A palpable feeling of nervous anticipation buzzed through the sellout crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards as Adam Jones stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 8th inning on September 6. The night marked the 17th anniversary since Cal Ripken Jr.'s breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, and the Orioles had planned since the preseason to unveil Cal's statue on Legends Plaza, and give away replica statues, to commemorate the occasion. Even in March, you could have guessed there'd be a sellout crowd on that night, but would you have guessed that crowd would be cheering on a team that would, with a victory, climb into a tie for first place in the American League East?
Adding to all the night's excitement is the fact that the game was against the New York Yankees. Excitement built as the Orioles staked themselves to a 6-1 lead, in part thanks to home runs by Matt Wieters, Robert Andino and Mark Reynolds. They held this lead until the 8th inning, when Pedro Strop came on in relief with two outs, two men on base and a 6-2 cushion. Two hits, two walks and a passed ball later - a futile stretch of batters that prompted one veteran Baltimore sportswriter to exclaim in exasperation, "What the f--- is he doing out there?" as he highlighted the whole of his game story and deleted it - the score was tied. The familiar sense of doom crept in for the fans who had seen it all before.
But we had all seen enough to know by then that something special could happen at any time in that magical 2012 season. So Jones, who had put the team on his back so many times before, came up to bat against crack Yankees 8th inning reliever David Robertson, sporting a 2.22 ERA and striking out over a batter per inning. To make matters worse, Robertson opened up by getting Jones into a 1-2 count. Your head, accustomed to the last 14 years of Orioles baseball, waited for the strikeout. Your heart had no idea what it waited for. Jones waited for his pitch.
Baseball's greatest moments are awe-inspiring in their sudden beauty (if you're on the right end of them) or terror (if you're not). Five seconds before Robertson threw that pitch, no one in that stadium had any idea they were about to witness anything special. Five seconds after Robertson threw the pitch, it landed 422 feet away and the crowd erupted like nothing I have ever heard at Camden Yards before or since. It was a monster home run that would have gone out of the yard in all 30 stadiums in MLB, giving the Orioles a 7-6 lead. It was fourteen years of pent-up frustration unleashed.
They would end the night tied for first place in the division after a 10-6 victory - the other runs scoring on a pair of home runs that would have gone out in merely 24 and 18 parks.
The ESPN Home Run Tracker is a neat little tool that tells you all that you could ever want to know about every home run hit in MLB since 2006, including video links to nearly every home run. You can search home runs by hitter, pitcher, ballpark, and distance, and can sort including things like speed off the bat, horizontal and vertical angle, and height of the apex. Jones' shot off Robertson was 104 feet off the ground at its highest point.
True monster shots are comparatively rare, unless you're talking about Giancarlo Stanton, who hit six home runs of 450+ feet in the 2012 season, including the longest, this 494 foot shot in the Rocky Mountains. The Orioles aren't quite on that level, with the longest O's home run belonging to Jones at 452 feet. (The home run was still plenty impressive to Jim Palmer.)
However, the O's are no slouches when it comes to impressive home runs, either. Another way you can filter home runs on the Tracker is to see how many stadiums the ball would have been a home run on a 70-degree day with no wind. There's often discussion about fence-scrapers and whether it would have been a home run somewhere else. The Tracker knows exactly how many "only in Yankee Stadium's right field" home runs there are. It also knows how many blasts would have cleared every fence in Major League Baseball. There is nothing cheap about a homer that's going out in 30/30 stadiums.
Out of the 215 home runs the O's hit this season, 80 of them would have been home runs in any park in the league. A number of these were hit by Chris Davis. Ten of his 33 home runs would have been home runs in any stadium on an ordinary day. This is not too surprising from the man who can get broken bat home runs. What is surprising is that Davis is not the team leader in this category. Not to take anything away from Davis, who broke up the perfect game, the no-hitter and the shutout with this monster shot off James Shields - the lone run the O's would score in a 1-0 victory in the regular season's next-to-last game.
The 30/30 stadium home run champion of the Orioles is actually none other than Jones, for whom 19 of his 32 home runs were anywhere-in-baseball homers. He can, and did, hit these home runs off a variety of pitchers at any time. His monster shots ranged from the first inning to the 17th (off Darnell McDonald). He touched up Jeremy Hellickson twice - in May and again in July. That's your 6th-place finisher in the AL MVP voting. Not too shabby.
Reynolds hit his share of these home runs as well, with 13 of his 23 home runs falling in the 30/30 realm. Four of these 13 were hit against the Yankees in a monster stretch from August 31 to September 6, including victimizing Phil Hughes in consecutive innings on September 2.
When Manny Machado homered in back-to-back innings off of Luke Hochevar in his second-ever MLB game, those, too, were 30/30 home runs. Machado still has power potential to grow into - these likely won't be the last time we see mammoth Machado bombs flying out of Camden Yards or elsewhere.
Unexpected Orioles contributed to the total as well. In his short playing time before injuries claimed his season, Nolan Reimold hit five home runs, and four of them were of the monster variety. Andino took a pitch by Max Scherzer (2nd place in the AL in strikeouts) and sent it 390 feet. Steve Tolleson hit a 375 foot blast off of Cliff Lee. (And Lee probably thought, "At least it wasn't Josh Bell.") Lew Ford off of Chris Sale? Omar Quintanilla off of Josh Beckett? Yes, all of that happened. Not only were they homers, but they were freakin' homers.
The O's were limping out of the All-Star Break, coming into Target Field on July 18 with a 46-44 record after having lost four out of the last five games, including three straight losses by a combined 29-11 margin. Games like a 19-7 loss to the Twins were precisely why so much of the year was spent with analysts and fans bickering about run differential. They were ten games out of the American League East and they were one of five teams within a half-game of the second wild card spot.
Starting the game that night for the O's was "Five Runs All Earned" Tommy Hunter, toting a 6.11 ERA to the mound. The Twins had scored 25 runs in two games. Blood was in the water, and perhaps they were ready to score more.
In the top of the first inning, J.J. Hardy singled with one out, and given how the series had gone for the O's so far, you might have expected Jones to swing at a pitcher's pitch and then ground into a double play, followed by Hunter giving up four runs in the bottom of the first. This was mid-July, after all, the part of the season where the Orioles collapse. They were a bare two games over .500, they were reeling, and they would not remain over .500 for long.
Jones, as happened so many other times in the season, was not having any of it. He smoked a 412 foot home run that exited the field so abruptly that Gary Thorne did not even remember to say, "Good bye, home run!" That marked his 22nd home run of the year at the time and it staked the O's to a 2-0 lead. As it ended up, they would need no more runs on the night.
In retrospect, that Jones home run looks like the sort of thing that alters the fortunes of a season. Did it really cause Hunter to pitch well that night? Of course not. That is preposterous. But it is precisely what the Orioles needed right then: a reversal of the downward spiral. Jones put the team on his back, and Hunter and Troy Patton and Jim Johnson picked up where Jones left off.
They won that night and they went 47-25 the rest of the way. The playoffs came back to Baltimore at last and the 2012 team will forever be a great part of Orioles lore. The monster home runs by Jones and others (but especially Jones) were an important part of that legend and represent a significant reason why this team will never be forgotten by O's fans.