These O’s sound fa­mil­iar? You hear ’96

With pow­er­ful bats, patchy pitch­ing, team surged from sub-.500 record to play­offs

Baltimore Sun - - ORIOLES - By Childs Walker childs.walker@balt­ twit­­sWalker

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 Mike Dev­ereaux, left, cel­e­brates with Cal Rip­ken Jr. af­ter Rip­ken scored in the eighth in­ning of Game 2 of the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Se­ries on Oct. 2, 1996. (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.

The Ori­oles were one of six teams that scored more than 900 runs in 1996. Only three scored even 800 in 2016. And as bad as their ERA was, five other Amer­i­can League pitch­ing staffs did worse.

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 starstud­ded 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.

From that 1996 ros­ter, Alo­mar, Rip­ken and Ed­die Mur­ray all went on to Coop­ers- town. Mussina could join them some day, and Palmeiro would likely al­ready be in if not for his pos­i­tive test for per­for­manceen­hanc­ing drugs, the cloud that still hangs over ev­ery­thing from that time in base­ball.

De­spite all the tal­ent, the Ori­oles ap­peared dead in the wa­ter 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.

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 Sept. 6.

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.

They bore more of a re­sem­blance to the great Ori­oles teams of the past. The clob­ber­ing O’s of ’96 were, es­sen­tially, an en­ter­tain­ing one-off.

But in these days of Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Manny Machado club­bing base­balls over the wall at Cam­den Yards, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that no one did it bet­ter than the crew from 20 years ear­lier.


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