It had been a normal day in the Baltimore Orioles offices. It was several days after Christmas and most of the offices were empty. Only a few people, the top executives, had convened to map out an offseason plan for a franchise that was determined to change its fortunes after seven losing seasons. Trade talks for Sammy Sosa had started a few weeks earlier, during the winter meetings in Anaheim, but even the most optimistic Baltimore executive deemed such a deal very unlikely.
Snow had covered the field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which was visible through the window of one executive's office. The phone rang in another office. Orioles Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Flanagan answered. It was Barry Praver, agent for Sidney Ponson, who had some sobering news.
Ponson was in jail in his native Aruba, for allegedly hitting a judge. An angry Flanagan hung up the phone and wondered what the team could do about Ponson, a talented pitcher signed to a multimillion dollar deal who seemed to refuse to take his life or career seriously. Flanagan fumed.
This was only the start of what was perhaps the Orioles' most tumultuous season.
"Without going back to individual seasons, you'd have a hard time finding so many major things happening to one club other than this year," Orioles announcer and former Toronto Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez said. "It's like, 'Wow, what else could go wrong?' I think it really wears on a team that's pretty sensitive. I don't think their reversal of fortunes was 100 percent related to that, but it had an impact, no question about that."
During the course of the 2005 season, the manager was fired, a player was suspended for using steroids, Ponson was arrested twice for driving while under the influence and then was subsequently released when the team refused to put up with his misbehavior. Flanagan had traveled with Ponson to his trial in Aruba as a show of good faith from the club, and the strategy worked when Ponson avoided a conviction. The team felt betrayed when Ponson got his second DUI charge of the year in late August.
"Anything that could go wrong went wrong after the first two months," third base coach Rick Dempsey said. "You don't expect some of the things to slap you in the face that did this year."
The Orioles had soared to the top of the standings, spending 62 consecutive games in first place in the American League East, then almost as quickly tumbled nearly to the bottom, finishing fourth with a 74-88 record, 21 games behind the New York Yankees. Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks suffered a stroke in St. Petersburg, Fla., and nearly died. Pitcher James Baldwin passed out on the team plane on the way to Boston in September and was sent to the hospital. Steve Kline drew the ire of fans when he criticized the home city and said he wished he was back in St. Louis. And in the final days of the season, Hendricks said that tension had existed between Sosa and Miguel Tejada.
Of course there were also the injuries: Sosa's serious staph infection and abscess on his left foot; Erik Bedard's knee injury that sidelined the team's best pitcher for almost two months; Javy Lopez's broken hand that took one of the best hitters out of the lineup for almost two months; and Brian Roberts's gruesome left elbow dislocation that tore a tendon and ligament.
"I don't think anybody would wish that on anybody," said Yankees Manager Joe Torre, who has dealt with his share of controversy in New York. "It's very difficult. When you get together and play 162 games it's family-like. When things start falling apart like that it's like a family going through a divorce. It's a lot of turmoil. A lot of uncertainty and a lot of sensitivity that you want to keep inside but it's too public to do that. It's very much a distraction. I guess it's a microcosm of what's going on in baseball today."
July 31 had been a particularly rough day for Flanagan. For most of the weekend Flanagan and Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie had tried to swing a deal just before the trading deadline hit at 4 p.m. that Sunday. A trade for Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett, which had caused tension in the Baltimore clubhouse among the Orioles players involved, had been nixed by owner Peter Angelos earlier that week.
Beattie and Flanagan agonized over whether to sacrifice some of the future in order to try to regain some respectability this season. But then they also wondered whether it was best to trade some of their best parts now, such as closer B.J. Ryan, who was likely to leave after the season anyway, in order to acquire young talent that could help the team in the future. The Orioles made no move, though, which had frustrated Flanagan.
But Flanagan was most irritated by a stunning phone call he received from Angelos that morning. The iconic Rafael Palmeiro, whom the team had recently feted for his 3,000th hit, had tested positive for a steroid. The announcement from baseball came the next day.
Palmeiro's positive result was a cataclysmic event in the Orioles' season, one that seemed to cause the team to spiral toward the bottom of the standings. Palmeiro was sent home when he seemed incapable of dealing with the negative publicity that came with the suspension. The first baseman had become too much of a distraction.
"This year we've had too much controversy, too many problems," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "I think our problems were more psychological than physical. That's too many things happening at once that affected the team."
On Aug. 4 the Orioles fired manager Lee Mazzilli. The announcement was made in Anaheim, Calif. For several days Beattie, Flanagan and Mazzilli had talked about how the manager had seemingly lost control of the clubhouse. It was obvious to all that a change was likely coming. The dismissal did not come as a surprise to Mazzilli.
"The firing of Lee Mazzilli wasn't about Lee," former Oriole Jim Palmer said. "I'm not the general manager, but I don't think I ever would have hired the former first base coach of the Yankees, considering the rivalry. I just don't think that was a great move. I always felt that way. Sammy [Perlozzo] has done a great job and probably was the right guy in the first place, but I don't make those decisions. It just seems he was a more compatible person."
The torturous season finally seemed to catch up to Beattie several weeks ago. On Sept. 22, just moments after another tough loss to the Yankees, Beattie was approached by several reporters who questioned him about Palmeiro's testimony to congressional investigators. The questions came quickly and Beattie seemed unwilling and unable to answer all of them. He grew quickly agitated.
It could have been that Beattie, after a season full of so many mishaps and misfortunes, was just tired of talking. Perhaps it was that Beattie, an Ivy League-educated former ballplayer, was upset that he just didn't have all the answers, something that had happened frequently this season with so many unusual events happening to his team.
After several moments, the Orioles executive finished his impromptu session with reporters and then turned away, disgusted and disappointed.
"Anybody have a question about the game?" a frustrated Beattie said.