Twenty years ago, on Opening Day, the Orioles were a mess.
Staff ace Mike Mussina sat out with a calcium deposit in his right elbow. Outfielder Brady Anderson, coming off a 50-home-run season, nursed a cracked rib. And All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar faced a five-game suspension for having spat on umpire John Hirschbeck the previous September.
One day earlier, the disabled list had claimed sore-armed right-hander Rocky Coppinger, the No. 4 starter. And for the 46,588 fans who hunkered down at Camden Yards on that cold and windy day, the left side of the infield appeared terribly out of sync. For the first time in 15 years, Cal Ripken Jr. wasn't the starting shortstop, having moved to third base.
This was the team that would lead its division from first day to last?
The 1997 Orioles (98-64) were just the sixth club in big league history to go wire-to-wire — a melange of millionaires and journeymen, of characters and coming Hall of Famers. Come October, they handled the Seattle Mariners, but dropped the American League Championship Series to the Cleveland Indians, four games to two. Each loss was by one run.
Who knew, after this near-miss, that the Orioles wouldn't make the playoffs — or even break .500 — for another 15 years? As time passed, and the losses mounted, the summer of '97 almost seemed more fantasy than fact.
But Johnson was gone at season's end. The Orioles had also lost the ALCS in 1996, fraying the manager's tenuous relationship with owner Peter Angelos, whose mantra was "World Series or bust."
In 1998, all of the starters returned, "but we didn't play well," Ripken said. "Then we went into a major rebuilding mode."
And a 14-year tailspin. But all of that seemed far-fetched on April 2, 1997, despite the challenges of the day.
If the Orioles were shaky that afternoon, it didn't show. Two hours before the game, Ripken signed a two-year, $15.1 million extension and quickly got to work — three hits, including a home run, in a 4-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. Ribs taped, Anderson went 3-for-4. Outfielder Eric Davis, one of a slew of pivotal free-agent pickups, knocked in the decisive run while another, left-hander Jimmy Key, got the win.
First place was theirs, for keeps. The Orioles went 16-7 in April and 20-8 in May to go 81/2 games up in the AL East. Pitching built the buffer. Key won his first eight decisions and Scott Erickson won eight of his first nine, as did Mussina, who on May 3 signed a three-year pact worth $21 million.
Sticking around wasn't a tough call, said the 28-year-old right-hander, whom fans called Moose — with 10 ooohs.
"I wanted to play here. These guys wanted me to play here. So I'm going to stay," Mussina said then. That same month, he came within a whisker (two outs) of pitching a perfect game in a 3-0 win over the Indians.
In hindsight, he called the 1997 team the best in his 10 years in Baltimore.
"We had quality players, interesting personalities and some great acquisitions," Mussina said. "That was a fun six months of baseball. I can't believe it's been 20 years."
A 38-15 start matched the best in team history. The Orioles threw 10 shutouts versus one in 1996. Their 52 road wins (against 29 losses) set a club record. And the clubhouse fairly rocked the day trumpeter Chuck Mangione serenaded the players with the song "Feels So Good."
There were rough times as well. Davis contracted colon cancer and had surgery in June. Two months later, longtime public address announcer Rex Barney died.
On Sept. 3, the Orioles got a scare when, during a road game against the Florida Marlins, part of their dugout roof collapsed, scattering players. And on Oct. 12, a plane crash claimed singer John Denver, who three weeks earlier had performed "Thank God I'm A Country Boy," the club's signature seventh-inning-stretch song, while dancing atop the Orioles dugout at Camden Yards.
All summer, an ax hung over the manager's head. In midseason, Johnson openly pondered his fate, should the Orioles not run the table.
"Basically, I've got a three-year contract," he said, "but I feel that we've gotta do it in two."
Why not? By June 4, the Orioles were on track to win 116 games.
Fans took note, streaming into Camden Yards at a club-record clip (3,711,132). In May, two midweek wins over the lowly Detroit Tigers drew a combined 95,880 at Camden Yards. Randy Myers, the Orioles' eccentric closer, saved both games.
The Orioles had had daffy relievers before, but none of Myers' ilk. He arrived at the ballpark wearing fatigues, read Soldier of Fortune magazines in the bullpen, and when summoned, entered the game doing "a ritual jog that seems a cross between hopscotch and stomping grapes," The Sun reported.
"Randy certainly kept the clubhouse loose," said Ray Miller, 71. Then the Orioles pitching coach, Miller recalled the time President Bill Clinton was to visit and Secret Service agents arrived beforehand to scout the clubhouse.
"Their dogs stopped at Myers' locker and yelped and all of his stuff was dragged out — fake grenade, stun gun, hunting knife and even a bear trap," Miller said. "When someone asked what the trap was for, Randy said, 'Somebody's been stealing my cigarettes and I'm going to find out who.'"
This was the guy who would save 45 games in 46 chances, finish with a 1.51 ERA and earn the team's Most Valuable Player award?
"Randy was unbelievable," shortstop Mike Bordick said. "We had monsters in the bullpen — Armando [Benitez] could throw 100 mph — and quality vets in the lineup. I felt like, hands down, we were the best team in baseball and that we would win the World Series."
Another offseason addition, Bordick replaced Ripken, who'd shifted to third. Good thing. In June, the Iron Man suffered a herniated disk in his back, limiting his mobility and sending fiery jolts down his legs.
"There were times on the field when I thought, 'I can't do this,'" Ripken said. "I could envision myself walking straight from my position at third, past the catcher, through the little door that the umpires use and up the tunnel" to the clubhouse.
Beg off, Ripken did not. He insists it wasn't because of The Streak, his record string of consecutive games played, which would end a year later at 2,632.
"I kept going because I wanted to play for a winner, to be part of that team and contribute," he said. "That was my incentive; that's why I pushed through."
Likewise, the pennant drive fueled Davis' return. The AL's leading hitter on May 6 (.388), he underwent surgery a month later to have one-third of his colon removed. In September, while still on chemotherapy, Davis returned to the lineup to heartfelt applause. More than 41,000 at Camden Yards cheered for two minutes as he stepped to the plate, or tried to, in the first inning against the Indians.
"I wanted to get into the batter's box, but the fans wouldn't let me," said Davis, 54. Three times, he tipped his cap and blew kisses to the crowd.
"Then I looked over and saw both teams outside their dugouts and thought, 'Whoa.' It brought a lump to my throat."
He flied deep to right-center field, advancing to third base a runner who would score the first run in a 6-5 victory that clinched a playoff spot for the Orioles. Twelve days later — and 24 hours after undergoing chemotherapy treatment — Davis got four hits, including a home run, in a win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Teammates wore Davis' number on their helmets that season.
"Eric rubbed off on everyone. He was an inspiration to us all," said Bordick, 51.
Still, the Orioles struggled down down the stretch, losing 20 of their last 35 and watching a 91/2-game lead on Sept. 6 melt to two.
Despite their AL-best record and first division title in 14 years, they were underdogs in the Division Series against the homer-happy Seattle Mariners, who had bashed 264 that season, breaking the major league mark set by the Orioles a year before.
Mussina bagged them — twice — as Baltimore took the series, three games to one.
"That was fun," said Mussina, who bested Randy Johnson (20-4), one of the game's most dominant pitchers, both times. It irked the Orioles, Mussina said, "to start the postseason on the road after going wire-to-wire. Everyone was fired up."
None more than Mussina, who in 14 innings that series allowed seven hits, three runs and struck out 16. He won the opener, 9-3, as Ripken had three hits and Davis added a two-run single.
"I'm just blessed to put my uniform on," Davis said afterward.
Four days later, before a sellout crowd at Camden Yards, Mussina did it again, dispatching Seattle, 3-1, with help from Benitez and Myers. Fans whooped, the scoreboard flashed "WOW" and the Oriole Bird danced derisively atop the Mariners' dugout. In the clubhouse, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro (38 home runs) sprayed his manager with champagne while Mussina answered questions with homespun eloquence.
"Shoot, it was 80-something degrees out there in October," he told reporters. "It was a nice day to pitch."
Amid the din, a giddy Angelos declared that Johnson's job was safe.
"He's got another year on his contract," the owner said. "There's no reason to believe the Orioles will dismiss him."
A World Series berth was theirs, should they oust the Indians, who had the fewest victories (86) of any AL playoff team.
Game 1 turned in the first inning when Anderson scaled the center-field wall to rob Manny Ramirez of a home run, then hit one out himself to lead off the home half. Erickson stifled the Indians and the Orioles won, 3-0.
"First-pitch curveball," Anderson, 53, said of his wallop, one of three homers he hit while batting .357 that postseason. "My whole career is kind of a blur, but my at-bats in those [playoff] games are crystal clear in my head. That was the best time of my life."
Not so, for the Orioles. Cleveland won four of the next five games and moved on.
What happened? The bullpen broke down. Benitez, who had only two blown saves in 74 appearances in the regular season and ALDS, surrendered three game-winning hits. Clutch hitting failed. In one game, the Orioles went 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Mussina was brilliant (15 innings, one earned run, 25 strikeouts), but got nary a run of support.
"He was awesome, but we couldn't score for him," Miller said. "Everyone wanted to kill themselves because Mike was pitching his heart out."
In Game 3, Mussina struck out 15 but was gone when the Indians won, 2-1, in 12 innings. The winning run scored when a pitch got away from Orioles catcher Lenny Webster on a failed suicide squeeze. The Orioles argued it was a foul tip, but Hirschbeck, the umpire, stood fast.
"Somebody's messing with fate," Johnson muttered afterward.
Twenty years later, that call still rankles players.
"I call it a foul ball-slash-passed ball," Ripken said. "The instant replay would have helped."
On Nov. 5, the same day he was named AL Manager of the Year, Johnson resigned. Angelos confirmed he would have fired him otherwise.
"This chapter is over," the Orioles' owner said. "I wish him well."
Six days later, Miller became manager, one of seven the team would have in the next 15 years. It would take the Orioles that long to win again — lean times that cast 1997 in an even better light.
"People think you're a total failure if you don't win it all, but that's not true," Ripken said. "We accomplished a lot and we overcame a lot. We were a World Series-caliber team — and, one could argue, the best in baseball that year."