The Orioles-Yankees history is filled with sour endings for…
Against anyone else, it would have seemed preposterous when the 12-year-old boy's hand reached into the field of play to change the course of the Orioles' 1996 playoff run.
Against the New York Yankees? Jeffrey Maier was just another chapter in a long story.
The Yankees have almost always been the measuring stick for their divisional rivals 200 miles down Interstate 95. And pardon Orioles fans if they've always felt the game was a little bit rigged, whether by baseball economics or by the dark magic of an adolescent fan.
The Bronx Bombers of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were still the big boys on the block when the Orioles first got good in the early 1960s. And after decades of the teams sparring as something more like equals, the Yankees resumed their place atop the sport in the late 1990s, becoming an unreachable target for the bottom-dwellers from Baltimore over the last 15 years.
It seems right then, that if the Orioles are to author a truly remarkable 2012, they must go through their white — make that pinstriped — whale in the American League Divisional Series, scheduled to begin Sunday evening at Camden Yards.
"Every base hit I ever had in Yankee Stadium, every game we won there was special," said Boog Powell, a star of the first Orioles teams to challenge the Yankees' dominance of the American League. "If you beat them, you really felt you had accomplished something, because you beat the big, bad boys."
This year's Orioles are less straightforward about any extra desire to beat the Yankees.
"I don't care who we've got to go through," center fielder Adam Jones said. "If my mom is on the other team, we gotta go through her. At this point in time, I don't care who's in another jersey. I'm like a bull. I see red at this point."
View from both sides
It's an incestuous rivalry in many ways. The greatest Yankee of all, Babe Ruth, is also the greatest athlete ever to hail from Baltimore. In 1976, the Orioles helped set up their last championship season by pillaging Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez and Scott McGregor from the Yankees in a 10-player deal. After the 2000 season, the Yankees helped put a nail in the Orioles' franchise coffin by giving ace pitcher Mike Mussina $88.5 million to switch teams.
Then there's Buck Showalter, the manager who has guided the Orioles' miraculous return to respectability, and also the one who steered the Yankees out of their last franchise downturn in the early 1990s.
But calling it a rivalry at all probably rings false for New Yorkers, who haven't had to regard the Orioles as a serious threat since Bill Clinton was president.
Pail Blair, who played on both teams, said the rivalry always flowed more from the Baltimore side than the New York side. "Everybody measured themselves against the Yanks," he said. "If you wanted to be the best, you had to beat the best."
Even when the Orioles were great, Blair said, the Boston Red Sox were the Yankees' mortal rival.
"This year is the first time in a long time the Yankees felt threatened by the O's," said Rishi Kadiwar, an Orioles fan from Rockville who now works in Manhattan. "Up to now, the Yankees fans thought of the O's as a non-entity. The only rivalry in the Bronx up till now was from the Red Sox."
Kadiwar's Yankees-loving colleagues expected the Orioles to collapse all season, he said, but now they don't sound quite so sure.
"If the O's sweep in Baltimore, New York fans know they may be in trouble," he said.
Underdogs from the start
The Orioles didn't scare anyone when the franchise moved from St. Louis in 1954, certainly not the Yankees, who were in the heart of one of the greatest runs in American team sports history.
It wasn't until 1960 that the O's made Mantle and Co. sweat a bit. Those Orioles, with a young Brooks Robinson at third, Jim Gentile thumping the ball and Hoyt Wilhelm floating knucklers from the bullpen, held a portion of first place as late as Sept. 14. The Yankees then showed their pedigree and won the American League by eight games.
The story remained the same in 1961, when the Orioles won 95 games, and 1964, when they won 97. They were good, but there was no wild card in those days, so they could only stare up at the Yankees, who were better.
"It was a hate-envy kind of thing," said Powell, who grew up in a family of fans who wanted to see the Yankees toppled.
The worm turned in 1965, when the Orioles began an 11-season streak of finishing ahead of New York. Suddenly, they were the game's model franchise, and the Yankees were a faded mess.
In the late 1970s, the Yankees came roaring back with a star-laden team, bought with owner George Steinbrenner's war chest and whipped along by tempestuous manager Billy Martin. Those teams waged great divisional battles, with the Orioles and their understated efficiency offering a stylistic counterpoint.