The time has come for the Baltimore Orioles to emerge from the short but all-encompassing shadow of their Napoleonic field general, Earl Weaver. Introducing the best team in baseball: Ken Singleton, take a bow. Eddie Murray doff your cap. A few words please, Al Bumbry. Mike Flanagan...by the way, which one of you guys is Flanagan? You're who? Scott McGregor? Close enough. Stand over there with Tippy Martinez. All right then, Dennis Martinez. Where's Stack-house? Oh, it's Stanhouse? Picky-picky. Big smile now, all you pitchers. Everyone say "pennant."
Forget the Yankees. Forget the Red Sox. Forget the Astros and Pirates and Reds. The collection of no-names from Baltimore will be the team to beat in October. Forget the free agents the Orioles lost, and the ghosts of Frank, Brooks and Boog. Take this team as it is. Do not delude yourselves that the Orioles have the best record in baseball and lead the American League East by six games only because the manager has no peer between the ears. A diamond Clausewitz Earl Weaver may be, but he is damn poor at knocking in runners from second. Most of his players happen to be quite good at it—especially in the late innings. "The ballplayers make the manager," says the Martinez called Tippy, a lefthanded relief pitcher who is so important to the team's success. "Sometimes you get a little irritated when he gets all the publicity, but there's not much you can do." Adds Flanagan, an engaging 27-year-old southpaw whose 14-6 record makes him the best starter on the best pitching staff in the American League: "We kind of laugh every time we see Weaver on the cover of a magazine. 'Oh, he's there again?' But it doesn't bother us. We've got very small egos on this team."
Very small egos can be a sign of very little talent. In Baltimore's case, they are the sign of a very good attitude. "There's a compatibility on this club that wasn't on my others," says John Lowenstein, a part-time outfielder with 11 home runs who came to Baltimore by way of Texas and Cleveland. "I thought Texas had a super club last year, but we couldn't maintain a positive attitude for more than a month. It's very easy to lose and very hard to win. Winning is a very exclusive class."
If they continue at their current pace, the Orioles will win their way into an exclusive class indeed. Their 74-35 record (.679) is just shy of the .685 of the 1969 Orioles at this point in the season (see chart above). If the '79 Orioles continue at this pace, they will finish with the best record of any team in the majors since the Cleveland Indians' .721 of 1954. Better, mind you, than the 1975 Cincinnati Reds (.667), the '69 Orioles (.673) and the '61 Yankees (.673). Pretty fair company to stalk with a bunch of what's-their-names.
Although a third of the season lies ahead, these Birds are not likely to be plucked. No one is playing over his head. The top hitter among the regulars, Singleton, is batting .300, equaling his American League career average. The pitching staff leads the league with a collective 3.29 ERA, but then Baltimore's pitchers are usually among the best. The hitters have a middling .266 average—middling being what the Bird batsmen customarily are. "We don't overwhelm opponents like the Yankees or the Red Sox," says Pitcher Steve Stone. "We leave teams wondering how they lost to us. We're like the championship A's. We win with defense and solid pitching."
And don't forget timely, powerful hitting. That team average is very deceptive. The pinch hitters are batting a lusty .325 (see chart below) and with 125 homers, the Orioles are slamming balls at a rate that will break the club record of 179 set in 1970. As the chart on page 40 shows, the Orioles play exactly well enough to win. And, as the chart on page 41 proves, just about everyone is making a significant contribution. "Every night it's a new hero," says Tippy Martinez, who is not related to starter Dennis Martinez (14-8). "Everybody's had the curtain call."
Last week in New York, Baltimore took two games from the Yankees in typical fashion. On Friday night the Orioles got two hits off Luis Tiant and won 1-0. A second-inning homer by Lowenstein stood up because McGregor, a junk-balling lefthander, blanked the Yanks with help from Tippy in the ninth.
On Saturday night it was the hitters' turn. Trailing 4-0 in the eighth, after having gotten only three hits off Catfish Hunter and Jim Kaat, the Oriole offense exploded for five runs. Shortstop Kiko Garcia opened the inning with a single, Catcher Rick Dempsey doubled and Centerfielder Bumbry doubled. With one out, Singleton got a single to make it 4-3. The next batter was Terry Crowley, whom Weaver had brought in to play first after Eddie Murray was ejected for arguing a call. Crowley singled to center. Lowenstein then tied the game with a sacrifice fly. The Yankees summoned Reliever Rich Gossage with two outs and the go-ahead run on first, and Lee May greeted him with a single. Switch-hitting Billy Smith, batting lefty against Gossage, drove Crowley home with the seventh Oriole hit of the inning. Smith, a .200 batter from the left side, has been playing lately because Third Baseman Doug DeCinces has a strained back muscle. Afterward, Flanagan gave the manager his due. "Weaver's key move was getting Murray thrown out so we could get Crowley in there."
"Team stars?" asks Weaver. "I've got 25 of them and two on the disabled list. Every one of them helps us win. The only guy who's really having an above-average year is probably Kenny Singleton, and he's having a Most Valuable Player year."
Singleton is the archetypical Oriole—steady, gentlemanly, team-minded and obscure. He already has a career-high 27 homers and 83 RBIs and he leads the league with 77 walks for an on-base percentage of .412. Yet no one thinks of this man as making the contributions of a Frank Robinson. "Nobody knew me in Montreal," he says, "so why should they know me now?"
Singleton received some renown for his fine hitting last year, but there was carping as well. The Oriole outfield was under constant attack from the pitching staff, notably its ace, Jim Palmer, "He was right, too," Singleton admits. "We weren't aggressive. We were afraid of making mistakes." The defense improved considerably with the return of Bumbry, Baltimore's speedy centerfielder, who missed most of the 1978 season with a broken ankle. Now that he is back, the outfield is as sound defensively as the rest of the team.
"We just don't feel we can lose," says Singleton. "Recently we scored nine runs in one inning against the Mariners after two were out and no one on. And we've had some miracle victories in the ninth inning. But that's what pennants are made of."
Lowenstein says the team's penchant for comebacks began "in the spring, when we tried to see how many runs we could score in the eighth and ninth innings. You get to the point where you expect it to happen. The late-inning heroics have become an ongoing epic."
Consider two consecutive home games in June against Detroit. In the first, with Baltimore trailing in the bottom of the ninth, Singleton and DeCinces hit homers for a 6-5 victory. In the second, Murray hit a three-run homer in the ninth for an 8-6 Oriole win. On each occasion the fans—35,000 one game and 46,000 the next—roared and stomped until the heroes came out for a bow.
Ironically, even though the Orioles are winning games and drawing fans at record rates, last week they were sold. Owner Jerold Hoffberger, who had been trying to swing a deal for several years, finally found someone who would meet his $12 million asking price: Washington Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams. Williams steadfastly maintains he will not move the team to Washington—but there are indications that he may schedule some games there. Even so, he is not likely to improve on the team's success at Memorial Stadium. Attendance in Baltimore is running 250,000 ahead of last year, with an average of more than 21,000 per date. "We used to draw an older crowd," says Flanagan. "Last year I had a no-hitter going into the ninth, and it was no big deal. Now the fans are younger, more vocal. It used to be no problem going out to a restaurant without being recognized, but the other night a bunch of us were down at the Chart House and guys started sending over drinks and lobsters and steaks."
The Baltimore players have served up feasts of their own at the ball park, where their record is a phenomenal 39-11 (.780). "The fans and the players seem to be feeding off each other," says Lowenstein.
Brooks Robinson, now the television color man for Oriole games, was discussing Baltimore's comfortable standing with an old friend last weekend. "They might win. These guys might win," Robinson said with a grin.
"They don't even need you, Brooksie," the friend said.
"They don't need Palmer, either," Robinson replied.
True enough. Jim Palmer is on the disabled list with tendinitis in his right elbow, and Weaver is in no rush to have him back on the mound. In the previous six weeks he had pitched only one game, and still the Orioles played .700 baseball, with Stone, McGregor, Dennis Martinez and Flanagan as the starting rotation. Because Palmer is 7-3 with a 3.20 ERA, Singleton has good reason to say. "If we get him back and he's throwing the way he can, that's it." Few would dare to disagree.
"There's just no doubt we've got the strongest pitching staff in baseball," says Palmer. "And the numbers for the starting pitchers could be a lot better than they are. The difference so far has been the quality of long relief. We're getting excellent work from the bullpen,"
Baltimore succeeds because the relief pitchers are able to keep the games under control until the batters crank up. Tippy Martinez beat Oakland last month when he retired 23 straight batters after issuing a walk. Last week against New York, rookie Dave Ford came on in the fifth inning to get another victory. "I've been knocked out six times this year before the third inning was over," says Flanagan, who leads the staff in shutouts with four. "But I don't feel like I've been knocked out. Maybe they've only scored three runs. But Earl can bring in a guy like Sammy Stewart, who might be a 20-game winner with another club, and he'll hold us close. I can't remember the last time we were blown out of a game."
The early shower also saves wear and tear on the starters, which is why Weaver scoffs at the idea that his pitchers might tire down the stretch.
The one man who occasionally has taken exception to Weaver's early-inning hook has been Stone, whose 6'1" record at home is offset by his dreadful 2-6 on the road. "Earl and I have had our differences," he says, "but that's because when I came here I had to concentrate on the 'we' concept. The losing clubs I was with were all 'I' clubs. In the second half of the season when you were out of it, everybody was concentrating on his personal statistics. Here everybody talks in terms of the ball club. As I've learned to accept that concept, it's taken the sting out of being knocked out. In a game against Milwaukee, I had a one-hitter going with two out in the ninth when Weaver came out and told me, '[Cecil] Cooper's yours if you want him.' Well, Cooper had just hit two long flies off me, and we were ahead 2-1, so that made him the winning run. If I had pitched and lost, I would have felt pretty bad. The best man for the job was Tippy, and one pitch later, we won."
When he was in Chicago, Stone was the team's poet laureate. Asked if he would rattle off some verse in praise of the Orioles, he declined. "If I try to do instant poetry, it would have to be iambic pentameter, and I don't want to do that. Later, I'll put something down on paper. The way this team's been playing—that's poetry."
Coach Ray Miller (left), Ken Singleton and Dennis Martinez welcome the star of the evening, John Lowenstein, after his home run that beat the Yankees.
Bumbry's back and running, restoring crucial speed and defense that were missing when he was injured.
Murray is dangerous even with only half a bat.
Singleton could look ahead to the Most Valuable Player award if only the voters were looking at him.
Tippy Martinez is not Dennis' brother, but, oh brother, can he pitch.
McGregor, who has a 7-3 record, has been a stingy Scott on the mound.
Stone makes a poetic pitch for Oriole teamwork.
Ford, a rookie, has been a Lincoln in relief.