Shadows of the recent past

2005.

Million Dollar Baby won Best Picutre. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson was the year’s top song on the Billboard Hot 100. Hurricaine Katrina made landfall at New Orleans in August. Pope John Paul II dies, Pope Benedict XVI succeeds him. All of these things, and countless other events mark 2005 but for Orioles fans it is something different. 2005 was a year that will forever live in infamy. The Orioles at their best were 14 games over .500 sitting at 42-28 on the 70th game of the year; the Orioles would go on to win only 32 of their last 90 games. The collapse was so epic, so mind-boggling that it still haunts Orioles fans today.

It was not only just the collapse.

That summer Rafael Palmeiro would test positive for performance enhancing drugs, Lee Mazzilli would deal with reports that he had lost the clubhouse and he would not finish the season as the Orioles’ manager. Offseason acquisition Sammy Sosa never lived up to his even lowered expectations and he would limp his way through the Summer. The cobbled together rotation would falter, but the bullpen would be worse. Everything that could go wrong did and the Orioles’ collapse of 05 still hurts the community.

What follows is a brief dissection of 2005 from offseason to epic collapse. What happened? Why? And why the 2012 Orioles are a different creature and should be treated as such.

 

The Offseason

On January 19 SI.com’s Albert Chen rated the Orioles offseason the second-worst in baseball, behind only the Houston Astros. “Baltimore has pursued Carl Pavano, Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson only halfheartedly..” Chen would go on to criticize the front offices’ comments about the new Washington Nationals team having a negative impact on their finances as a “lame excuse” for failing to make “one significant” move. Little did Chen know that the Orioles front office would make a splash in 2005. Just 11 days later the Orioles would complete a transaction bringing Sammy Sosa to Baltimore.

On January 30th the Orioles made the trade that brought the declining, but still thought to be at least viable, slugging rightfielder to Baltimore. The O’s sent secondbasemen Jerry Hairston and Mike Fontenot as well as farmhand pitcher David Crouthers to the Cubs. The Orioles’ press release calls Sosa a “dynamic” player and is laced with all the frilly cherry-picked prose that marks all press releases for any team. Over at Baseball Think Factory a much more realistic take was posted:

“The Orioles really aren’t getting a lot, but Sosa still has the potential to be a plus contributor in right field, something other Orioles do not.  They’re not going to miss Hairston, Dave Crouthers is nearly worthless, and Mike Fontenot is looking like a poor man’s Brian Roberts.  Sosa helps them in the short-term, but not nearly enough to make the Orioles good and while there’s no positive long-term effect, with the players given up, there’s no negative long-term effect either.  I hate moves made to DO SOMETHING~!, but if you have to DO SOMETHING~, at least do something splashy yet irrelevant.”

The Orioles wanted to go into the 2005 offseason with much of the same shopping list that they had in 2004, they came away with Sosa. The rotation going into the 2005 season was Rodrigo Lopez, Sydney Ponson, Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Bruce Chen. The bullpen featured three powerful arms, with closer potential, with BJ Ryan, Jorge Julio and Chris Ray. The Opening Day Lineup:

Brian Roberts  2B   
Melvin Mora  3B     
Miguel Tejada  SS   
Sammy Sosa  RF      
Rafael Palmeiro  1B 
Javy Lopez  C        
Jay Gibbons  DH     
Luis Matos  CF      
Larry Bigbie  LF

 

The Glory

The first half of the 2005 season can be summarized by one player, Brian Roberts. Roberts had basically won the starting secondbase role from Jerry Hairston two years prior but with Hairston gone Roberts was secure and free to emerge in his new role. He relished in it. Roberts hit like a maniac in the spring of ’05. In the fist 80 games of the season Roberts hit to a slash line of .345/.416/.591/1.007. He hit 15 homeruns and 22 doubles. His OPS+ was 166. 2005 saw the emergence of Brian Roberts as the face of this franchise, a team leader and the key to the Orioles offensive attack.

In his second year in Mobtown Miguel Tejada further stamped his name on this team. Miggy was an affable, funny and seemingly genuine individual. When he said he loved Baltimore and the team no one questioned it. Miggy was the highest paid player in Orioles history in 2005 and he started that season right where 2004 left off. Tejada hit 19 homeruns with an OPS of .977 in his first 87 games.

The Orioles actually stumbled out of the gate a bit in 2005, losing their first three game series to the Oakland Athletics. But the Orioles would win their next two series on the road in New York and Tampa Bay before returning home and making a statement. The Birds welcomed the New York Yankees to Baltimore and opened a three game series on April 15. Three games later the Orioles had swept the Yankees in Baltimore for the first time in five years and had won consecutive series against the Yanks for the first time since 1997. That Sunday sweep game was capped off by a monster Tejada 420 foot grand slam homerun to centerfield off of Kevin Brown. In his write up of the game then Washington Post writer Jorge Arangure wrote: “… In [Tejada's] second year, he has convinced them they are contenders.”

The Orioles played like contenders for most of the 2005 spring. The first half of 2005 saw the Orioles, as a team, hit to a collective OPS of over .800. April was particularly impressive; the Orioles had a team OBP of .351 and a team OPS of .851. That was of course unsustainable, but still the Orioles either won or split 14 of their first 17 series of the year. They did particularly well against the AL East going 18-8 against their division rivals during that span. On June 5th, 2005 the Orioles were 34-22 and had a three game lead atop the AL East.

June would begin to see the Orioles tail off. For the first half of the month the Orioles held it together and maintained through some struggles and slumps. Every team slumps, its part of baseball. The Colorado Rockies came into town the weekend of June 17 and this town still believed. I remember going to the Friday game with my Mom. It was an early birthday present for her and always a treat. The Orioles were in first and the stadium was packed. 49,000 people showed up to an interleague matchup against the Rockies in June, amazing. The Orioles lost the Friday game 2-1 but would go on to win the series before starting a long road trip on the 20th.

That game is important to me. I was too young to really appreciate the ’96 and ’97 teams. I mean I was a fan but I didn’t go to many games. Neither of my separated parents could afford to take me to many so much of the great years of the mid-90′s was spent listening on the radio and watching on TV. As I got older, got jobs and got my own money I found myself spending alot of it at Camden Yards. In 2005 I was in college and with my disposable income and closer proximity to downtown Baltimore I went to a lot of games in those years. Daniel Cabrera started that game and even though the Orioles lost it was a nail-biter until the very end. I had been at close games, and I had been in packed houses before but never like that. It was as close to a playoff atmosphere as I have ever felt. I will never forget that game, the emotions, the size of the crowd, the sound of the cheers and groans at a close yet well-played defeat. 

The next day I began the drafting process of my first website and my first blog.

The Orioles were still in first place and over .500, no one saw what was coming next.

 

The Fall

The rest of June was not kind to the Orioles. Through the Colorado series the Orioles had a 10-7 record through June, not as dominant as April or May but that happens. They were still winning more than they were losing and were keeping the losing few and far between. That would all change. June 20th marked the beginning of a two city, seven day roadtrip that would see the Orioles lose five straight for the first time that year. The Orioles returned home to welcome the Yankees, a team they had handled well so far that year, with a two game split. The Orioles would lose three of four to the Indians to close out their first losing month with a 12-15 record. What happened next through July and August can only be described as a meltdown of nuclear-level proportions.

The Orioles would go one to win only 19 of their next 35 games. The offense that was sol solid in the first two months of the season would simply vanish in July and August posting team OPSes of .740 and .686 respectively. The Birds’ pitching staff saw the same type of decline. The starters’ ERA ballooned from 3.43 in May to 5.15 in June. The bullpen went from 3.20 to over four.  In fact Orioles starters would not record a monthly ERA under five runs a game for the rest of the year. Erik Bedard was in his second full season as an Oriole and having a very solid first half, he would be injured at the end of May and would not return until the middle of July. Bedard would win only one of his remaining 15 starts as he watched his ERA skyrocket from a dominant 2.08 to 5.44 in the second half of the season.

The Orioles high-point of the season came on June 21 with a win against Toronto the O’s were 14 games over .500 with a 42-28 record. Over their next 50 games the Orioles would go 18-32 and sit at 60-60 on August 17th with a win against Oakland. That would be the last time the Orioles would see the .500 mark in 2005.

The Orioles would go on to shamble through the last 42 games of 2005 winning only 14 of those contests and finishing the year with a win against the, then, Devil Rays before a crowd of 17,500 fans. The 2005 Orioles’ final record? 74-88. 

If it were only that it would have been bad enough but the collapse of 2005 was so much more.

On August first Rafael Palmeiro was suspended for ten days after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. It was just that past March that Palmeiro defiantly pointed his finger at a Congressional panel and stated how he had never taken performance enhancing drugs. Raffy had just recorded his 3,000th hit during a roadtrip in Seattle. The Warehouse at Camden Yards had a banner proclaiming congratulations for Raffy and a celebration honoring the slugging firstbaseman was planned for the coming homestand. The Orioles cancelled it, removed the banner and slowly tries to find a way to deal with this crushing embarrassment. Lee Mazzilli would get fired only a few days later, an obvious casualty of the Orioles crushing slump.Associated Press

Throughout the Summer Palmeiro maintained his innocence. There were stories of tainted B-12 shots that he got from Miguel Tejada, who would admit to juicing much later in his career. Palmeiro kept telling the media and the fans that they would soon hear his side of the story, but it never came. It wouldn’t matter because baseball had turned on Raffy. After his return to Baltimore, where he received a luke-warm reception at best, he went on the road and was eviscerated. In Toronto the boos were so audible that Palmeiro inserted earplugs into his ears. That picture is seared into my memory. In Barlett’s book of quotations next to “How the might have fallen” is that picture. Raffy was done, everyone knew it.

Raffy played only seven games in August, he had a batting average of .077. On August 30th he played his last game as a major leaguer. Raffy returned to his Texas home to rehab a “knee injury” but the reality was confirmed later that week, the Orioles basically told him to go away. On September 23rd the Orioles front office simply told Raffy to stay away ending his career.

It would only get worse. Brian Roberts, who had slumped in the second half but was still having an offensive break out year would go down with a gruesome injury. On September 21 as the Orioles prepared to lose to the Yankees yet again Bubba Crosby hit a slow grounder that pulled the first baseman off the bag, Roberts went to cover and get throw. Crosby slammed into Roberts dislocating his right elbow. Roberts collapsed to the ground in pain. Trainers helped Roberts off the field, his right arm dangling like an undercooked chicken wing at the elbow.

The low had finally come. That was it the bottom of the barrel.

2005 has haunted Orioles fans since. Even now, in the middle of the Orioles best season since 2005, the spectre of that horrendous summer looms large. Bloggers, fans, writers have been waiting for the proverbial “other shoe” to come crashing down with the force of a cretaceous asteroid for weeks now yet it hasn’t come.

In part two I will explain why it this team is different and 2012 sill finally get us out from the shadows of the worst year in recent Orioles history.

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