Publish date:


The Orioles have been terrorizing American League pitchers with a record home run barrage

When the streak finally ended, the bleacher-blasting Baltimore Orioles—they of the record-setting 38 homers in 14 straight games—were, like the cow being led from the cornfield, less teary-eyed than stuffed to the muzzle. "All good things must come to an end," said a sated Cal Ripken Sr., Baltimore's manager, happy to be able to direct his bottomless cache of clichès toward something other than lively baseballs. "We finally won a game without hitting home runs."

Which is not to say that after seeing his O's belt 66 balls over the wall in the season's first 41 games, Rip Sr. had become numbed by the sight. Homers, he will be the first to admit, are nice. But it was comforting to see his team scratch out a win for a change. Trailing the Oakland Athletics 2-1 in the eighth inning on the road Saturday, their consecutive-game home run streak of 14 on the line, the Orioles scored four times on three measly singles, two walks and two errors, and then held on for a 5-4 victory—their 13th win in 18 games. On Sunday the O's reverted to their power game as Ray Knight hit a fourth-inning home run to help lift them to a 4-3 win over Oakland.

During their home run spree, the Birds set major league records for most homers in 11, 12, 13 and 14 consecutive games (32, 35, 36 and 38, respectively, all of which surpassed the marks held by the '47 New York Giants), while putting themselves on a pace that would shatter by 12 the '61 Yankees' record of 240 homers in a season. Still, by week's end Baltimore was only three games over .500 and in fourth place in the American League East. If pennants are won by three-run homers, pitching and defense, as Ripken's predecessor, Earl Weaver, so often said, then the '87 Orioles have been heavy on the long ball and suspect elsewhere. But don't count this club out. "Things are starting to fall in place very well," says Rip Sr. "I like what I see."

Four weeks ago the only falling the Orioles were doing was toward the cellar, and all Ripken could see was his team playing the patsy. On May 5, Baltimore had a 9-15 record, had lost 14 of its last 18 games and was 11 games out of first place. Combine that start with the club's performance at the end of last season—42 losses in its final 56 games to finish below .500 for the first time in 18 years and in the cellar for the first time in its history—and you had a team that seemed, well, for the birds. Eddie Murray, the cleanup hitter and team leader, was batting .174 and was unhappy. The fickle Baltimore fans booed him in person and ripped him on radio call-in shows. One sports-talk host, former Baltimore Colts linebacker Stan White, told his listeners that he had seen Murray without his clothes on in the locker room after a recent game and, "Boy, has Eddie gotten fat."

That's all the locals needed to hear about their nonslugging slugger, who has a new five-year, $13.5 million contract. Murray told the Royals' George Brett, a close friend, that in his 10-plus seasons as an Oriole he had never been so miserable. Further, while roaming the Baltimore clubhouse one day, he was heard to mutter sarcastically, "It's great to be young and be a [bleeping] Oriole," a variation on the team motto his rookie year, 1977, when he would say the same thing in sincerity, minus the expletive.

Murray's wasn't the only bat that was silent in the early going. On May 5, Fred Lynn was batting .198 with one home run. Second baseman Rick Burleson was batting .151, and rightfielder John Shelby, who, along with minor league pitcher Brad Havens, was traded last week to the Dodgers for relief pitcher Tom Niedenfuer, was batting .185.

With a combined ERA of 4.36, the pitching staff wasn't faring much better. Veteran starters Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan had a combined record of 0-8, and bullpen stopper Don Aase had been on the disabled list for 21 days and had yet to make a save. The offense sputtered, the pitching fluttered and the fans did more than mutter: They hunkered down and booed. "The way the fans were treating us," says outfielder/designated hitter Jim Dwyer, "it was almost like, oh, boy, we can go on the road and relax." Indeed, as of last weekend the Orioles were 6-11 at home and 17-9 on the road.

The unsung Dwyer helped get the offense untracked. A pinch-hitting specialist who has never started more than 62 games in a season during more than six years in Baltimore, the 37-year-old Dwyer was a forgotten man early in the year. He had only 15 at bats during spring training and 15 in the Orioles' first 24 games. The Baltimore papers began to speculate that he would soon be released. "It's always been my job to sit and wait for someone not to hit," Dwyer says, "but when I read that they might let me go without giving me at least one chance to save myself, I was upset. It's not like I sit around and cause trouble."

Orioles G.M. Hank Peters denies ever giving any thought to releasing Dwyer, because, says Peters, "there are half a dozen ball clubs that would trade for him." Small wonder. When Dwyer finally got his first start, in Minnesota on May 5, he responded with a two-run homer and a single. He has been playing against righthanded pitchers ever since, and in his last 57 at bats has hit seven homers and driven in 14 runs. Not bad, considering his career high for home runs in a season is nine. Lively ball, perhaps? "Weights," says Dwyer.

"No question."

Dwyer, who lives in Tinley Park, Ill., started lifting in the off-season two years ago under the supervision of Phil Claussen, the strength and fitness coach for the Cubs. Claussen also supervised Carlton Fisk's weight-training program in 1984. The next year Fisk hit a career-high 37 home runs. "I asked Pudge one day, 'What gives with the homers?' " recalls Dwyer, "and he gave me this guy's name." Dwyer began lifting four times a week last winter and gained 15 pounds to increase his weight to 193 this season. "The idea is that with strength comes bat speed, and with bat speed comes power," Dwyer says. He has slacked off his strength program since the start of the season, partly because the Orioles don't have any free weights in their sparsely furnished weight room.

"We don't believe in strength coaches and all that stuff," says Peters.

Baltimore did not begin its Ruthian antics until May 8 at Chicago's Comiskey Park. That's where the home run streak started. The wind was blowing out, and the Orioles blew the White Sox out by scores of 7-6, 15-6 and 6-4, hitting 12 homers in the process. Larry Sheets, the oxlike Baltimore leftfielder who usually bats eighth and currently leads the team in hitting with a .337 average, parked one blast on Comiskey's rightfield roof. The only other Oriole ever to do that was Boog Powell. The next day in batting practice all the Birds were shooting for the roof. "If Sheets can do it, anybody can" became the players' rallying cry.

Murray failed to clear the ancient canopy, but he broke out of his slump with a vengeance, becoming the first major leaguer to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in consecutive games. During the record-setting 14-game stretch, Murray hit nine homers, batted .397 and drove in 21 runs. Lynn also caught fire, stroking seven dingers in 11 games (he missed three games of the streak with a bruised left shoulder) and driving in 14 runs. Dwyer had six homers, Sheets five, Terry Kennedy four, Knight and Cal Ripken Jr. two, Ken Gerhart, Lee Lacy and Dave Van Gorder one each. Ten players got on the bandwagon, but there was no question in any of the Orioles' minds as to which one got it rolling.

"What turned this club around was when Eddie Murray started hitting," says Rip Jr., who at week's end led the league with 37 RBIs, one more than Murray had. "When he gets hot he carries the whole ball club."

Since he started hitting, Murray seems happier, too, though one can hardly be certain. He recently told a friend, "I'm going to pretend to be happy for the rest of the year." Anyone's happiness is difficult to gauge, but in Murray's case it is especially so, because he prefers not to talk to the press. "He's got a lot of phobias," says another friend. "Don't take offense. He won't talk to pitchers, either."

Murray's discontent began last year, when, for the first time, his home run production slipped below that of the league leaders. Hampered by a hamstring injury that forced him onto the disabled list for the first time in his career and by a less publicized and vaguely defined problem with his left hand, Murray hit only 17 homers after averaging 29 in his first nine years. "I'm going to go out and get my two singles today," he would tell friends grimly on his way to the field. Still, he produced reasonably well, batting .305, driving in 84 runs and leading the team with a .366 average with runners in scoring position. But the three-run homers were missing, and because Murray wasn't whining publicly about his hand problem, he was criticized. "He's done nothing," Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams said in August.

The charge stung Murray, who considers himself the true Oriole. Three days later he asked to be traded, but nothing came of his request. When he was asked to put together a list of cities in which he would consider playing, Murray, a native of Los Angeles, balked. He wanted to play in Baltimore. In 1985 he gave the city $500,000 to fund an Outward Bound Camp program in the memory of his mother, Carrie. Each year he buys 50 upper-deck box seats for underprivileged youngsters. "Eddie has done a lot for a lot of people in this city." says Peters. "He's a good human being who loves his privacy."

That's apparently not good enough for Baltimoreans—some might say Balti-morons—who saw Murray dragging down a yearly salary of more than $2 million while struggling at the plate. They felt his salary gave them ample reason to boo, even though he had been the most consistent run producer in the American League for a decade. "What's happened to Baltimore fans is the Orioles have spoiled them over the years," says Peters. "They expect a winner. I don't know that they're singling out any one player." Murray didn't help his own cause by showing up two days late for spring training this year or by being thrown out at third standing up early in the season as he tried to stretch a double into a triple on the Royals' Bo Jackson.

But, funny, now that he has raised his average 85 points in the past three weeks to .259 and is hitting with power once again, no one is chiding him about his weight anymore. The fact is, Murray is the hoss who can carry the veteran Orioles. And his teammates revere him. When rumors persisted during the home run streak that Dwyer, not Shelby, would be traded to the Dodgers for Niedenfuer, Murray walked into Rip Sr.'s office and asked him to clear up the matter. "Rip says he wouldn't do that to you," Murray told Dwyer upon emerging. End of rumors.

"Eddie's the leader on this team," says Dwyer. "He takes the load off the rest of us because he's the one guy in the lineup—and we've got a lot of guys who can hit the ball out of the park—capable of winning a game all by himself."

The load on Murray just may lighten up if the O's keep swinging the bats as they have been of late. That may be imperative, because all bygones may not be bygones. "I'm tired of being screwed over," says Murray. "A lot of unfair things go on."

That's certainly true, Eddie. Right on the money.



During Baltimore's 14-game homer streak, Lynn (far left) cracked seven dingers, Sheets hit five and Murray (above) unleashed nine.



One of four homers hit by Kennedy (right) in the streak eluded the Angels' Gary Pettis.



Dwyer did some weightlifting, waited for a chance and lifted the O's with seven HRs.



Rip Jr., who ripped two of the O's 38 homers during the string, leads the league in RBIs.