On the final day of the Baltimore Orioles' fascinating, frustrating 1999 season, their pressed-into-action bullpen came within four outs of an unlikely no-hitter against the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox, an exchange of purpose pitches led to a benches-clearing confrontation between the teams, and Ray Miller walked off the field for what likely was the last time as the Orioles' manager.
Baltimore's 1-0 loss in 10 innings came in front of a sellout crowd of 47,567 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Despite a 20-11 record since Sept. 1, the Orioles, with an $84 million payroll, finished the season with a 78-84 record, and were shut out over their final 21 innings.
The Red Sox won the game in the top of the 10th when Jeff Frye singled off Orioles closer Mike Timlin with two outs, scoring pinch runner Jon Nunnally. Two innings earlier, Frye broke up the Orioles' no-hit bid with a two-out single off Jim Corsi.
The Orioles have 72 hours to decide whether to exercise the option on Miller's contract. Team sources said the club will not do so. Miller, never one for sentimentality, said the thought never crossed his mind today that he could be managing his last game.
"My only feeling in the dugout," Miller said, "was, 'When are we going to score a run?' "
In the coming days and possibly weeks, the Orioles will interview four or five managerial candidates. At this point, former Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner remains the front-runner, although team sources said that Jim Riggleman would jump to the top of the list if he is fired by the Chicago Cubs, as he reportedly will be.
Miller will return home to New Athens, Ohio, and do "normal things," he said.
Today's ending was somehow fitting. Timlin, whose eight blown saves in the first half of the season made him the poster child for the Orioles' woeful bullpen, gave up three singles in the 10th, two of which "strung together wouldn't have reached the wall," Timlin said.
Miller couldn't help but get in one last dig at his bullpen, which had to cover the entire game because of sudden injuries to starting pitchers Jason Johnson, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson.
"I've had enough trouble covering four innings with the bullpen," Miller said, "let alone nine."
Before and after the game, several players, including rookies Jesse Garcia and Eugene Kingsale and veterans Jeff Reboulet, Rich Amaral and Scott Kamieniecki, dropped by Miller's office to offer their thanks.
"The kids thanked me for the chance," Miller said. "I said, 'You earned the chance.' "
Amid the handshakes and exchange of offseason phone numbers in the clubhouse after the game, there was a greater sense of community than there was a year ago at this time. In 1998, the Orioles parted ways knowing that, with 12 free agents among them, the team would have a completely different makeup by the following spring.
This year, only a couple of key veterans (Kamieniecki, Jeff Conine, Arthur Rhodes) and bit players (Corsi, Mike Fetters, Doug Linton) are eligible for free agency.
"Most guys are signed for next year," said left fielder B.J. Surhoff, who was named the team's most valuable player by a vote of local media members before the game. "Hopefully, an addition here or there, maybe a trade, will create a little more competition for some spots. And hopefully the guys here will continue to play well and the guys who are banged up will get healthy."
What has hindsight told the Orioles about themselves? Over the previous winter, they re-tooled the front office, brought in a new pitching coach (Bruce Kison) and a new hitting coach (Terry Crowley), signed the most expensive everyday player in the history of baseball (Albert Belle), traded for a four-time Gold Glove-winning catcher (Charles Johnson) and signed a new first baseman (Will Clark) and second baseman (Delino DeShields) to multiyear contracts.
Yet, the bare numbers argue that not much really changed. Despite all the tinkering, despite career years from several offensive players, despite reeling off the American League's longest winning streak (13 games), despite sending four players to the all-star game, the Orioles still ended up with almost the identical record (79-83) as a year ago.
Aside from resolving the manager situation, the rest of the Orioles' objectives this offseason are relatively simple. No longer counting on 20-year-old lefty Matt Riley to be ready for their 2000 rotation, the Orioles will be in the market for one more starting pitcher, and at least one more reliever.
Miller's managerial record stands at 266-297. When he was fired by the Minnesota Twins during the 1986 season, the Twins went on to win the World Series in 1987. Though Miller does not take credit, he takes pride for his part in building the groundwork of a winning organization there.
"The same thing will happen here if I'm gone," Miller said, "because this team has tremendous direction right now. For the first time there's a little light under the door."