The 1997 Baltimore Orioles won on opening day, won the next day, lost only three times in their first 14 games and never spent a day out of first place, a summer of bliss. They narrowly lost the American League Championship Series to Cleveland. There was, no doubt, disappointment in the end, but there was also promise because that offseason, the Orioles took a 98-win team — and made it better.
“It seemed like it was going to start a three- or four-year run where a lot of things were going to happen,” said Mike Bordick, the shortstop who chose Baltimore as a free agent prior to the 1997 season. “They were on the brink of a World Series, and that was what it was all about — winning. I know a lot of guys that came there, they had the exact same feeling. The expectations were high.”
What kind of impact, though, can expectations have? That may be impossible to quantify. The difference between expectations and reality indeed might be among the most nebulous phenomenon in all of sports. The Washington Nationals won 98 games a year ago, made moves they thought would improve the club, put their star pitcher and stud outfielder on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the season began — yet have languished under .500 for much of the year. They are the best, most recent example of the phenomenon that befell those 1998 Orioles: good teams gone bad.
“The margin for winning and losing is very slim,” said Davey Johnson, who managed the 1997 Orioles before he parted ways with the club that offseason and now has overseen the 2011 and ’12 Nationals. “So if you have a few glitches, the momentum can go against you. It’s hard to turn the tide. I don’t look at one thing. Add it all up.”
Take those ’98 Orioles as a case study. After back-to-back trips to the ALCS, they signed Doug Drabek, a veteran free agent pitcher. They signed Joe Carter, hero of World Series past, for one more swan song. They got Eric Davis, the uber-talented outfielder, back from a bout with colon cancer. Their lineup was stacked, their rotation solid.
There were two seminal points that set up what became a difficult season, several players said. First was Johnson’s departure after feuding with owner Peter Angelos, a change in leadership that came on the day Johnson was named the 1997 AL manager of the year. He was eventually replaced by Ray Miller, the gruff pitching coach.
“That was a shocker in itself,” Davis said. “And then the guy that takes over and the first thing he says is, ‘This is not Davey’s club. I’m going to do things different.’ Really, everyone was in for a culture shock.”
Still, the Orioles won 10 of their first 12 games, and the expectation in the clubhouse and the stands was that they would roll right through 1998 much the way they rolled through ’97.
Remember when the Nationals swept the Marlins to open this season, when Stephen Strasburg won his first start, when Bryce Harper homered in his first two at-bats? It felt like that.
“And then,” Bordick said, “it started caving in.”
By mid-May, the Orioles arrived in New York for a series with the Yankees on a five-game losing streak that had dropped them unexpectedly below .500. Still, they took a 5-1 lead in the first game. In the eighth, after Norm Charlton allowed a run-scoring single that cut Baltimore’s lead to one run, Armando Benitez came on in relief. Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams cracked a three-run homer, and Benitez responded swiftly by plunking Tino Martinez in the back with his next pitch.
The ensuing brawl, some players said, changed the Orioles’ season for good.
“I think that was a huge turning point in our season,” said Chris Hoiles, the catcher who tried to hold Martinez back from Benitez as both benches and bullpens emptied. The fight eventually spilled into a dugout, appendages flying, completely out of control.
“Obviously, it was a very ugly situation,” Hoiles said. “I think that we lost a little bit of — I don’t even know the word for it, momentum? We lost a little bit of integrity, I guess, within the club after that happened.”
The Orioles lost that night to fall into last place and were swept by the Yankees. They climbed back to 10 games above .500 in mid-August, but a 10-game losing streak that spanned into September doomed them. They finished 79-83, in fourth place, a whopping 35 games behind the Yankees.
Fifteen years later, some of those players are still mystified by what happened.
“ ’98, that was one of those years you try to forget about,” said Alan Mills, who pitched for the Orioles for nine years. “You wish there was a restart.”
But as the current Nationals know, there is no such thing. So a feeling of anxious anticipation sets in over the clubhouse.
“I think through the daily grind, we were just waiting for it to click,” Bordick said. “We were waiting for things to get on a roll and be able to get onto the field with that confidence that we had in ’97. . . .
“It was really, really frustrating for everybody. The expectations you set are so high. I know a lot of people were upset. It was disheartening. There were a lot of good players on that team.”
What, then, is the lesson? Those Orioles never did return to the playoffs, and 1998 was just the first of 14 straight losing seasons for the franchise.
“There’s nothing in baseball that’s a given,” Davis said. “People get sidetracked because what you did the year before doesn’t translate all the time. When you’re not used to doing some things, you don’t know how you did it. That’s why there was so much turmoil in D.C. last year in shutting down Strasburg. You can’t think about two years from now, a year from now. You don’t know where the game’s going to go.”
The game escaped the ’98 Orioles, of whom so much was expected. The 2013 Nationals have six weeks to see whether they can avoid the same fate, expectations fizzling into disappointment, with offseason optimism replaced by hard questions over a winter of discontent.