Ten years ago this month, the Baltimore Orioles beat the Kansas City Royals on Opening Day, claiming a share of first place. After a week, they were 4-2 and still in first. And they stayed in first for another week, and another. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro slugged 38 home runs, second baseman Roberto Alomar batted .333, and superstar manager Davey Johnson used savvy, mature starting pitchers and a dominant bullpen to keep opponents off the scoreboard. The Orioles won 98 games in 1997 and led the division from April through September.
Now, for the first time since that heady summer, the Orioles—the team I've rooted for since I was an infant—look like a potential champion. The first baseman eked out 21 home runs last year, bouncing between two other teams. The second baseman hit .286 and grounded into 16 double plays. The manager, a semianonymous Baltimore lifer, has never skippered a winning major-league season; the starting rotation features one emerging ace followed by a mix of raw youngsters and sore-armed has-beens. A week into the season, they were in last place with a 2-4 record.
At first glance, the Orioles might not seem like championship material. But championship material means the material of which champions are made. And as of the 2007 season, that means mediocrity. The reigning champs of baseball are the St. Louis Cardinals—a team that rode the sixth-best hitting and ninth-best pitching in the National League to 83 wins, a Central Division title, and a ticket to the postseason. Eleven playoff wins later, they took their place alongside the 1967 Cardinals and the 1927 Yankees: World Series winners. A week into this new season, the Cardinals were 2-4, just like the Orioles.
But why care about wins and losses? Major League Baseball has fulfilled the promise it made back in the mid-1990s, when it split the leagues from two divisions to three and added a wild-card playoff team: Glory is no longer reserved for the deserving.
Last year's St. Louis team won the World Series despite having the fifth-best record in the National League. In last year's NL, it was possible to be as good as the Cardinals without even trying. Philadelphia tried to quit on its season in July, sending slugger Bobby Abreu to the Yankees in a midseason salary dump. The Phillies then accidentally bounced back into semicontention, winning 85 games—two more than the Cardinals—and barely missing a wild-card berth. (That honor went to a sleepwalking 88-win Dodgers team.)
Unlike in the NBA, where it's hard for a bad team to beat a good one in a playoff series, any baseball team can get hot or lucky enough to go 4-3 (or 3-2) against a superior foe. That was the whole point of baseball's 162-game regular season: The random fluctuations that happen each week would even themselves out, and the best teams would rise to the top.
Now, playing better than other teams for 162 games is for suckers. "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs," Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane declared, infamously, in Michael Lewis' Moneyball. If he was trying to reverse-jinx his team, it didn't work. Beane's Athletics are built for success over the long haul. They haven't won fewer than 87 games, let alone 83, since Beane's first season in 1998. But they've been to the same number of World Series in that time as the Orioles or the Milwaukee Brewers—or the Washington Mystics or the Ruppert Mundys, for that matter. Zero.
If the expanded playoffs murdered meritocracy, it's the Orioles who bear the mark of Cain. In 1996, the O's became the first wild-card team to win a playoff series, sneaking through the newly opened side door to bump off the majestic, 99-win Cleveland Indians. Before they could even savor that guilty victory, the O's were bumped off by the Yankees, in a championship series marred by one of the worst blown calls in baseball history.
The damage to baseball was incalculable, and it only got worse. The next season, it was the Orioles who were the best team in the American League—and it was the Orioles who lost in the second round * of the playoffs to a lackluster Cleveland squad. (To round out the symmetry, those Indians would lose the World Series to a wild-card Florida Marlins team built through a Rotisserie Baseball spending spree.) The ensuing years would see the playoff demises of the 103-win A's, two 101-win Atlanta Braves teams, the 116-win Seattle Mariners, and even a 103-win Yankees team—to say nothing of a 100-win Cardinals team.
Meanwhile, the Orioles' punishment was just beginning. Emotionally unstable owner Peter Angelos drove off Davey Johnson after the 1997 loss. After a disappointing 1998 season, he sent away Palmeiro and Alomar. The team finished in fourth place, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and in fourth place the next year, and then in fourth place again. The string of nonsuccess, eerily consistent, has reached nine years and counting, interrupted only by a one-season jump to third.
And yet: 83 wins? If the pitching comes together, if former-MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada doesn't get too disgruntled, if young outfielder Nick Markakis is for real ... If all those things go right, this team—even this team—can totally win four more games than it loses.
That doesn't guarantee they'll be in the playoff hunt. The 2006 Cardinals took advantage of the feebleness of the National League. The Orioles are in the prosperous East division of the talent-rich American League, looking up at teams that are obviously better stocked.
Then again, the Boston Red Sox are a third-place team that signed J.D. Drew in the hopes of improving. The Yankees went a week without a pitcher lasting more than five innings. The Blue Jays haven't put together two good years in a row since the wild card was invented. Sometimes, good teams have bad luck. It's not inconceivable that two of those teams—and a few more in the Central and West—could sag to the 83-win level. If that happens, Baltimore fans could be looking at a contender. I'd rather be looking at a good team.