Does 4th rate a 1st-place celebration?

September 27, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- How do you celebrate when you win th wild-card race?

"Don't ask me," Rafael Palmeiro said.

It is a new-school baseball question that the Orioles, much to their delight, are on the verge of having to answer.

Just how crazy do you get for making the playoffs as the best of the also-rans?

"Do you do handshakes? More? I don't know," Brady Anderson said.

Do you spray champagne in the clubhouse and bask in the joy of finishing second?

Do you hug and weep and chant, "We're No. 4 [among the playoff qualifiers] and proud of it!"?

Isn't that un-American?

Or do you just shake hands and offer a silent prayer of thanks for Bud Selig's watered-down playoffs?

It was fair to start asking the Orioles these questions after they beat the Toronto Blue Jays last night to go 2 1/2 games up in the wild-card race with three games to play.

Rocky Coppinger's five-hitter pushed them so close to their first playoff berth in 13 years that they would be safe booking nonrefundable hotel rooms next weekend in Cleveland.

If they blow it now they would have to leave town, anyway.

Still, they weren't ready to start talking too much about the new-age celebration.

Baseball lifers don't talk about celebrations until one hits them in the head.

"We'll worry about that when it's time," manager Davey Johnson said.

"I think it's premature," Anderson said. "I'm not thinking about celebrating at all."

With all due respect: Blah, blah, blah.

The Orioles' time is coming, at long last.

The Mariners blew a 5-3 lead in the eighth inning yesterday and lost to the Athletics in Oakland, severely wounding their chances.

That's four losses in five games for the Mariners, a perfect ending for a wild-card contender.

The Orioles watched the final score of the Seattle game go up on the SkyDome scoreboard before the beginning of their game last night, then watched Coppinger pitch like a veteran All-Star in a 4-1 victory.

"We were pumped when we saw that Seattle score go up," Palmeiro said. "We knew this was a great chance to really build a cushion. And Rocky took it from there. That was awesome."

Coppinger had been miffed at Johnson on Wednesday for pushing his start back a day and then forgetting to tell him, but Johnson did it to put all the starters back on a five-day cycle, and the team benefited.

Emergency starter Rick Krivda won the key game of the wild-card race Wednesday night at Fenway Park, and then Coppinger, still seemingly mad at the world, limited the Blue Jays to the minimum numbers of batters through eight innings and shut them out until the ninth.

Was he, indeed, still angry?

"Not really," Coppinger said, suppressing a smile. "I wanted the ball [in Fenway Park]. But look how it worked out. Krivda pitched a great game and picked us up."

And Coppinger did the same 24 hours later.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Johnson said. "We're getting close."

Which brings us back to the original question: How do you celebrate winning the wild-card race?

A very tough question, it turns out.

"I don't think it should be the same as winning the division," Palmeiro said. "I mean, you didn't win. But you did make the playoffs. So, I don't know."

He smiled.

"And I'm not the guy to ask, anyway," he said. "I've never been to the playoffs. I don't know how to celebrate. I'll just do what everyone else does."

Cal Ripken thought it should merit a little more than a handshake.

Champagne for second place? By all means.

"You would celebrate the wild card just like you would celebrate winning the division title," Ripken said. "It's still the playoffs. You still have a chance to go to the World Series."

Anderson was a little more ambivalent.

"The wild card would be an accomplishment, for sure, especially considering where this team was six or seven weeks ago," he said. "But you have more games to play. I think it would be weird to have a big celebration."

For the record, the Orioles do not have a major celebration planned. They aren't ordering champagne to toast themselves as the best second-placers. At least, they haven't yet.

Part of the reason, according to team spokesman John Maroon, is that the Mariners are playing so much later and their results probably won't be known until hours after the Orioles are finished.

"It's a weird arrangement," Maroon said. "We'll probably be long gone [from the clubhouse] when Seattle finishes. So, I don't know."

No one knows.

How happy do you get for coming in second?

What is the proper response for backing into the playoffs on the wings of Selig's imagination?

The Orioles don't know, but they're on the verge of finding out.

And to them, that's all that matters.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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