By Ross Newhan
That was not a typographical error in Wednesday's newspapers. The Baltimore Orioles--the same Orioles who finished last season with a 69-93 record and had not been in first place in September since 1997--were tied with the New York Yankees at the top of the American League East with Tampa Bay only a game behind.
How did this happen given that in any of the last 15 years Thursday night's unveiling of a Cal Ripken Jr. statue--one in a series of six unveilings by the organization during what it has billed as a Legends Celebration--would be the highlight of the club's September?
Well, trying to explain it is no easier than getting your mind around the fact that now--with less than a month to play--the battered and misdirected Orioles of those recent years have to be regarded as a legitimate playoff contender--if not, obviously, more.
I mean, start with the fact that figures obviously lie. The Orioles are 16th in the major leagues in earned-run average (having allowed fewer runs than only 10 of the other 29 teams), are 21st in hits and batting average, and 17th in runs.
Yet, they are 24-7 in games decided by one run and have won 12 straight extra inning games.
Both are measures of a team that isn't quitting on itself, as in previous summers when Camden Yards was a second home for Yankee and Boston Red Sox fans.
Now, underscoring the standings, Baltimore has also won 21 of its last 29 games, and a corps of young players acquired in trade or developed within--Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and 20 year old Manny Machado among them--have played an important role.
Nevertheless, there has been some educated magic involved.
With an $84 million payroll the Orioles are still more than $100 million behind the hated Yankees, forcing General Manager Dan Duquette to operate a rotating roster.
Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who had been out of the GM chair for a decade, has made 158 roster moves, employing 50 players, including 25 pitchers and 11 different starters--the most recent being the addition of veterans Joe Saunders and Randy Wolf. Both Saunders and Wolf--Arizona and Milwaukee castoffs--made a key start in the last week, catching some of the magic.
Duquette is the sixth general manager, and Buck Showalter is the seventh manager, since Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson led the Orioles as GM and manager to the 1997 division title. It takes a measure of guts--or the simple need for a paycheck--to become an Oriole manager or general manager given the propensity of owner Peter Angelos to have the final word and/or to interfere in every facet of the baseball operation--the one Oriole constant.
There are probably not two more controlling personalities in baseball than Angelos and Showalter, but Showalter is now in his third year at the Oriole helm, and close observers say Angelos has stayed remarkably clear of the manager's and general manager's business.
The owner has not even been attending the statue unveilings, sending Louis, the youngest of his two sons.
Whether the senior Angelos can pass on the Ripken unveiling remains to be seen.
Who would have thought that a September game with the Yankees following the unveiling would be the evening's highlight?