BOTTOM of the ninth, and the Orioles are three runs behind. First batter, easy out; second batter, out. Stomach-knot despair. But then Alomar walks, and Bonilla doubles. Ripken works the pitcher for another walk. Bases loaded! Hoiles at bat, and he can hit. All over the park, people are standing. Slowly, the count reaches three and two; then --
Into the left field stands. Game over. In the broadcasting booth, Jon Miller goes upper-register, polysyllabic bananas. As Chris Hoiles rounds third, home plate becomes a mob scene. Baltimore 14, Seattle 13. May 17, 1996.
The Orioles' new manager, Davey Johnson, previously a National Leaguer, philosophized: "This American League has got me dumfounded ... This is the most unbelievable thing I've seen in my life."
Said Chris Hoiles: "The unbelievable happened. This is one of the greatest feelings ever."
"I screwed up," said Norm Charlton, the Mariners closer, whose fork ball was foreseen.
"One of the most dramatic victories in club history," reporter Peter Schmuck called it the next day in The Sun.
The paid attendance was 47,529, so many a Baltimorean should still boast of having been there for that electrifying finish. True, at four hours, 20 minutes (and 11 pitchers and 41 hits) it was nearly the major leagues' longest nine-inning game ever, and some people must have left before the end. But it was Friday night.
More than just a game to remember, this one. The one-run victory via a bases-loaded homer in the final at-bat is indeed uncommon; in 125 major league seasons, it has happened 21 times. Babe Ruth, of course, once did it, in a 1925 game against the White Sox; Roberto Clemente, in 1956, against the Cubs.
In the past five years, the ball's volatility is universally thought to have been readjusted during manufacture, as evident from 70 homers by one batter in 1998, and a new, highest-ever, both-leagues total for grand slams in 2000.
Since 1996, how many additional last-of-the-ninth slams have there been? Nary a one. With every additional season, that homer by Hoiles looks bigger and bigger.
The Society for American Baseball Research, keeper of the numbers for such amenities as steals of home, inside-the-park homers and longest player career without ever homering, last year created a new category: the Ultimate Grand Slam. Dave Vincent of Woodbridge, Va., SABR's home-run specialist, scanned the full range of records (Ruth's Ultimate Grand Slam, he points out, came in the bottom of the 10th). No batter has ever done it a second time. No Oriole pitcher has ever been ultimatized.
Chris Hoiles from Bowling Green, Ohio, Oriole catcher through the '90s and the Most Valuable Oriole in 1993, hit 151 homers altogether. Eight were with the bases loaded (including two in one 1998 game, in Cleveland). Eddie Murray as an Oriole hit 16; Cal Ripken, eight so far.
However, on that pleasant spring evening in 1996, at Oriole Park, with the Orioles in second place, a game-and-a-half behind New York, things didn't look promising. Seattle's scheduled pitcher was Randy Johnson; it did help that his back hurt and he asked to be excused. But the Oriolesfrittered away a 7-2 lead; Miller, the broadcaster, gave them a scolding. Then in the seventh inning, the opposition's rookie shortstop, Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, homered -- with three men on.
For our side, Chris Hoiles came to bat five times and couldn't even reach base. In his sixth at-bat, things went better.
James H. Bready, a former editorial writer for the Evening Sun, is the author of "Baseball in Baltimore -- The First 100 Years" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).