'97 Orioles in exclusive company Only 1927 Yankees, 1984 Tigers had made wire-to-wire AL runs

Fast start key to success

Wild-card format adds wrinkle to O's feat

September 26, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Joe Strauss contributed to this article.

The Orioles threatened to run out of gas a few miles short of the finish line, which took a little of the luster off their outstanding 1997 season, but they finally nailed down the American League East title on Wednesday night and joined a very exclusive group of baseball champions.

They now are assured of becoming only the third team in American League history and the sixth team overall to spend every day of the regular season in first place, an accomplishment that puts them on the same page of the record book with such legendary teams as the 1927 New York Yankees and the 1955 "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers.

It is a testament to the solid chemistry of the club and another feather in the cap of successful manager Davey Johnson, but it probably is more an indication of how well the club got out of the gate. The secret to going wire-to-wire is not how many games you win, but how soon you win them.

The 1969 Orioles won 109 games and clearly were a more dominant team than this year's model, but they didn't go wire-to-wire. The same goes for the 1970 club, which won 108 games and a world title. Baseball history is full of dominating teams, but only the Murderers' Row Yankees and 1984 Detroit Tigers had gone wire-to-wire in the American League before the 1997 Orioles.

"It's quite an achievement," said former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. "To do it, you have to get out quick and you can never hit a long losing streak. You can lose three or four games in a row once in awhile, but you can't afford to have even one sustained losing streak."

It has happened only three times in the National League, too. The 1923 New York Giants were the first to do it, but lost to the Yankees in the World Series. The 1955 Dodgers club did it on the way to that organization's first world title. And the 1990 Cincinnati Reds went wire-to-wire with a team that included two players currently on the Orioles roster -- Eric Davis and Randy Myers.

"It takes a great team," said Davis. "We had that in Cincinnati. Everything has to work for you to be in first place for 162 games. It's not an easy thing to do."

Wild card alters picture

In this particular case, it may have been even more difficult, because the Orioles locked up a playoff spot long before they locked up the division title, which split the club's focus and created the perfect environment for a letdown. No one can say for sure, but that may have contributed to the September slump that made the final weeks of the division race more interesting than anyone expected.

"Which is natural this time of year," Anderson said. "You know you've got it won. It's hard to keep up that momentum."

Johnson was faced with a dilemma that no previous manager had encountered. He had to decide earlier this week whether to make an all-out push for the wire-to-wire division title or rearrange the pitching staff to prepare for the playoffs. He chose the latter, and ended up with the best of both baseball worlds when young Nerio Rodriguez outdueled presumptive Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens on Tuesday to pull the club out of a funk and pare its magic number down to one.

"That [a wire-to-wire title] is something we'd like to see happen," Johnson said at the time, "but the most important thing to me is not to do anything to affect the performance of the players in the postseason."

It was a unique situation because the wild-card playoff system only has been in place for the last three years, but it only came into play because the 1997 Orioles are not nearly as imposing as their two wire-to-wire predecessors in the American League.

Miller Huggins didn't have to worry about anything in 1927. The Yankees won 110 games (in a 154-game season, no less) and won the pennant by 19 games.

Anderson never had to look back either. His 1984 club won 35 of its first 40 games and waltzed to the AL East title by 15 games.

"You've got to get out quick," Anderson said Wednesday. "I don't think that anyone will ever equal that [1984] start. I don't know how that was done myself. We just had a bunch of kids who were just coming into their own. I knew going into that season that they were about to pop."

Reds a model

What the Reds did have was a very balanced club, a deep bullpen, and an outstanding manager (Lou Piniella) which makes them a fitting model for the Orioles of 1997. They went on to defeat the Pirates in the National League Championship Series and pull off an amazing four-game sweep against the favored Oakland A's in the World Series.

"That was a little bit of a different year," said Myers. "We had a nine- or 10-game lead at the break and we basically had to hang on. We did it a little bit differently then. We had guys who were willing to play for one run guys who knew the value of a one-run lead and were willing to give themselves up.

"This team tends to play more for the big inning. That was then. This is now. That was in the National League. This is the American League."

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