The Most Disappointing Season For…The Baltimore Orioles
The 1998 Baltimore Orioles
Record: 79-83 (4th NL West, 8th out of 14 the AL)
Pythagorean Record: 84-78
Runs Scored: 817 (7th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 784 (7th in the NL)
Prior Season Record: 98-64
Manager: Ray Miller
Hype: They made two playoffs in a row, eliminated by Jeffrey Maier, er, the Yankees and the Indians. Ray Miller takes over as manager, but the cast is mostly the same.
The Gory Details: Third time’s the charm, right? GM Pat Gillick and owner Peter Angelos thought so. They brought back most of the same cast that went to the ALCS in 1997, less closer Randy Myers and part-timers Geronimo Berroa and Tony Tarasco. Eric Davis was around for the full season and they’d have Harold Baines for a full year as well.
The biggest acquisition was Joe Carter, who had 102 RBI for Toronto in 1997. (Of course, he had an OPS+ of 77 and a negative WAR, but RBI!). His acquisition pushed Jeffrey Hammonds to the fourth outfielder spot, where his versatility could help the O’s on defense.
Replacing Myers as closer was young stud Armando Benitez, who was probably their best high-leverage relief pitcher the year before, though he did get tagged with two losses in the Cleveland series during the post-season. Gillick signed old hand Norm Charlton for depth to go along with Alan Mills, Arthur Rhodes and Jesse Orosco. It was a good, deep pen behind Benitez.
The rotation seemed solid as ever. Anchored by Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson, Baltimore had good depth with 1997’s surprise Scott Kamieniecki, Jimmy Key and vet Doug Drabek, signed for one last try to find the magic again.
It was definitely a squad laced with vets. So much so that of the team they broke camp with, only Hammonds was under 30, at age 27. Roberto Alomar was 30, and established as a superstar (albeit one with a black mark after spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck). Rafael Palmeiro was a hitting machine, and Brady Anderson and BJ Surhoff were solid outfielders. Mike Bordick was a good shortstop and a steadying influence. Catcher again would be shared by Chris Hoiles and Lenny Webster, vets who can handle a staff.
Then there was the third baseman. Cal Ripken, Jr. He still was on his consecutive games played streak, though he’d give way to Jeff Reboulet in the late innings now and then. Everyone had the streak in the back of their mind with Ripken, but first things first, winning the AL Pennant.
Ray Miller replaced Davey Johnson as manager. Miller had an earlier, unsuccessful turn as the manager of the Twins when they were rebuilding in the 80’s. Miller was better known as a pitching coach, and in fact helped Drabek become one of the NL’s best starters while they were in Pittsburgh.
There’s nothing like an early seven-game winning streak to get the fans racing. The Orioles cruised through early season series with Kansas City and Detroit and sat 9-2 on April 12th. They won the first game of a home series against the White Sox, then lost the last two. On to Texas, and their veteran starting staff looked a bit wobbly in that new launching pad. Texas took two of three and the Orioles slid into a tie for first with the Red Sox.
The Orioles lost two of three at Anaheim to fall into third place. After their 10-2 start, they were now 12-8. But good news, eight of their next ten were at home!
Going 4-6 during that stretch was not in the plan.
What’s more, Anderson missed some time during that streak leaving center in either Hammonds’ or Davis’ hands.
What’s worse is that Drabek’s ERA was higher than a jet liner. Kamieniecki also had some soreness and couldn’t get out of the first inning against Oakland.
What was even worse worse worse is that Mussina had to miss a couple of turns.
Baltimore had to reach into their farm system and plucked out Doug Johns, Nerio Rodriguez, and the pride of Aruba, 21-year old Sidney Ponson.
In his second start, the youngster got rocked by the White Sox, but when the regular starters started to return, Ponson slipped into the bullpen. It was thought that Miller’s expertise with pitchers would help him more than another trip to Rochester.
May soon turned into a horror show. The Yankees were already threatening to run away with the division, and at 20-18 on May 13th they were already four games out of the wild card. That would become the least of their worries.
It started when Cleveland touched Mussina and Rhodes for five runs in a loss. Then the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays came to town and SWEPT the Orioles in a four game series. Oh, the humanity.
Then it was on to New York. The Yankees were 28-9. Baltimore had slipped behind the Devil Rays in the standings. It didn’t work out so well. New York beat up on Ponson, Charlton and Key during the first two games. It was so bad that Baltimore had to dig up Bobby Munoz from whatever watery grave he was buried in and have him mop up a few times.
Yeah, it was a three game sweep. The O’s then flew to Oakland and lost game one of the series before finally they broke the nine-game losing streak.
At the end of May, the Orioles were trying to hang on for dear life. Saddled in fourth place at 25-30, their starting staff was spewing oil. Drabek was horrible. Kamieniecki was hurt AND horrible. Key went on the DL after that bad start in New York. They finally shut Kamieniecki down for a while. Remember kids, if it hurts when you do that – DON’T DO THAT.
Meanwhile, on the other half of the diamond, Miller was calm for the most part. Besides rotating catchers and giving players the occasional day off, everything was set except for right field and DH, where Davis, Carter, Baines and Hammonds were on-again, off-again (Baines only DH’d, of course). Miller stuck with Alomar, Ripken (of course) and others when they were slumping.
June came and the game plan was to get back to .500 first and foremost, then start to make up ground for the wild card. Due to the injuries, the O’s brought in former Brave Pete Smith to the fold. He didn’t help. The starters were still in disarray.
They did get two games under .500 on a couple of occasions, the last being June 22nd. They then lost three to the Mets, three to the Expos, and two to the “We’ve given up” Marlins.
That was it, everyone thought. By July 5th they were 38-50 and an incredible 26 ½ games out of first place, and 15 ½ out of the wildcard. Was it time to swap some of the vets for youngsters?
Nah. See, the Orioles thought they had a good farm system as well. They may as well ride it out. Besides, the pitchers will be healthy soon enough. I think this was all in Angelos’ head, but I’m no mind reader.
Wonders of all wonders, the left-for-dead Orioles went on a tear. The All-Star break ended on July 9th, and they swept series against Boston, Toronto and Texas. Balls were scalded by the offense. Pitchers were throwing strikes and winning games. They won nine in a row, lost one, then won the next five including two walk-offs against Mike Fetters of the A’s.
After July 24th’s win over Seattle, the O’s were 52-51! Over .500. Just seven games out of the wildcard. They had a chance, an outside chance, but a chance. It was odd, though – on the 23rd the O’s sent Joe Carter packing to the Giants for a minor leaguer. Did they signal they were giving up right when things were turning around?
Not really. No other moves were made by the waiver deadline except for releasing Charlton and trading Rodriguez to Toronto for Juan Guzman. That was it – the O’s were standing Pat.
After slipping under .500, the Orioles won eight of the next ten and kept winning. They won despite trading Hammonds to Cincinnati for Willie Greene, which meant that Davis, always fragile, would play every day. He was having a monster year, but there was always the chance he could be hurt.
It was August 19th, the Orioles were 68-58. The bad news is that they were still seven games out of the wild card. Still, there was a chance; there’s always a chance when you’re playing as well as they were.
It was an illusion. The rotation crumbled, again. The starters took losses in nine games in a row in late August and early September. After their 10th loss in a row, they were under .500 again and 31 games behind the Yankees.
Another winning streak got them to 77-72, but they were in 4th place now. After that, they went just 2-11 for the rest of the year, playing out the string with kids, geezers and never weres.
The only other big news occurred on September 20th. When the Orioles took the field against the Yankees at Camden Yards, Ripken didn’t trot out to third base. In his stead was rookie Ryan Minor, who threw his lot in baseball instead of joining the NBA after a successful college hoops career. Ripken had played in 2,632 straight games. Minor played in one, then Ripken took his spot again the rest of the season.
Miller did the best he could with a rotation that was mostly hurt or horrible, or both. Mussina and Erickson did quality work, as did Guzman in his 11 starts. Key was hurt, then went to the pen to better baby his arm. Ponson pitched like a rookie from Aruba. Kamieniecki never got back to anything resembling 1997. Drabek and Smith were just bad.
That staff ruined a great comeback season for Eric Davis. Miller spotted his time well, and he slugged over. 500 and had an OPS+ of 151. Palmeiro was his usual steady self, smacking 44 dingers. Only Ripken was problematic, hitting like a shortstop instead of a third baseman. Alomar also was in and out of slumps, and basically was a league average offensive player.
In the end, the staff did them in, what Miller was an expert at.
The Orioles blamed Gillick for his lack of moves (but frankly, they had no one they could really move since they were old and expensive) and fired him after the season. Frank Wren was hired, and he remade the team. He let Alomar, Davis and Palmeiro go as free agents, and signed Albert Belle, Will Clark and Delino Deshields. The team was just as old and on the decline and injury prone; the starting pitching improved, but the bullpen stunk. They finished 78-84 in 1999 and didn’t see .500 again until 2012. Wren was fired at the end of the year.
By standing pat, and keeping the old gang together, the Orioles overlooked their age and their weaknesses. The fragility of their pitching staff haunted them, and they spent the next several years in a continual rebuilding mode.
Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Palmeiro had a WAR of 6.2, so of course he was let go in free agency after the year and replaced by an old player with lesser skills. It was the Oriole way then.
Honorable Mention Team: The 1983 Orioles won the World Series under Joe Altobelli. In 1984, they were swamped under by the insanely hot Detroit Tigers and limped home in fifth place, despite Ripken’s incredible 10.0 WAR season and Eddie Murray’s OPS+ of 157. Baltimore kept running out some old vets like Ken Singleton and Al Bumbry who were past their prime, and that undermined their offense.
Bad Blast from the Past: The Orioles used to reside in St. Louis as the Browns, and the Browns were perennially disappointing (or worse). In 1922, Lee Fohl led them to a 93-61 record behind George Sisler’s .420 average and a pitching staff that had an ERA+ of 123. The next year, they were under. 500. The staff declined a bit. Runs were hard to come by. Fohl was fired. But it wasn’t Fohl’s fault that Sisler had a severe case of sinusitis and was seeing double. Sisler missed the season to be replaced by 32-year old rookie Dutch Schleibner, who hit 150 some-odd points less than Sisler.