Believe it or not, there was a time when the Baltimore Orioles were a major player on the free agent market.
And in the offseason before the 1996 season, they landed the biggest prize of the winter.
The Orioles signed Roberto Alomar, the best second baseman in the game and a two-time champion with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was brought to Baltimore to be the missing ingredient, the piece to turn a collection of veteran talent into a championship contender.
The expectations were high. And Alomar didn’t disappoint.
Alomar spent only three seasons in Baltimore, a brief snapshot of a Hall of Fame career, which is why he’s this low on our list. But it’d be hard to find someone in Orioles history who played the position better than he did from 1996-98. Alomar was a three-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner and a Silver Slugger recipient. He batted .312 over three seasons, with an average of 17 home runs, 70 RBI and 94 runs.
In his Baltimore days, Alomar put himself on a short list of the most exciting players to wear orange and black. He was the equivalent to Manny Machado at second base, showcasing exceptional range and a routine ability to turn hits into outs. He was a perfect complement to Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick up the middle and on double plays; Ripken and Bordick were the picture of reliability and dependability, and Alomar was the artful ballet dancer who did some of his best work when he took to the air.
At the plate, he was an ideal top of the lineup bat with speed (474 stolen bases for his career) and pop (210 home runs). Over his three years, he walked more than he struck out. He could play any role the Orioles needed him to; he could slap a single and get on for Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla, Ripken and the big bats behind him, or he could do it himself, turn on a pitch and send it over the wall.
More important, however, was the effect Alomar had on the Orioles competitively. Prior to 1996, the Orioles had the pieces — a franchise player in Ripken, a slugger in Palmeiro, an ace in Mike Mussina — but the formula still resulted in below-.500 finishes and omission from the playoff races.
Going into 1996, however, the O’s got serious. They got a new manager in Davey Johnson, hired by a new general manager in Pat Gillick. They landed an All-Star closer in Randy Myers. They got a former No. 1 overall pick in outfielder B.J. Surhoff. They were set for a full season from Bobby Bonilla after acquiring him during the 1995 season.
The biggest move, however, was Alomar, who had made six straight All-Star Games and won five straight Gold Gloves. Only 28, Alomar was brought in to be a difference-maker, and he was just that. He batted .328 with 193 hits, 22 home runs, 43 doubles and 94 RBI, and he scored a franchise-record 132 runs. He finished 20th in the MVP race, because this was the Steroid Era and pretty much everyone in the league was a 30-home run hitter.
With Alomar, the Orioles became winners, and overcame a rocky start to make the playoffs in 1996 as the American League Wild Card. There, they stunned the powerful Cleveland Indians before falling to the New York Yankees, led by Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Rich Garcia, in the ALCS.
The Orioles were even better in 1997, a wire-to-wire AL East champion, though Alomar battled injuries throughout the season. When he played, he again was excellent; he batted .333 over 112 games, with an .890 OPS and a 134 OPS+ that was only two points below his number from the previous season. He helped the Orioles hold off the Yankees for the division by batting .500 (35-for-70) in September after returning to the lineup on Sept. 4.
He batted .300 in the Division Series as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners, but like the rest of his teammates went cold in the ALCS as the Indians found a measure of revenge and pulled off the upset. The series started well for Alomar — he belted a two-run homer in Game 1 that helped lift the O’s to victory — but ended miserably, with him spinning away from a called third strike with the tying run on base to finish off a 1-0, series-ending loss in Game 6.
He played a full season in 1998 but was only so-so — .282, 14 home runs, 56 RBI and 86 runs — and the Orioles finished below .500 and out of the playoff race. He signed with Cleveland after the season and returned to the heights of his first two years in Baltimore.
Alomar generated plenty of highlights, though it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It would be impossible to talk about his Baltimore tenure without mentioning the spitting incident with John Hirschbeck that became a storyline during the 1996 playoffs and threatened to ruin Alomar’s image.
It would also be impossible, however, to overlook the caliber of player Alomar was in his days at second base with the Orioles. Given the years at Cleveland, it would have been nice to see a longer stint. But the stint we did get was a pretty memorable one.