The Baltimore Orioles won the American League East in 1997 with a 98-64 record and by two games over the New York Yankees. The Orioles lost in six games to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series, Baltimore's second consecutive ALCS trip.
Owner Peter Angelos then allowed General Manager Pat Gillick to spend for several free agents, including outfielder Joe Carter (coming off 102 RBI) and starter Doug Drabek.
Carter joined a 1998 lineup that already featured Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson. Plus, Harold Baines was there for the full season and outfielder Eric Davis was back from injury.
Drabek would be joining Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key, Scott Erickson and Scott Kamieniecki, starters who had combined to win 57 games in 1997. And flamethrower Armando Benitez was the closer in front of Arthur Rhodes, the game's most overpowering lefty reliever.
The Orioles started 10-2. A Baltimore sports columnist, covering the Masters, was looking over another winning box score and said to a friend: "This isn't fair. This team is too good."
The Orioles then staggered to a 27-45 mark over then next 2-1/2 months and finished f79-83, fourth in the East and 35 games behind the Yankees. They have ranged from 63 to 78 victories over the next 11 seasons. That gave the O's 12 losing years in a row and this year's miserable 2-16 start only adds to the pain of Baltimore fans.
There is a moral to this tale, and it doesn't center on bashing the Orioles. This is a caution to baseball fans -- in this case, Minnesota Twins fans -- not to get ahead of themselves.
The followers of one team, the Yankees, are allowed to look far ahead. Those fans know that if a crack develops in the machine, the owners will add to a $206 million payroll. Those fans are permitted in May to contemplate how the rotation will be set in October.
The rest of fandom has no business looking down the road -- particularly in Minnesota, where it has been proven in historic fashion that 162 games might not be sufficient to decide a regular season.
Sadly, I've heard many idiotic things surrounding the Twins in this early stage of the season. For instance:
-- Joe Mauer's heel injury led to the recall of Wilson Ramos. The 22-year-old catcher was batting .179 at Class AAA Rochester. He went 7-for-9 in his first two games.
Twins followers sent electronic communiquZs insisting that the team start making plans immediately to either A) convert Ramos to third base or B) put Mauer at third and install Ramos as the No. 1 catcher.
Since his early splurge, Ramos is now 1-for-18. Drew Butera was in the lineup for the nightcap of Saturday's doubleheader -- and figures to stay as the backup when Mauer returns to the lineup.
-- Two enthused communicators were on the air Thursday evening. The Twins were 19-9 and these gents agreed that three of four would be the minimum for the home team against Baltimore. What they couldn't wait for was next weekend's matchup with the Yankees in New York.
"That will be the test," was a comment uttered.
This is baseball, and there are no givens. There certainly are none 28 games into a 162-game (or maybe 163) season.
The O's outpitched and outplayed the Twins 2-0 on Thursday. Baltimore did the same in Saturday's first game -- a 7-3 victory -- before the Twins came back for a split, 6-1 behind Scott Baker in the night game and won Sunday, 6-0, behind Nick Blackburn.
Anyone shocked by this? Not with such a team as the Twins -- meaning, any team not the Yankees -- that's never more than three hours away from a potential comeuppance.
-- One last thing: What is it that has anyone thinking this Minnesota ballcub that went to Game 163 in the Central the previous two seasons suddenly should be worried about matching up with the Yankees, rather than the division standings?
The middle of the infield is improved, but it was fine for the last two months of 2009 after the arrival of Orlando Cabrera. A revitalized Francisco Liriano makes for a better rotation, and not having Joe Nathan makes for a thinner bullpen.
How does it add up?
Thirty-two games in, we know nothing, except there's one well-oiled machine in the American League, and it's the Yankees. The rest of 'em -- Twins included -- will have all they require as a challenge most every day.