Everyone knows Dave Johnson pitched a marvelous game for the Orioles the day they were eliminated from the AL East race last September. But what would have happened if Mark Langston had faced Toronto instead?
Don't laugh. The Orioles actually tried to acquire Langston at the last possible moment from Montreal, according to a published report confirmed yesterday by general manager Roland Hemond.
Club president Larry Lucchino described the idea as "somewhere between creative and absolutely bizarre," yet Hemond nearly pulled off what would have been one of the most unique trades in major-league history.
Langston, 30, would have pitched one game, and one game only, for the Orioles. He would not have been eligible for the playoffs or World Series. And as a free agent, he almost certainly would have signed the same five-year, $16 million contract that landed him in California.
But according to The Show, the official magazine of the major-league baseball players' alumni association, the Orioles offered the Expos their choice of a top prospect for Langston in a desperate attempt to win the division title.
The Show reported that the trade may have collapsed when Montreal asked for minor-league lefthander Arthur Rhodes, but both Hemond and Lucchino said it was the Expos who backed out of the deal. "It was pretty close," Lucchino said. "They blinked."
"It was more their decision," Hemond said. "They thought they still might be able to sign Langston. We were prepared to do something at that time. We figured, if we were that close, let's not let it slip by if there's a means of getting it done."
Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski told The Show, "The only thing I would say is we did have conversations about Langston with various organizations, and Baltimore was the most persistent."
Langston was shown a copy of the magazine report yesterday before the Orioles' 3-1 victory over California at Memorial Stadium. His first reaction to the item was, "Wow." But he didn't seem particularly enthused about the idea.
"That would have been messed up, to come over and pitch in one game," Langston said. He added that he had heard San Diego also tried to acquire him last September. But Hemond apparently came the closest to completing a deal. In fact, he had the whole thing figured out.
"I was hoping we wouldn't announce it until he got to the park," Hemond said. "We'd get him dressed at the hotel, sneak him into the park and have him walk out to the bullpen with his jacket on. Someone would say, 'Who was that?' And that's when we'd announce it.'"
Civil war might have then broken out in Canada -- Montreal sticking it to Toronto, eh? -- but the Orioles would have been overjoyed to acquire a pitcher who had beaten them eight straight times before leaving Seattle, including twice last year.
Lucchino said the talks began Thursday, Sept. 28, the eve of the three-game series in Toronto. The Orioles trailed the first-place Blue Jays by one game. When the discussions grew serious on Friday, Hemond informed manager Frank Robinson that Langston might become an Oriole for a day.
The Aug. 31 deadline for adding players to the postseason roster was long gone, but Hemond said Langston had cleared waivers, setting the stage for a possible trade. Montreal had acquired Langston four months earlier, but by that time had fallen out of the NL East race.
"When I passed it by Larry and Frank, oh my gosh, it was mind-boggling," Hemond said, laughing as he recalled the sequence of events yesterday. "Everyone said, 'Why Not?' [echoing the Orioles' rallying cry last season].
"That's what you're trying to do: You're there. Here's the shot. It might happen. If we would have won Friday and Saturday and gone on to the league championship series and World Series, it would have been a great story."
As it turned out, the Blue Jays won both days to clinch the division title. The Orioles led into the eighth inning of each game, but they lost 2-1 in 11 innings behind Jeff Ballard on Friday and 4-3 behind Johnson on Saturday.
Johnson, of course, was the emergency replacement for Pete Harnisch, who had stepped on a nail walking back to the team hotel the previous night. He believes his performance in Toronto helped earn him a spot on the club this year. Today he is the Orioles' leading winner at 11-8.
Hemond acknowledged it would have been "very difficult" for Langston to pitch better than Johnson. Club officials probably didn't consider this at the time, but Langston was only 3-8 in his career against Toronto. He is 8-16 with a 4.68 ERA for California this season.
Why would the Orioles have parted with a top prospect like Rhodes for such a short-term gain? Simple: They would have received a first-round draft pick as compensation for losing Langston to free agency. (Hemond said the Orioles "might" have tried to sign Langston, but it's doubtful they would have succeeded.)
Reclining in his office yesterday, Hemond said, "Pretty good story, huh?" chuckling again. What makes it even better is that Dombrowski once served under Hemond with the Chicago White Sox -- when both worked for the late Bill Veeck, the maverick owner who would have delighted in such a daring ploy.
"My protege, right?" Hemond said. "I was thinking, 'Bill Veeck would have loved this.' He was probably looking down saying, 'Hey, you little guys, you've been watching me through the years.'"