Elbo: A familiar hangover 

Boy. Now that it's fashionable to suggest that Barry try to hit .400 this year, just like I did last month, maybe it's time to mention the familiar feeling I've been feeling this spring.

I lived in Baltimore during the Orioles' wire-to-wire division championship season of 1997. That team had the swagger. They had two closers, if you count the emerging Armando Benitez. They had three 15-game winners. Even the fourth starter won ten games. They jumped out to a huge lead and then coasted, winning 98 games. They were the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.

And then what happened? Well, they wiped out the Mariners, but then the Indians smacked around their bullpen and won the series in six games. (MVP of the ALCS: Marquis Grissom.) Oh well. It happens, right?

But when 1998 rolled around, suddenly the O's looked terrible. One good player retired, and they were down to one closer. Everyone else was a year older, meaning that the entire starting lineup was suddenly over 30. Everyone who had a great year in 1997 suddenly played below average in 1998. The new acquisitions looked like hell. And the team won only 79 games, finishing below .500 and below all expectations.

Does any of this sound familiar? I have seen a championship-quality team come apart at the seams, see. Watching the 2004 Giants, I feel like I've seen this movie before. And the end is, unfortunately, not a pleasure to watch.

What the Orioles did next may strike a chord with you, dear reader, as well. While they made a mild effort to win in 1999 by signing Albert Belle (whoops), they wound up within a game of the previous year's finish. (Their "youth movement," oddly enough, consisted of a young Aruban pitcher who was not yet royalty in his home country.) But mostly, what the O's did was keep promoting Cal Ripken Jr. as the star of the team so that people would still come to the games. And their great new stadium, just six years old as 1998 began, was still full of fans over the next few years, and most of those fans recognized most of the players. And that was enough to keep most people interested, until the Great One retired. They've been in fourth place ever since.

Orioles fans have had to learn to love the little things over the past few years. They've loved great half-seasons by Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie. They've loved Melvin Mora's freak 2003 campaign. They've loved the emergence of Jay Gibbons as a pretty good player. They've loved the decent season by Rodrigo Lopez, and some good starts by Josh Towers. And now, six years after they went into the toilet, management has waited for the kids to gel together, and spent some dough on Miguel Tejada. Which could get them up to third place this year.

No one likes hangovers, but most of us have learned to live with them when they happen. What do you do? You go to sleep for a long time and hope that when you wake up, it's gone.


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