- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

BALTIMORE. — It was the Orioles vs. Yankees last night in Baltimore, another chapter in the life of Yankee Stadium south, as Yankees fans took up a good part of the sellout crowd of 48,168 and made their presence known, though it wasn’t as bad as some desperate Yankees nights at the Yard.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Ten years ago, when the Yankees came to town, there was no doubt who the enemy was when they took the field. But then again, that’s when everything changed for both of these teams, propelling them in different directions.

The ESPN world believes baseball was founded with the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, but 10 years ago, it was the Yankees and the Orioles who created the heat in baseball, and their games were the marquee matchups.

The story of what happened in the American League Championship Series between these two teams has been chronicled many times — the Jeffrey Maier fan interference that led to the Yankees’ win in Game 1 of the series in New York — and many observers believe that is where the fortunes of these two teams changed.

But the date that Yankee fans should celebrate and Orioles fans should mourn is not Oct. 9, 1996 — the Maier game — but Dec. 21, 1995. That’s when the fate of these teams — and perhaps the entire AL East — changed for the next 10 years.

That’s the day the Orioles, lacking about $200,000, lost out to the Yankees in the bidding for pitcher David Cone.

Back in 1996, Cone was the leader of the Yankees’ clubhouse and helped set the tone for first-year manager Joe Torre. He was the heart and soul of the franchise in the early days of their 10-year run, and he was the one who took the ball in tough situations.

In the five seasons after signing with the Yankees, Cone went 55-38, and the Yankees won four World Series. Take him out off that Yankees staff and out of that clubhouse — still in the formative stages of those Torre-guided teams — and put him on the Orioles staff and in their clubhouse (one that was in desperate need of leadership at the time), and there is little doubt who wins in 1996, Maier or no Maier, and maybe what happens beyond that.

“He was a heck of a pitcher and the sort of teammate that would make everybody better,” said Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles analyst who has had a front row seat to the events that have taken place between the two teams since 1996. “When you take two teams that were pretty equally matched, and at the time the Orioles and the Yankees were, and take a player like that from one team and put him on another, it would have had a significant impact. Everything took off for the Yankees after 1996.”

Cone loved New York. He was traded from Toronto to the Yankees during the 1995 season and helped the Yankees win the AL East title with a 9-2 record in 13 starts. Cone grew to like the city and its fans during a stint with the Mets, and his clutch pitching down the stretch in 1995 made him a fan favorite at Yankee Stadium (Remember the Coneheads?)

But he had reservations about the future of the Yankees and liked the idea of coming to Baltimore. Remember, this was a time when players used to rave about how great it was to play at Camden Yards. Also, in the aftermath of the baseball strike, Orioles owner Peter Angelos refused to field a replacement team in the spring of 1995. Cone, one of the union leaders, admired Angelos for his position.

Cone was involved in negotiations with both the Yankees and the Orioles, and Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick had a deal in place that would have paid Cone close to $20 million for three years. But Angelos nixed the deal, and Cone signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Yankees.

Years later, in an interview, Cone wondered how things might have worked out if he had signed with the Orioles.

“I don’t know if it would have changed things that much, but sometimes I’ve wondered how different things might have been if I had signed with Baltimore,” he said. “I was very close to doing it.”

Here’s how things have been from the year the Orioles lost out on David Cone. In 1996, the Yankees drew 2.25 million fans, the Orioles 3.6 million. Last year, New York drew 4 million fans, while the Orioles drew 2.6 million.

In 1996, the Yankees’ payroll was $61.5 million, while the Orioles were right behind them in second place at $55.1 million. This year’s Yankees’ payroll is $194.6 million — more than triple their 1996 spending — while the Orioles are at $72.5 million. That’s less than a $20 million increase in 10 years.

Since 1996, the Yankees have been to the postseason 10 straight years and won the division nine out of those 10 seasons. The one year they didn’t was 1997, when the Orioles led the AL East from start to finish.

Baltimore hasn’t had a winning season since.

Jeffrey Maier may get the fame and the scorn, but the history of these two teams that led up to last night wasn’t set in motion by some kid reaching out for a fly ball at Yankee Stadium. It was done in The Law Offices of Peter Angelos, where the buck stopped.

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