Written by Frobby
With last night's win, the 2012 Orioles have now won 89 games, surpassing the 88-74 mark of the 1996 Orioles team that won the wild card and an ALDS series with Cleveland before falling to the Yankees in the ALCS.
The '96 team came into the season with pretty high hopes, having hired a new GM, Pat Gillick, a new manager, Davey Johnson, and having signed perennial All Star/Gold Glove 2B Roberto Alomar, veteran 3B B.J. Surhoff, and closer Randall K. Myers, among others. The team had finished a disappointing 71-73 under rookie manager Phil Regan in the strike-shortened 1995 season, after three winning campaigns under Johnny Oates, and optimism was high that Gillick and Johnson would turn things around. They did not disappoint.
The season began auspiciously, as the Birds won their first four in a row, and nine of their first 10. But the team floundered around after that, staying over .500 but never again reaching eight games over .500 until 39-31. From then, though, the team again began to flounder again, falling below .500 for the first time on July 26, at 50-51, then splitting their next two games to be at 51-52, the last time they would be under .500.
From there on, the Orioles turned it on, winning 13 of their next 17 games, then coasting until early September, and then winning 8 of 9 to reach 82-67, cruising in from there to finish 88-74. The O's won the ALDS over Cleveland, 3 games to 1, but lost in the ALCS to the hated Yankees, 4 games to 1, losing the first game when Jeffrey Maier reached over and caught a fly ball that seemed destined to land in Tony Tarasco's glove, but the umpires ruled it a home run. But let's not dwell on that!
1996 was one of the most prolific offensive years in the history of baseball. The league averaged 5.39 runs per game, the highest since 1936. The O's hit a then-major league record 257 home runs, and featured 7 players with 20 or more homers, including Brady Anderson, who hit 50 and Rafael Palmeiro, who hit 39. Palmeiro, with 142 RBI, led an offense that had four 100-RBI bats in the lineup (Bonilla 116, Anderson 110, Ripken 102). Seven starters had an .800+ OPS, led by Anderson's 1.034, Alomar's .938 and Palmeiro's .927. Chris Hoiles, Bonilla, Ripken and Surhoff also were over .800.
As if this firepower weren't enough, the O's brought Eddie Murray back to the team in late July. Eddie had been having a miserable season for Cleveland, but returning to Baltimore rejuvenated him. He hit 10 homers in 64 games, including the 500th of his career on September 6, 1996, the one-year anniversary of Cal's breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record. He finished with 79 RBI, marking the major league record 20th consecutive season in which he had 75 RBI or more.
The pitching staff had a dismal ERA of 5.14, which once again has to be viewed in context -- the O's actually ranked 8th in the AL with that ERA! Mike Mussina won 19 games with a 4.81 ERA, Scott Erickson won 13 with a 5.02, and David Wells won 11 with a 5.14. All three threw at least 34 starts and 222 IP. Randy Myers saved 31 games, many of them in cliff-hanging fashion, as he posted a so-so 3.53 ERA.
It was the first time the Orioles made the post-season in 13 years. Most fans thought that 13-year period was as bad as things could get. They were about to find out otherwise, beginning a scant two years later.
Although 1996 was the most exciting season in years for Orioles fans, there were three episodes that marred the season and perhaps foreshadowed the troubles to come:
- GM Pat Gillick, who had wanted to trade Bobby Bonilla before the July trade deadline when the O's were struggling, had his trade vetoed by Peter Angelos. When the O's got hot in August and went on to make the playoffs, the press largely lionized Angelos for preventing Gillick from giving up on the season. This emboldened Angelos to interefere in baseball decisions on a regular basis, and led to Gillick walking away from the Orioles in 1998 when his contract expired. The interference didn't stop when Gillick departed.
- On September 27, Roberto Alomar spat in the face of umpire John Hirshbeck, embarassing Orioles fans everywhere and leading to a five-game suspension that was postponed into the 1997 season. A year later, Alomar got into a dispute with Davey Johnson over missing an exhibition game with the Rochester Red Wings, and Angelos' support of Alomar in that dispute ultimately led to Johnson's leaving the team.
- That winter, Angelos did not renew the contract of fabulous play-by-play announcer Jon Miller, apparently on the grounds that Miller "should bleed more orange and black."
In 1996, though, most fans didn't see the trend in what was starting to happen, and were happy that Angelos had brought playoff baseball back to Baltimore.
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