Yankees went on to win their third straight World Series title - but it did give the new-look Orioles a mild credibility boost going into the off-season.
Seven months later, the Yankees remain the standard by which good teams are measured, so the Orioles are hoping for another confidence-building experience during the long weekend series.
"Everybody looks for measuring sticks," said Hargrove, "and the Yankees are a pretty good measuring stick. They are a very good team, and you want to see them [the Orioles] play well against them."
The Yankees are used to this kind of thing. They have been the team to beat since the start of a five-year dynasty that has included four world championships.
"I wouldn't say that teams try harder against us," said Yankees manager Joe Torre before the game, "but I think teams appreciate beating us more than beating other teams."
Camden Yards has never been a particularly forbidding place for the Yankees, who have lost a season series here only once (1995) since the ballpark opened for the 1992 season. They are 20-10 here over the past five seasons and won the deciding game of the American League Championship Series at Oriole Park in 1996 to reach their first World Series in 15 years.
The Orioles could only hope that decade of dominance ended with the uplifting three-game sweep in September, but the early innings of the series opener left room to wonder.
Second baseman Jerry Hairston put the Orioles in front with an RBI double in the second inning, but Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius answered with a two-run homer to put the Yankees in front 2-1 in the third.
The Yankees also got a run on a double by Tino Martinez in the fourth and built a four-run lead with run-scoring hits by Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams in the fifth. It looked very much like the Yankees of old vs. the old Orioles until Conine made a game of it again - for an inning - with his fourth career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth.
The Orioles had loaded the bases with no one out, but were in serious danger of coming up empty after Melvin Mora was called out on strikes and Mike Bordick fouled out to first, but Conine lined a 2-2 pitch over the center-field fence - his first slam since he hit one against the Chicago Cubs as a member of the Florida Marlins on April 3, 1997.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Pat Hentgen (1-3, 3.32) vs. Yankees' Roger Clemens (3-0, 4.35)