AN IDEAL TEAM IN HARM'S WAY - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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The Orioles, deep in pitching and strong up the middle, are throwbacks to classic Yankee teams. But the Twins' Harmon Killebrew, finishing an awesome year, has his own heroic thoughts

In The Roar of the Crowd, W. R. Burnett's central character, the Old Timer, a prominent lawyer in a small California town who played for three major league teams in his younger days, remains devoted to his sport because he still finds it "a naked struggle for supremacy that goes on for hours." He feels "it does not need midgets, exploding scoreboards, fireworks, giveaway programs or any of the other rather pathetic sales gimmicks that have been tried from time to time as a substitute for a good ball team and sound baseball." When the author asks the Old Timer what it takes to make a successful team, he answers sagely, "The aim of all managers is the ideal team. It is never achieved, of course, but sometimes they come very close, as with a few Yankee teams over the years. What in theory is the ideal team? Defensive strength down the middle and offensive strength on the corners. A pitching staff with five good starters and five good relievers, all with excellent control.... And at the end of the rainbow a pot of gold."

The one team in the 1960s that comes close to Burnett's ideal is Baltimore of 1969, which this week acts as host to the American League segment of the series of champions, the new best-of-five playoff that will ultimately determine whether the Orioles or the Minnesota Twins will be in the 66th World Series, beginning a week from now.

This year, racing through their schedule with a consistency that has rarely been seen in baseball or any other sport, the Orioles chewed up what was supposed to be the best-balanced of the major leagues' four divisions, a group that included last year's world champion Detroit Tigers, among others. By winning 106 of their first 154 games for a .689 percentage, the Orioles earned a place alongside seven superb American League clubs: the great Yankee teams of 1927, 1932 and 1939 with Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey Lazzeri and DiMaggio, and 1961 with Maris and Mantle; Connie Mack's fabled Philadelphia Athletics of 1929 and 1931 with the Million Dollar Infield and enough overall strength to cause them to be broken up for the good of the league: and the Cleveland Indians of 1954, a learn that still holds the record for most victories in a season, 111.

Now, of course, the Orioles must face up to the playoffs, the most debatable part of an interesting season that, several weeks before it ended, had already drawn 25 million paying customers to big-league ball parks. Equipped with fine power hitters like Frank Robinson and Boog Powell (see cover), Brooks Robinson and Paul Blair, each of whom hit over 20 home runs, the Orioles also have the best pitching staff in the American League.

The Baltimore players have produced all sorts of impressive statistics. Robinson and Powell each knocked in more than 100 runs while batting over .300. Little Don Buford, the Oriole leadoff hitter, proved he had power to go along with his speed by staying up among the league leaders in doubles all season long. In fact, the first five hitters in the Oriole lineup—Buford, Blair, Frank Robinson, Powell and Brooks Robinson—have hit 128 home runs. On defense, the Orioles came close to equaling their own record for fewest errors in a season (95), and the left side of the infield, with Brooks Robinson at third and Mark Belanger at short, is one of the best baseball has ever seen.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few people, many of them not living in Baltimore, who believe that the Orioles enter the playoffs, somewhat disadvantaged. Why, some ask, must a team be exposed to being beaten in a short series after having won more games than any other during the 162-game regular season and thus be deprived of playing in baseball's biggest showcase, the World Series? And, realistically, haven't new Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and his staff bungled the playoff setup by not giving to the winningest team the home-field advantage? Baltimore plays the first two games in Memorial Stadium, then the remaining games in Minnesota. Not even the National Basketball Association, seldom cited for its great foresight, ever let that happen during its playoffs. Among other things, consider the Twins' astounding record at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. Since June 15 they have capitalized as well as any team ever has on the "home-court" advantage by winning 38 of the last 48 games they played there.

When the Orioles broke their spring training camp in Miami in April, Manager Earl Weaver and his team had a set plan by which they hoped to win their division. "We decided." says Weaver, "that if we could just play seven games over .500 every month that it would add up to enough victories to win." The only months in which the Orioles were as low as seven games over .500 were July and August. Those two, however, had already been amply provided for by a spectacular June when the Orioles finished 15 games above .500. It was during this period that the Orioles took flight from the rest of their division. In a span of less than two weeks they moved from three games ahead to 10, and the season was just about over for the rest of the Eastern Division.

As July came on, the Orioles developed one of those sometimes funny, sometimes testy and silly diversions that successful professional teams seem to thrive on. The Orioles' device was a kangaroo court held after every winning game. The judge of the court was Frank Robinson, who conducted his cases using a Louisville Slugger as a gavel and a mop as a periwig, for dignity. The court meted out three main awards that carried with them $1 fines plus the stigma of a memento that had to be kept by the fined player for a day. The mementos were an old spiked shoe painted red, a mail-order glove painted silver and a scuffed-up baseball with the stuffing leaking out. The shoe represented the John Mason Memorial Baserunning Award, named for a player once in the Orioles' organization who was believed to be the worst base runner anywhere. The glove, called the Chico Salmon No-Touch Award, was named after their fumble-fingered utility man and was given to the player who looked the worst on defense during the day's game. The baseball went to the pitcher who had yielded the hardest-hit ball, and was named the John O'Donoghue Line Drive Award in memory of the pitcher who in 1968 had an earned run average of 6.14.

A record of the award winners and other assorted fines was kept in a notebook by Coach Charlie Lau, who suggested the idea of fines when he saw a player walk to the food table in the clubhouse after a game without any clothing on. "That started it," said Lau. "Frank took charge of it and made it go. The thing that was good about it was that it brought everyone on the team closer together. A baseball team lives together for a long period of time and has to have things to keep it loose and lift the tensions."

Some fines noted by Lau in his little book: Pitching Coach George Bamberger, after being observed yawning on the bench; Centerfielder Paul Blair, for posting a large poster above his locker which said, WORLD'S GREATEST CENTERFIELDER and was signed by an artist named Evelyn Blair; Lau himself and Boog Powell, "for cleaning fish in the shower"; Dave McNally, the 20-game winner, "for taking too long to pitch a game and thus shortening the cocktail hour"; Reliever Dave Leonhard, fined several times for arriving at the ball park without socks; Utility Man Bobby Floyd, for wearing "great popsicle-colored pants"; Manager Weaver, for putting Belanger into a game in a late inning for defensive purposes only to have Belanger make two consecutive errors.

On top of the award fines and others deemed necessary by the players themselves, the Orioles were assessed 50¢ for each error made during infield practice before games. Normally, when teams fine themselves the money is used at the completion of the season to throw a party. This is not the case with the Orioles, as Brooks Robinson, the splendid third baseman and gentleman, explained one evening not long ago in Memorial Stadium. "This morning," he said, "I went to the Equitable Trust Company with the tine money. We aren't going to have a party with it. Not long ago Sharon Corrales, the wife of Pat Corrales, the second-string catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, died just after giving birth to their fourth child. We decided by a vote to deposit the money in her name to help in the education of the children."

Baltimore may well become the White Sands Proving Grounds of the playoffs' future. Attendance in Baltimore this year has been less than stimulating, a fact attested to by the honest accounting system of the club. (The Orioles announce their actual turnstile crowds, rather than a turnstile count plus a head count of season ticket holders not present a method all sports promoters, particularly professional football teams, should follow.) Baltimore is going to have the lowest attendance for a pennant-winning team since 1946, although ticket sales will exceed a million.

One important reason for the slim attendance is that Baltimore, unlike New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit, does not have vast amounts of expense-account money to spend. Baltimoreans are quick to react when they feel they are being gouged. Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts, found this out—and backed down—after trying to force his season-ticket holders to buy seats to two exhibition games, too, in 1970. John F. Steadman, the sports editor of The Sews American and a former publicity director of the Colts, let Rosenbloom know how things stood in a tone seldom used by professional football writers.

"All the negative publicity the Baltimore Colts have brought upon themselves, unnecessarily," wrote Steadman, "could have been prevented if they had knowledge of their own public. Rosenbloom didn't know, when he started on this latest course, how the typical Baltimore Colts' ticket buyer felt. Most fans are middle-income. Money is budgeted for food, clothes, school, church, mortgage, gasoline, beer and entertainment. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Colts' ticket buyers who put several dollars away each week to pay for their seats. Everybody isn't rich."

The Colts of 1968 were beaten in the Super Bowl by the New York Jets after their fans had been led to believe that theirs was the best team of recent NFL times. This spring the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA, after having the best record in the league over the regular season, were eliminated by the New York Knickerbockers in four straight games of the quarter-final round of the playoffs. What will Oriole fans do should Minnesota knock this fine Oriole club out of a chance at the World Series? What will they do if the Orioles do reach the Series and the New York Mets beat them?

But there is a blessing for baseball in having the Orioles meet the Twins for the championship of the American League. Minnesota is a good baseball team with a lot of heroes of its own. Maybe only Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 enjoyed in recent times the type of season Harmon Killebrew has had this year. Alter Killebrew ruptured a hamstring in the 1968 All-Star Game, many thought his tremendous years as a Twin might be at an end. But he came back this spring with a string of heroic performances that had Twin fans standing and shouting for him as never before. He hit balls into the green seats at Detroit and the empty ones in Cleveland; drove them over that short wall in Fenway and up and over the long one in Kansas City. Reggie Jackson fascinated the country with his power for a good part of the year, and so, too, did Frank Howard. But Killebrew was coming on, and coming on strong. Through his team's pennant-clinching last week he never missed a game. He passed Howard and Jackson, batted in 138 runs and had 20 game-winning hits. Undeniably, he stands as the Most Valuable Player in the American League this year.

Rod Carew also had a fine season, and his seven steals of home broke a record set in 1946 by Pete Reiser of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Carew hit around .350 for most of the year, although his timing was often interfered with by Army Reserve duty. Second Baseman Carew worked well alongside Leo Cardenas at short to solidify an infield often suspect in the past. And Tony Oliva (.304) proved once again that he is virtually a hitting machine.

The best games played in the majors this year were between Baltimore and Minnesota. They were explosive games, tough games, marvelous games. In the 12 meetings between the Orioles and Twins, things happened guaranteed to make any true follower of the sport wish that every game of the season could be as good. Although some doubted that genuine rivalries could be developed between teams in different divisions, an exceptionally spirited one grew between Baltimore and Minnesota. Consider only a few of the highlights of the regular season and you can see what might develop in the playoffs.

It was mid-May and the Orioles traveled to Minnesota for a three-game series. The first game was won 4-2 on an inside-the-park home run by the Twins' Carew with a man on in the eighth. In the second game the Orioles' Blair knocked in five runs, but the Twins rallied for five themselves in the eighth before losing 9-8. The next night Dave McNally carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning only to have it broken up by a Cesar Tovar single with one out. Baltimore still won 5-0.

Less than a week later the clubs met again, and Minnesota pushed home two runs in the 13th inning to win 3-2. Baltimore's bullpen had to function superbly to save the next game. 4-3, and the following evening the Orioles scored live runs in the seventh inning to win 6-2.

Ten weeks passed before the two met again. Somehow they topped even their earlier meetings. A triple in the 10th inning by Cardenas set up the winning run, and Carew brought it home with a drag bunt in a 4-3 Twins victory. A seventh-inning homer by Powell won the next game for the Orioles, 6-5. On Aug. 3 McNally took the mound to try and become the first pitcher in league history to win 18 consecutive games. He carried a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning, and then Rich Reese pinch-hit a grand-slam home run to win for the Twins 4-1. A few days later Baltimore rallied for four runs in the ninth inning to defeat the Twins 6-5. In their final meeting prior to the playoff, Mike Cuellar of Baltimore carried a no-hitter into the ninth only to have Tovar single again. The Orioles won this time 2-0.

Because they happen so infrequently, the most exciting things in baseball are said to be an inside-the-park home run, a pinch-hit grand-slam home run, a big ninth-inning rally, a drag bunt that wins a game and a bid for a no-hitter. All these occurred in the games between the Orioles and the Twins, and although Baltimore won the season's series eight games to four, the difference between the two teams is not as wide as it seems when the scores are considered.

The matchups between the Orioles and Twins are enough to lend more speculation to the playoff in the American League than the one in the National. Earl Weaver and Bills Martin, the competing managers, are top candidates for the honor of manager of the year in the American League. Because both have used their material to play a forcing, exciting, tomorrow-be-damned style of baseball that makes use of the entire 25-man rosters, they have also made the most out of positions that were critical for the success of their teams. Cardenas, acquired by Minnesota from Cincinnati as the possible answer to the troubled shortstop job, contributed importantly to Minnesota's rise. Weaver has gotten the utmost out of Belanger, now the premier shortstop in the American League.

The league's two leading run producers in 1969, Killebrew and Powell, should be the chief threats, but the other stars are also there: Carew, Oliva, Reese, Frank Robinson, Tovar and Blair—six of the top hitters in the American League. And Baltimore still has the incomparable Brooks Robinson at third.

The Orioles, ideal in Burnett's classic sense, should find their way into the World Series, but if Minnesota beats them in a short playoff a lot of questions are going to be asked, particularly by older fans who could do with fewer gimmicks, like a playoff system, on their march to the end of the rainbow and a pot of gold.


Stolid and menacing, Minnesota's Killebrew, the American League's top slugger, will face its top lefthander, Baltimore's Mike Cuellar.