Peace has come to the Middle East; upheaval has come to the American League East. If Israelis and Arabs can heal their divisions, surely someone can heal this one. Lord knows, it is contentious. Two weeks into September, the Toronto Blue Jeans were shrinking and fading and folding quite neatly. The New York Yankees could not trip most motion detectors. Suddenly it was a three-legged race, and the leg to watch belonged to the Baltimore Orioles. Pity, then, that you could not get a ticket to watch them.
On Sunday night the Orioles played before their 43rd consecutive home sellout. Even if they hadn't won 10 of their last 12, even if they hadn't gained five games on the first-place Blue Jays in the first eight days of September, even if they didn't end the week a mere 1½ games out of first place, still the multitudes would have come, as always, to Camden Yards.
And over the weekend, they came: George (the Thrill) Will, Richard (Digger) Phelps, Leonard (Boogie) Weinglass. (It is Baltimore legend and multimillionaire ragman Weinglass who was played by Mickey Rourke in the motion-picture classic Diner.) The Orioles also hosted a film crew shooting crowd scenes for Major League 2, which may be what inspired the Oakland Athletics' Dave Henderson to stylishly circle the bases after hitting a long but very foul ball on Friday night. Yes, last week in Baltimore, baseball witnessed its first foul-ball trot.
This is the way it always is here. The Camden Yards home schedule is a series of 81 spectacles. But with the exception of a certain blue-eyed, buzz-cut shortstop who is chasing the ghost of Gehrig, the Orioles have a lower national Q-rating than many of their fans. As Baltimore's sterling catcher, Chris Hoiles, puts it, "Nobody knows these guys."
Locally, however, everyone knows these guys. "I started out here 2 for 17," says Jack-of-all-positions Jack Voigt, who joined the Orioles from their Triple A affiliate on April 29. "The fans weren't afraid to voice their disapproval, because they knew who I was when I got here: a guy who had big numbers in Rochester. They're the kind of fans who will look up a guy's numbers from the minor leagues."
"Even early in the season, when we weren't playing well, this place was packed every night," says first baseman David Segui. "Now that we're playing with the season on the line, there's real electricity here. You can feel it. And it really does pick you up."
All of this is essential because Camden Yards is where the Last will be won. The Orioles play their final 10 games at home, the last seven of those against the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Camden Yards will determine who gets the rings and who gets the Heimlichs. These questions became all the more urgent last week when baseball was balkanized into six divisions, effective next season. Thus, this could be the last true divisional race the American League will ever see. and it is brought to you courtesy of the Blue Jays.
Baltimore would not be best positioned to win this division were it not for Toronto's folding like intricate origami, losing six straight games to the odoriferous California Angels and the unspeakable Oakland A's to begin September. If the A's were an Oscar Mayer product, they would have expired in mid-April. Oakland had lost 15 of its previous 16 games before sweeping the Jays under the SkyDome rug on Sept. 7, 8 and 9. Also in the early days of September, the second-place Yankees were losing four out of six to the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, while the Orioles, for their part, were winning five of six games from Oakland and the Seattle Mariners.
"Other teams' losing enabled us to get back in it," says Hoiles, who through Sunday was hitting .309 with 24 home runs and 69 RBIs despite missing almost all of August with a back injury. "But to climb back like we did in a week and a half—I don't want to say it's unbelievable, but it is hard to believe."
What Baltimore is attempting to accomplish happens once every Blue Moon Odom. On Sept. 1, the O's were six games behind Toronto. Only six teams in the 20th century have won a league or division title by making up so much ground so late. The Orioles are trying to join the 1978 Yankees, the '64 St. Louis Cardinals and the '51 New York Giants, while the Jays, conversely, may go the way of the '78 Boston Red Sox, the '64 Philadelphia Phillies and the '29 stock market.
And yet, Cal Ripken Jr. notwithstanding, these potential pieces of history are almost entirely anonymous. There are nine members of Baltimore's new ownership group who are better known than their team's starting lineup. On Aug. 2 the Orioles were sold at auction for a team-sports-record $173 million—sold to a man who was merely scratching his nose! No, no, in truth, Baltimore was purchased by a group, headed by Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos, which includes such Maryland luminaries as film director Barry Levinson, whose credits include the aforementioned Diner; tennis star Pam Shriver; and novelist Tom Clancy. Larry King is reportedly interested in investing, as well. When manager Johnny Oates phones the bullpen, Oriole relievers will forever have to answer, "Is the caller there?"
Right now, those relief pitchers would be Alan Mills, Jim Poole and Todd Frohwirth, who have eased the loss—possibly for the season—of closer Gregg Olson, who has been missing since Aug. 9 with a strained right elbow. Do you know me? At week's end Poole had the league's lowest batting-average-against (.164) among relievers. Mills had had a 1.80 ERA during the Oriole run. And Frohwirth had thrown in more games (63) than all but three American League pitchers this season. Still Frohwirth, who was born and raised, and resides, in Milwaukee, has not yet supplanted a certain brew as the reason for that city's fame.
Likewise, King's suspenders are more recognizable than Baltimore lefthander Jamie Moyer. Overshadowed by his alliterative moundmates, Mike Mussina (14-5) and Ben McDonald (12-11), Moyer is the man most symbolic of these Orioles' farfetched resurrection. Moyer, who hadn't played in the big leagues since 1991 and hadn't won in the big leagues since '90, began this season at Rochester and lost his first three starts with Baltimore after being promoted on May 19. But from June 10 through his victorious start against the A's on Sunday, Moyer—who gave up just two runs on seven hits, struck out seven and didn't walk a batter in eight innings of the 14-5 romp over Oakland—had gone 12-3 with a 3.33 ERA while making more friends than MCI.
"Everyone here is so nice," says Moyer, a 30-year-old veteran of four teams. "It's a beautiful park. It's a great place to bring your family. Everything is so positive. The security people are nice. When you bump into workers in the tunnel, they're nice. The p.r. people are nice. I know it sounds like I'm tooting everybody's horn, but it's true."
Moyer is not even the best-known branch on his family tree (his father-in-law is former Notre Dame basketball coach Phelps). The same goes for Segui, whose father, Diego, pitched for 15 years in the major leagues. David, 27, was hitting .290 at week's end. Is there a reason he was hitting 57 points higher than his average of last season? "Yes, there's a reason," he says. "I never played before. I sat on the bench last year. It's easier to put up the numbers when you play. It isn't, when you don't play."
Oriole rightfielder Mark McLemore, likewise, had not played in California, Cleveland and Houston before coming to Baltimore last year. Where once he walked the Mendoza line like a Wallenda—coming into this season, he had a .229 lifetime average over parts of seven seasons—McLemore is now playing every day and was hitting .289 through Sunday.
For the stretch run Toronto and New York added standouts everybody knows—leftfielder Rickey Henderson and closer Lee Smith, respectively. And while the Orioles picked up third baseman Mike Pagliarulo (.318, five home runs and 16 RBIs in 18 games with Baltimore) and reserve outfielder Lonnie Smith (who has played in five World Series but was not acquired in time to be eligible for this year's playoffs), earlier in the season they had added an entire roster of players in Voigt. He has stood out by standing in—as a pinch hitter, as a pinch runner, as a DH, as a leftfielder, as a rightfielder, as a first baseman, as a third baseman. "I will be back," Voigt said when Oates optioned him to Triple A in spring training. Oates smiled avuncularly, but Voigt repeated, somewhat Schwarzenegger-like, "No. I will be back."
Voigt was back within a month and since then had hit .297, had homered five times, had earned the nickname Hobbsie (as in The Natural) and had consumed nearly 800 Coca-Colas (at the rate of seven per game). Voigt drinks his Cokes from an Albany Polecat souvenir cup, which his teammates secretly befoul with gum and seed shells several times a game. "The Cokes are cold and satisfying, and they keep me up," says Voigt. "If you put that in there, maybe they'll send me some."
That would double the number of endorsement deals for Oriole players—Ripken is a spokesman for milk, which cannot speak for itself. Designated hitter Harold Baines, second baseman Harold Reynolds, centerfielder Mike Devereaux and leftfielder Brady Anderson all keep a low national profile. NASA could lose a space probe searching for these stars.
As if it matters. "As far as the pennant race goes," says Hoiles, "I think we're sittin' real good." On Sept. 24 the Detroit Tigers will come to Crabtown. They have not won a game in Baltimore in two years. On Sept. 27 it's the Yankees. On Sept. 30, the Blue Jays.
"You spend the winter pumping weights, running, doing strength exercises," says McDonald, who had a 1.07 ERA in his last three starts, including a four-hit, 3-1 win over the A's last Saturday night. "You go to spring training and work your butt off for six weeks. And this is what it's for: the last two weeks of the season, playing the two teams you've got to beat, with a crowd that's going to be into it."
Every day Oates is asked about the pressure on his team. Every day he says the same thing: "There's no pressure. Pressure is having 95 dollars in your checking account and a mortgage payment of 150 bucks." To the Orioles, that is the worst conceivable hardship.
Losing one's home.
Reynolds kept his usual low profile while running out a triple against the Athletics.
Anderson and the rest of the Orioles will have the home field advantage for the stretch run.