Monday, March 26, 2007

September 19, 1998, Beginning of the End

Pop quiz hot shot - what famous date is that?

I'll wait..........................................................................................................................................

The Orioles were playing the Yankees, Doug Johns was pitching. Ray Miller was manager but there was one more familiar face in the bullpen. Cal Ripken, he ended the streak that night.

I bring this up because that was a very symbolic day in recent Orioles history.

We just came off the wire-to-wire year in '97 and people were primed to make another run. We picked "volatile" slugger Albert Belle and we led the league in spending, with a payroll of about 78 million dollars. We are the only team to outspend the Yankees in the last 10 years.

We lost the opener in 1998. I remember the next day listening to Tom Davis on the old Rouse and Company morning show, BTW Tom Davis is a great guy, and he was trying to calm the stressing Orioles fan down. It was just one game.

The maddening season that would follow would prove the worriers right. It was a season that would set up the seemingly endless decline and heartache that would follow. It somehow seemed fitting that Ripken would end it then.

September, 18th. It started as just any other game, no one knew what was going on. The Orioles were long out of it. Pat Gillick had announced he was not coming back. Peter was angry at the lack of production from his sizable investments. We trotted out prospects like Calvin Pickering, whom we all thought to be the future then. Lenny Webster was catching. But a surprise. Lineups were announced and Ryan Minor had taken Cal's place on the field.

The night took on a historic glow as people there were treated to unplanned history. But in retrospect it was more symbolic as to what would happen to the Orioles over the next 9 years. I'm sitting here typing this with it playing on MASN behind me. Yankees fans are in full voice, they were heading to the post season, we were not. It seems fitting that somehow they are using the MSG feed to present this. At the end of the season Palmeiro, Alomar, Davis would not return. Mussina would be gone the following year. Scott Erickson and Albert Belle would be hit with what would become career ending injuries. And attempts to rebuild would reveal the true shallowness of the neglected farm system.

Dark times indeed.

Ripken choosing that night to sit it signaled the end of an era in Baltimore baseball and something new and uncertain. Just now the announcers were discussing "who would play third next year?" Without the rock of Ripken it seems like the team's identity was shaken to its core. We no-longer had our superman to rely on.

Now, 9 years later. The Orioles are faced with more uncertainty. We certainly do not have the highest payroll in the game anymore as the top teams in the league have seen their salaries reach the low stratosphere. We worry about the pitching staff as everything is riding on that. And we sit faced with the reality that no matter what we do it may not be enough to take down the titans in our backyard and we will have to hear another summer of "the Yankee mystique" and watch ESPN try to wash the salty taste out of their mouths after yet another Matsuzaka piece.

But for the first time, in a long time, there is hope. REAL hope. The Orioles have some of the best looking young starters in the bigs. The trio of Markakis, Tejada and Huff in the middle of the order should be a real pleasure to watch this year. The Yankees are having a ton of problems with their rotation right now and the Sox, well am I the only one that wants to see Matsuzaka get LIT UP in April. Seriously, it won't happen, but MAN that would be great.

All the Orioles can do is take care of their own business and win ballgames. That has been something that the Orioles have had trouble doing since Ripken ended the streak, but this year THIS YEAR, it can happen.

And honestly, truly honestly, I think it will.

Its time to exorcise the demons guys.

The season starts in 7 days. The countdown begins.


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