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The Baltimore Orioles front-running quest for the American League East crown ended Wednesday. So did Cito Gaston's career as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Orioles, who won for the 96th time in 158 games, became only the third AL team to win a title by leading wire-to-wire when Scott Kamieniecki (10-6) and Rafael Palmeiro conspired to push them to a title-clinching 9-3 win over the last-place Jays. It was Baltimore's first division crown was in 1983.

Gaston was fired earlier in the day and was not in the dugout for Baltimore's clincher.

Gaston led Toronto to consecutive World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 -- and four division championships.

But he also became the only manager ever to follow a world championship trophy with four consecutive losing seasons with the same team.

"It was a relief," Gaston told The Fan radio station today.

"I've taken a real beating this year in the press. My family has been a little bit upset by some cartoons that were printed in the newspaper. . . . In the same way I think it's time to move one when you start to have kids that are making certain gestures to you as you leave the ball park and even throw rocks at the car."

Gaston told the Toronto Sun it was his decision to leave.

"I just thought it was better this way," Gaston said from his Toronto home. "It's been a good 16 years (with Toronto). This has been a first-class organization. I'm not upset."

Gaston has been offered a paid one-year sabbatical with the club followed by a position as a hitting instructor in the organization. But Gaston might leave if a big-league team offers him a managing job.

General manager Gord Ash said he wanted an aggressive manager, someone who was a good communicator, a hard worker and someone with "a good intellect. . . . I like some emotion."

Expos manager Felipe Alou, Gene Michael and Paul Molitor have been mentioned as candidates.

Gaston was villified for apparently being too passive.

"They were even talking about (Gaston losing his job) when they were winning the World Series," Alou said in Montreal after the Expos' 10-9 loss to Florida.

"I could see it coming," Alou added. "I don't think he deserved it, but they've been talking about it so long."

Despite the naysayers, many players swear by Gaston's laid-back managerial style that gives his stars the opportunity to shine.

"He definitely was the type who let you go out and play," said Pat Hentgen, the 1996 Cy Young Award winning pitcher. "There are things the players need to take responsibility for.

"He's the only manager I've ever had, and when someone tells you your boss has been notified he won't be back, it's tough."

Pitching coach Mel Queen took over the team Wednesday and will stay until Sunday, Ash said, with a permanent replacement expected in place by December.

"There's no good day," Ash said of Cito's departure with five days left in the season. "I just felt that in view of what Cito has had to endure in terms of questions from you (the media), questions from fans, that in fairness to him I thought it was better that he leave, not in a surprise fashion because certainly you've all written and spoken about the fact that he would be leaving, but that he do it on his own time schedule, and that was today."

Gaston's managerial record stands at 681 wins and 635 losses, with an 18-16 record in postseason. He took over in 1989 and managed the Jays to the AL East title. He has the most wins and losses of any Blue Jay manager.

The Orioles clinched in encouraging fashion. Down 2-0, they rallied for a five-run sixth inning and a two-run seventh to give Kamieniecki the support he thirsted for the majority of this season. Palmeiro began the game on the bench but ended it with four RBIs, including a game-tying sacrifice fly and a two-run homer.

The last pitch belonged to closer Randy Myers, who appeared for an uneventful ninth inning. The last catch went to third baseman Cal Ripken, who gloved Benito Santiago's liner. An omen? Perhaps. Ripken also snared the last out of the 1983 World Series.

Things were joyous in the clubhouse as the Orioles sprayed champagne and puffed on cigars. Still, it was nothing like last year, when puddles of champagne were left on the floor of the same visitor's clubhouse after the Orioles clinched the AL's wild-card playoff berth here on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

"We're not celebrating too much because we know we've got more to do," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said. "We celebrated big time last year when we won the wild card. When we clinched the wild card this year, there was no celebration. This celebration was very subdued. We have two or three more big steps to take."

The Orioles (96-62) join the 1927 New York Yankees and the '84 Detroit Tigers as the only AL teams to spend every day of a season in first place. The 1923 New York Giants, '55 Brooklyn Dodgers and '90 Cincinnati Reds accomplished the feat in the National League. Of those other wire-to-wire clubs, only the Giants failed to win the World Series.

"It's very satisfying," Ripken said. "I was a very young man in '83. I thought it would happen every year. I've been around a while now, and I appreciate it more."

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