After Time at the Top, An Age of Anxiety

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Two desperate teams met at Camden Yards Monday night, acting like their three-game series this week in late June might decide whether either would still be playing in October. And the Orioles and Yankees might just be right about that.

With the world champion Boston Red Sox flying high, the American League East probably isn't big enough for both these old rivals. The Orioles, so recently red hot, are now ice cold and injured; they face a brutal schedule and are in danger of a season-rupturing collapse. The $200-million payroll Yankees, in a competitive coma all season, know they need a sudden spark. Otherwise, they face rough odds of even winning a wild-card spot against the Orioles and other such resuscitated riffraff. So, there was a reason that the Yankees' Carl Pavano drilled Brian Roberts in the back with a fastball after a home run by Larry Bigbie. And that Daniel Cabrera retaliated with a 96-mph fastball that went behind Alex Rodriguez, getting both benches warned.

There was a reason the home crowd razzed Sammy Sosa as he stranded five runners, went 0 for 4, grounded into a double play and booted a ball in the outfield to set up a Yankees run. And, in the pivotal moment of the game, there was definitely a reason that Orioles reliever Steve Kline went ballistic and got ejected, knocking his own manager, Lee Mazzilli, into home plate umpire Marty Foster.

After being called for a crucial eighth-inning balk that set up the go-ahead Yankees run in a 6-4 comeback win, Kline was still furious in the clubhouse. If his intensity sounded like a September tone of voice, then that was typical of the intensity in this series, which seems like a season-defining crisis to both teams.

"I think they favor the Yankees. The umpires suck up to them," said Kline in a blue locker room monologue after the Orioles' sixth straight defeat. "There's a little favoritism there. I might get in some trouble for that. But I already said it."

The batter, Jason "Giambi called time. I stepped off the rubber. You could hear the Yankee bench" yelling "Balk," said Kline, who was called for two damaging late-inning balks earlier this season. "Once you get hit for it once, the umpires look for it. That was a bogus call. I was deliberating whether to put [home plate umpire Foster] in the Cobra Clutch. It was a great game until that happened."

It was a close game, at any rate, tied at 4 until Jorge Posada took second on the balk and scored on a sacrifice fly -- thanks to his extra base -- later in the inning.

Tempers ran so high that even Mazzilli, a gentleman's gentleman to the point of being criticized for not showing more on-field emotion, blew his top in his office, cursing a TV reporter for questions about why he didn't ask Sosa to sacrifice bunt after a leadoff walk to Rafael Palmeiro in the eighth inning. "How do you bunt a Hall of Famer who has probably never bunted in his life?" Mazzilli asked. "That's a dumb [bleeping] question."

And so forth. The point is not the words, which were commonplace, or Mazzilli's anger, which was negligible compared with the 25th-best office tantrum of any Earl Weaver season. What mattered, what showed through in this game, was the raw anxiety and concern on the part of both teams that a season, or at least a major chunk of it, was on the verge of escaping their grasp.

The cause of all this torrent of emotion before an almost packed and extremely bipartisan house of 45,801 was the current shape and obvious trends in the AL standings. The Orioles were in first place in the American League East for 62 straight days. In the last week, they've fallen 2 1/2 games behind the scalding Red Sox, who recently won 12 of 13. Just as bad, the plummeting Orioles play their next 12 games until the all-star break against as brutal a schedule as they face all season, including four more games against the Yankees and four with the Red Sox.

"Got some holes in the boat," said coach Rick Dempsey, referring to the absence of Eric Bedard and Javy Lopez, who are on the disabled list for more than a month and gone until after the break, as is Melvin Mora, who is out with a hamstring strain. Before the game, when he was in a far better mood, Mazzilli quipped, "Gotta go see if we've got nine."

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