Baltimore Sun's sports columnist Peter Schmuck on the Orioles rises to the playoffs. He talks about the one game playoff with the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Baltimore Sun video)
It was the height of what would come to be known as baseball's steroid era. Camden Yards was just four years old and one of the hottest attractions in sports. Peter Angelos was an outspoken, free-spending owner widely admired for bringing the Orioles back to competitive relevance.
When reliving seasons from Baltimore baseball history, 1996 tends to get short shrift. Twenty years have flattened fans' memories of those Orioles to a passel of home runs and an ill-timed catch by a 12-year-old boy in the stands at Yankee Stadium.
But if looking for historical antecedents to the 2016 Orioles, the 1996 team is a pretty good choice. Though it was built differently, with big-ticket free agents and trade acquisitions in a number of key roles, that team also bludgeoned its way to victory despite a suspect pitching staff. It was also led by a charismatic manager, Davey Johnson, who was as popular as many of his players. It also frustrated fans with long patches of subpar play.
The 1996 Orioles actually fell below .500 in late July, prompting many fans and writers to suggest that Angelos sell off some of his high-priced stars and essentially start over. But he stubbornly refused to fold, and the team rewarded his faith by snaring a wild-card spot — a route to the playoffs that hadn't even existed before 1994 — with strong play in August and September.
The Orioles were a legitimate offensive juggernaut, scoring 949 runs, almost 100 more than any other team in club history. They had to be, because the pitching staff posted a 5.14 ERA.
That wasn't anticipated. Mike Mussina was a legitimate No. 1 starter, and trade acquisitions David Wells and Scott Erickson seemed to round out a solid rotation. But none of them were very good in 1996, not even Mussina, whose 19 wins obscured a 4.81 ERA. And let's not even get started on control-challenged top prospect Rocky Coppinger or on the 8.29 ERA of fellow touted rookie Jimmy Haynes.
Yes, those Orioles needed every one of Brady Anderson's startling 50 home runs (previous career high: 21) and Rafael Palmeiro's 142 RBIs.
They scored 10 or more runs 30 times (the 2016 Orioles did it 14 times), but they also got beat 26-7 one April night in Texas.
Some of that was simply the era. Though Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's pursuit of Roger Maris lay two years in the future, baseball was already buried beneath an avalanche of runs produced by players with increasingly cartoonish physiques.
It was one of a few periods in baseball history when offense truly transcended pitching, and the Orioles were in the vanguard.
The Baltimore lineup was as star-studded as any in team history. Seven players hit 20 or more home runs and none of the totals, other than Anderson's 50, were flukes. Six regulars finished their careers with at least 200 home runs and another, B.J. Surhoff, just missed.
And they weren't just brutes. Among the players who amassed at least 400 at-bats, Cal Ripken Jr.'s on-base percentage of .341 was the lowest. That number would've been the second highest among the full-time starters on this year's team.
Though the 2016 Orioles chased the 1996 club's franchise record of 257 home runs, they ended up scoring 205 fewer runs because they didn't put nearly as many men on base.
This year's lineup simply does not have a table-setter akin to Anderson or the best player on that team, second baseman Roberto Alomar.
The Orioles had signed Alomar to a three-year, $18 million contract in the offseason, and he was sensational from the moment he pulled on an orange-and-black uniform. In fact, it's hard to find a better all-around player in the history of the franchise than the 1996 version of Alomar. He batted .328 with a .411 on-base percentage, 69 extra-base hits and 132 runs scored, all career bests to that point for the future Hall of Famer. He also won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove.
Ken Rosenthal, who wrote about that team for The Baltimore Sun and has gone on to cover great players over several generations, has said Alomar at his best was the best player he ever saw.
Despite all the talent, the Orioles appeared dead in the water on July 28, 1996. They lost to the powerful Cleveland Indians in 13 innings that day to fall to 51-52, 12 games out of first place in the AL East.
Highly respected general manager Pat Gillick thought it was time to trade Bobby Bonilla and Wells, big-name veterans who were headed for free agency in the offseason. But Angelos overruled several deals Gillick lined up, setting a precedent that would haunt the club's reputation in the bleak years to come. Angelos said he did not want to cheat the 3.65 million people who attended games at Camden Yards that season.
The Orioles went 37-22 the rest of the way to make the playoffs for the first time since they'd won the World Series in 1983. Murray, who was also in one of Gillick's nixed trades, hit his 500th career home run on Sept. 6. It was a joyous late-career moment for a star whose initial run with the Orioles had ended bitterly.
Once they'd clinched the wild card, the Orioles beat the Indians — probably the best team in the American League — in a tense, four-game series. That set up a showdown with the AL East champion New York Yankees, also angling for a return to the World Series after more than a decade away.
Orioles fans will forever remember Jeffrey Maier catching Derek Jeter's home run over the head of a disbelieving Tony Tarasco in Game 1 — the great obstruction that wasn't. The Orioles won the next day so it's tantalizing to think what might have happened if they had gone up 2-0 in the series. But they had chances to win Game 1 even after Maier's catch, and they subsequently lost three in a row at Camden Yards. So perhaps it was never meant to be.
The Orioles were different in 1997, less powerful on offense but better on the mound, in the field and in the standings.