With the start of the 20th season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards just over a week away, I take a look back at the top 20 moments in the history of the ballpark. Selected moments had to relate directly to the action on the field at the time. No orchestrated events such as World Series anniversary celebrations or Orioles Hall of Fame inductions were eligible.
20. Wieters’ debut
19. Nomo tosses only no-hitter in Oriole Park history
18. Orioles rally from nine-run deficit against Boston
16. Showalter takes the helm
15. Palmeiro homers in Oriole debut
14. Griffey’s Warehouse shot
13. Sparring with Seattle
12. Davis defies the odds
11. Hoiles’ slam stuns Mariners
10. A season ends too soon – Oct. 15, 1997
Even 14 years later, it’s still hard to accept a light-hitting infielder ending such a marvelous season with one potent swing of the bat.
The Orioles had seized first place on Opening Day and never looked back for the entire 1997 season, winning their first division crown since 1983.
Their 98-64 record topped the American League and was a mere three games behind the Atlanta Braves for the best in baseball. Considering the Orioles had swept the Braves in Atlanta in their first ever interleague series back in June, Baltimore held a rightful claim as the best team in baseball entering the postseason.
But the Orioles somehow found themselves trailing the underdog Cleveland Indians 3-2 in the best-of-seven format as the teams traveled back to Baltimore for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. The Baltimore bats had fallen silent despite the struggles of reliever Armando Benitez costing the Orioles Game 2 and the failure of backup catcher Lenny Webster to simply catch a pitch in a 12-inning loss in Game 3 at Jacobs Field.
As 49,075 nervous fans filed into Camden Yards, the Orioles loved their chances with ace Mike Mussina taking the hill against Charles Nagy, a good starter but hardly the type to strike fear in the hearts of hitters. Mussina had been tremendous throughout the postseason, most recently striking out 15 Cleveland hitters in seven innings of the Game 3 defeat.
Mussina was once again brilliant, pitching eight shutout innings while striking out 10 and allowing just one Cleveland hit. On the other side, Nagy scattered nine hits and three walks over 7 1/3 innings, but the Orioles failed to scratch a single run across the plate to force a Game 7, leaving 14 men on base that afternoon.
The scoreless tie moved into the 11th inning as Benitez, the goat of the series despite a strong regular season, took the hill after closer Randy Myers had pitched two scoreless innings. After retiring the first two batters of the inning, Benitez threw a hanging slider that second baseman Tony Fernandez — who hit 94 career homers in 17 seasons — deposited into the auxiliary bleachers set up above the out-of-town scoreboard for the postseason.
A stunned Camden Yards watched Indians closer — and former Oriole — Jose Mesa fan Roberto Alomar looking for the third out in the bottom of the 11th, ending a season that appeared destined to finish with a championship. The Indians celebrated on the mound as the Orioles dejectedly watched a team that won 86 games during the regular season celebrate a trip to the World Series that they felt belonged to them.
Of course, the aftermath of that Game 6 loss only rubs salt into the losing wound. The Orioles haven’t returned to the playoffs since or even enjoyed the fruits of a winning season after the wiry Fernandez broke the hearts of Orioles fans.
What would have happened if the Orioles had prevailed over Cleveland and made it to the World Series? Would the Orioles have bested the Florida Marlins to win their first championship in 14 years?
Perhaps Davey Johnson would have remained as manager the next year and Pat Gillick as general manager after his contract expired in 1998.
Or, at the very least, maybe the sting of the last 13 seasons would have been lessened with a World Series title in 1997.
In truth, the organization’s problems had started long before that mid-October afternoon, but it’s excruciating to think what might have been had the Orioles broken through with a single run that afternoon.
It was a classic game and undoubtedly a memorable moment in the 20-year history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but it easily ranks at the top as the most painful.