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The 1997 Orioles went wire-to-wire in the AL East and came up short of a World Series

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The closest the Orioles have ever come to winning the World Series in my life was 1997, when they lost the ALCS, 4-2.

Sporting News Archive
The Orioles celebrating during 1997 ALCS Game 1, before the series went bad.
Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

All across the SB Nation network this week, communities are looking back on the best of the teams that never won it all.

The Orioles have yet to win a World Series title since I have been alive. They have not even played in a World Series game. If you were born any time after mid-October, 1983, this is true for you, too. What would it be like if they were to win, or even make it there? I ask myself often.

I guess I know a little bit. I’ve seen the Ravens win the Super Bowl twice, the Maryland men’s and women’s basketball teams win the NCAA tournament, and 16-seed UMBC beat 1-seed Virginia. These things were all fun. I’d trade them all to see the Orioles win the World Series.

Of the handful of times where the Orioles came close enough to where they really had a chance to do something, the one that hurts me the most now is the 1997 team. A 4-2 loss in the ALCS is the closest the O’s have come to a World Series in my life. That’s a sad thing to type.

The wire-to-wire AL East win and 96-64 record remain almost unbelievable. Was there really an Orioles team that was that good? There was! They had four future Hall of Famers (Ripken, Alomar, Baines, Mussina) and a host of other good players who made big contributions to the mid-1990s glory years: Palmeiro, Surhoff, Hoiles, Anderson, Bordick, and others.

It’s the hitters I think about the most when I think back on the all-too-brief Davey Johnson managerial era, but it was the pitchers - and the defense behind them - who made the 1997 team as good as it was. No team in the American League gave up fewer runs or hits than the 1997 Orioles.

Veterans Mussina, Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki all started 30+ games and the highest ERA in the bunch was Kamieniecki at 4.01. The bullpen had Randy Myers closing (1.51 ERA), strikeout machine Armando Benitez (2.45), ageless LOOGY Jesse Orosco (2.32), and 10-game winner Arthur Rhodes (3.02).

This was a powerhouse that plowed through the regular season and chewed up the Mariners in the ALDS. Lookout Landing, the Mariners SBN site, probably has their own case to make about their 1997 team, with future HOFers Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson, and a supporting cast that also included Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner, and Jamie Moyer.

That was a good team that got smoked in four games by the O’s. A lot of baseball legends were on the field in those games. Mussina outpitched Johnson twice. It was good.

Then came the Indians in the American League Championship Series. Although this team only won 86 games in the regular season and didn’t have quite the on paper pedigree as the O’s, we can look back 23 years later and see the quality there. Hall of Famer (and future Oriole) Jim Thome led an offense that also included future 500 home run club member Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar with the best-hitting season of his career, and quality 90s guy David Justice.

These Indians batted .286/.358/.467 in the regular season, which added up to the second-best OPS in the American League. Perhaps if the guys I named above had been the players at the center of the biggest moments that led to the Orioles losing each of the games they lost in that series, looking back on this ALCS would be less of a source of frustration. Instead...

Game 2

Indians beat Orioles, 5-4

The Orioles had a 4-2 lead going into the 8th inning, and then...

Armando Benitez entered the game in relief of Kamieniecki, who’d thrown three scoreless innings of long relief. Benitez struck out two of the first three batters he faced. He was good at that, striking out 106 batters in 73.1 innings. Unfortunately, he also walked 43 in the same span, a BB/9 of 5.3. Benitez issued a one-out walk to Alomar and a two-out walk to Thome, who pinch hit.

This brought Marquis Grissom to the plate. I did not mention Grissom above because he was, in fact, the worst hitter in Cleveland’s lineup, with a .262/.317/.396 batting line that in 1997 added up to only an 83 OPS+. Naturally, he hit the decisive three-run home run off of Benitez. Even 23-year-old non-HD video clearly shows how bad Benitez missed his spot and how much he left a fat pitch right down the middle.

The O’s had the tying run on base with no one out in both the bottom of the eighth and ninth, but never got a runner farther than first.

Game 3

Indians beat Orioles, 2-1, in 12 innings

Brady Anderson tied the game with a ninth inning double, and then...

The manager, Johnson, summoned his closer in a tie game on the road in the 11th inning - a great concept. Myers pitched a scoreless 11th and went for a second inning in the 12th. Grissom - there he is again - hit a one-out single, then sped to third base on a Tony Fernandez single. Fernandez hit .286/.323/.423 in the regular season, only a 91 OPS+ in 1997. The winning run was a mere 90 feet away.

The Baseball Reference box score reads: Grissom Steals Hm

If this didn’t trigger a specific awful memory for you, reacquaint yourself with a video clip that would have fit seamlessly into the Dave Trembley era of the Orioles, except this somehow happened during a playoff game.

Actually, when I watched this video as I was writing this article, I thought the umpire must have blown the call and missed a foul tip. The ball drops to the ground and rolls off like a ball bunted into the dirt might. You can slow down the video to 0.25 speed and it still looks like the ball nicks Vizquel’s bat.

The catcher, Lenny Webster, certainly doesn’t react as though it’s a live ball. Vizquel’s immediate reaction is (to me) that of a guy who knows he just fouled off a bunt attempt. Such injustices litter the annals of baseball even in the replay era, though there are fewer of them now. No comfort to the Orioles of 1997. And perhaps they would have lost anyway; there’s no good reason for the offense to have gotten just one run in 12 innings facing Cleveland pitchers.

In this game, the starting pitcher, Mussina, set an LCS record by striking out 15 batters. He could hardly have done more for his team to win this game. A brigade of idiots with Hall of Fame ballots still managed to keep him out of the HOF until last year while citing arguments like a lack of “postseason mystique” that weren’t true even if they would have constituted a good reason to keep him out of the Hall.

Game 4

Indians beat Orioles, 8-7

Rafael Palmeiro tied the game in the top of the ninth inning, and then...

Alan Mills came on to start a third inning of work and walked Ramirez. Johnson summoned lefty specialist Orosco, whose presence in the game immediately got Cleveland to remove the lefty Thome for a pinch hitter. The new batter, Kevin Seitzer, advanced Ramirez on a sacrifice bunt. Orosco stayed on to face another lefty, Justice, who flew out.

The next batter, Matt Williams, was right-handed. In came Benitez. Williams had hit 32 home runs in the regular season, so maybe Benitez was cautious or maybe he was just wild. He walked Williams before giving up a walkoff single to Sandy Alomar. This was not the last time O’s fans rued Benitez’s pitching in this series.

Game 6

Indians beat Orioles, 1-0, in 11 innings

Mussina struck out ten batters in eight scoreless innings, Myers pitched two scoreless, and then...

This might be the worst of the bunch, as the Indians had just three hits in this game and the Orioles were not able to score any runs despite out-hitting the competition 10-3. The Orioles had 12 chances with a runner in scoring positions and went 0-12. And so despite Mussina’s second gem of the series, it came down to Benitez in the 11th inning.

Ah, Benitez. Another bad Indians hitter, another belt-level meatball. Why? We will never know.

The Indians went on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Marlins. Let’s Go Tribe, the Indians blog, might rank 1997 as one of their worst misses, too. Their favorite team last won it all in 1948, so there’s an additional 35 years of Indians fans with the same complaint I have. That’s tough, but I doubt they feel bad for me so I don’t feel bad for them either.

Would the Orioles have beaten the Marlins if they’d had the chance? We’ll never know that either.

**

I don’t actually remember watching any of these games as they happened, or being sad or angry afterwards, unlike the previous year’s Jeffrey Maier incident that stamped itself so indelibly on my memory. It didn’t seem like such a tragedy to have lost in the postseason. They would be good again the next year, right? We surely must have thought so. Instead, the Orioles went another 14 seasons before they had a winning record again.

I can’t think about the mid-1990s Orioles without thinking about my 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Thursz. I was in his class from the fall of 1995 through the spring of 1997 - from Cal setting the record with the Streak on through to the start of the wire-to-wire season. It was a good time to be an Orioles fan.

Mr. Thursz, easily the biggest Orioles fan I ever had as a teacher, predicted that the Orioles would finish with a 160-2 record. He had made the same prediction before the 1996 season, allowing for one loss each in games played against David Cone and Andy Pettitte. They didn’t quite get to 160 wins, but it was still a pretty dang good season. I just wish they could have won it all. Maybe some day.