While the Minnesota Twins head to the playoffs next week the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise just a year removed from having nearly the highest attendance in baseball, are going home to contemplate the future and how next season can’t possibly be any worse than this year was. Or can it?

Ever since Yankee fan/hero Jeffery Maier intercepted Derek Jeter’s pseudo-home run from right fielder Tony Tarasco in the 1996 American League Championship Series, it’s been all downhill in Baltimore. They won the American League East and reached the A.L.C.S. again in 1997 but this time it was the Indians who cancelled their World Series hopes. The 1998 season was a letdown, and in an effort to get them to the next level, owner Peter Angelos reached deep into his wallet and signed controversial free agent Albert Belle. Belle put up solid seasons, but nevertheless the only thing keeping the Orioles from falling into last place in the American League East was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

After the 2000 season, Oriole free agent All-Star pitcher Mike Mussina knew that signing a long term contract with his current team would make him financially secure for life, but would most likely never get him to a World Series.

Instead of waiting for the Orioles to become a contending team, Mussina signed a $115 million with the Yankees. Good decision ? in his first season in pinstripes, Mussina fell one inning shy of a Championship and the Yankees are headed to the playoffs once again this fall. With their premier pitcher gone, the best player on the Orioles was Albert Belle. However, a severe hip injury midway through the 2001 campaign ended his season and career prematurely, after doctors determined he was “unfit to play.”

The Orioles never seriously contended for a playoff spot in 2002, but had some bright spots. Rodrigo Lopez emerged as a top young starting pitcher in baseball and shortstop Mike Bordick posted an errorless streak that could make even Ozzie Smith jealous. But with a 4-27 record over the last five weeks, all of their positive momentum has halted.

Baltimore’s winter will be filled with frustration and doubt. The Montreal Expos possible move to the Washington D.C. area could eliminate a significant portion of the Baltimore market, leaving fans to opt for Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and the up-and-coming Washington Expos. But perhaps the biggest frustration the Orioles will feel is over the end of a 42 year relationship with their Triple-A affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings.

Because poor play and injuries have forced the Orioles to call up many of their minor leaguers before they’re ready for the majors, the Red Wings have not had a winning season since 1997. This season was worse than the previous ones, when the Wings had the worst record in the International League, and Red Wings management had seen enough.

Dropped by the Orioles last week, the Red Wings became the AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Minnesota’s previous AAA affiliate, the Edmonton Trappers, a top the Pacific League this season. Even with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the Twins have used good drafting and smart trades to develop a division winner on the Major League level. Management should definitely carry over and bring the Red Wings into immediate contention.

Unlike the Orioles, who are looking forward to starting a long vacation next week, the Red Wings and their fans are already getting excited for the upcoming season. Maybe next year at this time they’ll have something to cheer for other than the start of the Amerks season.

Swidler can be reached at dswidler@campustimes.org.

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