Jay Gibbons and the 2000s Orioles

By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun When the playoff-starved Orioles made the postseason in 2012, Jay Gibbons traveled 3,000 miles to sit in the bleachers at Camden Yards and cheer for a team that had bottomed out during his time here. "It was amazing. I shot video of the crowd the whole time," Gibbons said of the Orioles' 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. "It made me a little jealous, too. I thought, 'Man, how much fun would it have been to play like this with these fans behind us?' " A slugging outfielder, Gibbons spent seven years in Baltimore (2001-2007) during a dismal decade in which the Orioles' fortunes plummeted -- and crowds followed suit: 10 losing seasons, four managers, a carousel of middling players and as many empty seats. Home attendance fell from nearly 3.3 million to 1.9 million. "Losing drained the fans as well," Gibbons said. "One night, we came out and people had paper bags over their heads. That didn't help our psyche -- not that we didn't deserve it." Seven times, the Orioles lost at least 90 games. Four times, they finished at least 30 games off the lead. The staff was a sieve. The club trotted out 121 pitchers in the decade, more than in the 1960s and 1970s combined (117). Players came and went and, sometimes, came back again. In 2001, Gibbons' first season, the Orioles used 18 rookies -- a club record -- and tried 139 different lineups (excluding pitchers), to no avail. They lost 98 games. "I had a lot of teammates, especially late in the year, when we always fell apart," said Gibbons, the Most Valuable Oriole in 2003, when he led the team in RBIs, runs and doubles. "Sadly, on my way down through the minor leagues, I'd meet guys who said we'd played together with the Orioles. I said, 'When, in spring training?' And they said, 'No, in September.' And I said, 'Sorry, there were just so many of you.' " Why the Orioles' lengthy funk? Let Gibbons count the ways. "We were a team in transition, looking for an identity," he said. "In 2001, Cal Ripken -- the ambassador of baseball and the face of the Orioles -- retired, and after all of the goodbyes, we thought, 'Where do we go from here?' After that, it was a struggle to make a name for ourselves." Front-office turnover didn't help. "With four general managers in that decade, we lacked stability," Gibbons said. "There were injuries, myself included. Plus, [the American League East] was a really tough division." The years of futility wore on players, he said. "Even in spring training, you'd hear guys saying, 'Man, this will be tough.' But others would say, 'Maybe I'll have a career year this year.' We tried to stay positive," Gibbons said. "There were a couple of years where we felt we were on the brink, but then we'd fade. In the end, we just came up short, talent-wise, and most of the time, talent will prevail." The 2002 season ended on a 12-game losing streak. The 2007 team dropped 28 of its last 39 games, including a 30-3 rout by the Texas Rangers. The Orioles, long known for their strength down the stretch, now wilted at the first breath of autumn. The 2005 Orioles were 14 games over .500 on June 21 but finished 14 games under as the bullpen lost 27 games, worst in the AL. "Nothing we did [in August and September] seemed to work," Gibbons said. "A lot of clubs we played were shooting for the playoffs while we just tried to stay afloat. It was frustrating, in Boston, to look up at the scoreboard on the big Green Monster in left field and see the standings showing the Orioles were 27 1/2 games out. "I'm not saying the guys gave up, but fighting for first place is a lot easier than fighting to stay out of last." Through it all, Gibbons said, he stayed upbeat on the field and off. "I'd go to Safeway after a game and fans would vent to me," he said. "I'd be buying milk and they'd say, 'What happened tonight?' I loved that face-to-face interaction, and I miss those times." He hit .260 with 121 home runs and 405 RBIs in 779 games before being released in March 2008. Several months earlier, Gibbons had admitted to having used human growth hormone and been slapped with a 15-game suspension -- an early culprit of baseball's toughened anti-steroid policy. (Fellow Orioles Rafael Palmeiro, Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts were also among those linked to performance-enhancing drugs in the decade.) "I blame myself," Gibbons said. "It was the steroid era, and I made my own bed. My goal [in 2008] was to prove that I could turn things around, that I could make things right, but [management said it] had to let me go." The Orioles kept losing and finished a forgettable decade with consecutive last-place finishes. Then things got better, as Gibbons knew they would. "Some teams can turn it around in a couple of years," he said. "Baltimore just took longer." mike.klingaman@baltsun.com For year-by-year capsules from the 2000s, click here.
Al Seib, Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad