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TENDER BIRD IN A HOT SKILLET

Oct. 02, 1972
Oct. 02, 1972

Table of Contents
Oct. 2, 1972

Oklahoma
Hockeyland
Flying Scared
People
College Football
Pro Football
Harness Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

TENDER BIRD IN A HOT SKILLET

The smell of singeing feathers was everywhere as the once-mighty Orioles fought disaster with their steadiest hitter, young Bobby Grich

Undoubtedly it was mere coincidence, but the weather seemed perversely tailored to the mood and situation of the Baltimore Orioles last week—entirely in keeping with that old, unwritten law that says dynasties topple only when the sun is buried in a bank of black rain clouds and a damp chill penetrates to the bone marrow. After all, when the old order is changing and hungry usurpers plan to kick you out into the cold, who needs Coppertone?

This is an article from the Oct. 2, 1972 issue Original Layout

In a road trip that grew progressively more drear and cold with each new tragedy, the Orioles cheerlessly suffered rain, a demeaning doubleheader defeat by Boston, two fretful days off, more rain and yet another loss. Ah, but then the sun came out Sunday in Milwaukee and so did the Oriole bats for a 4-3 victory; the sense of imminent doom that had gripped those who cheer Earl Weaver's flock receded ever so slightly. "We're still quivering," said Boog Powell stoutly. But within some of the immediate Oriole families, nonquivering had reached a level of wry acceptance.

Example: Dave McNally's 9-year-old son Jeff went out to retrieve the Baltimore Sun one recent morning and immediately saw the cartoon Oriole that serves as a graphic front-page report of the club's most recent game. A smiling bird, logically enough, means an Oriole victory, a frowning one defeat. Observing the bird's unsmiling beak, Jeff came in and said, "Hey, Daddy, you must have pitched last night, huh?"

It is ironic that in this, of all dynasties, the heaviest pressure in the dark hours seems to sit on the shoulders of someone not named Powell or Rettenmund or Blair. The burden is being borne by 23-year-old Bobby Grich, whose game-winning hit Sunday in Milwaukee ended the Orioles' three-game losing skid. So complete has been the now-storied collapse of the Baltimore offense that young Grich has emerged as the O's most consistent hitter.

Grich had been invited up from the minors for two other season finales with Weaver's troupe, and both had ended in pennant-clinching blowouts whose hilarity spilled champagne on his head. In 1970 there had been an added party, the delirium of a World Series victory. This year he joined the varsity, and could rightfully have expected the parties to continue as he warmed the bench. Instead, as the team's troubles mounted, he won a starting job (at any infield position Weaver may select, but mostly at second or shortstop), has hit for the best average of any regular and met the pressure mounting on the Orioles with a cool disdain. Indeed, such has been his year-long sangfroid that rumors have designated him as heir apparent to Brooks Robinson's post at third base and Frank Robinson's former role as Baltimore's team leader.

To Grich, however, such talk is premature. "Although you feel you might have had a good year statistically," he said after the Orioles had been beaten twice in Fenway Park last Wednesday night, "if you don't do well in the pennant stretch it's all for nothing. Where you finish indicates what kind of year you had. It's not a good year unless you win the pennant. That's what it's really all about."

As for leadership, Weaver says wait awhile. "It's way too early to put a burden like that on a youngster," he says. "Bobby has been a very valuable man to the ball club, but we don't expect him to lead. He's still making some mistakes through inexperience, but an unbelievably small number. Someday he will be the leader, but right now it's tough enough. It's a tribute to him just to have made the ball club. I really didn't expect him to become a regular so soon. I think he's going to be great. He's going to hit with power. Right now he's just feeling his way. He'll get to know the pitchers, and then he'll know who he can go downtown on."

Unfortunately for the Orioles last week, neither Marty Pattin nor Luis Tiant yet qualifies for such status in the Grich book of pitchers. Limiting the Orioles to a single run in the doubleheader, they proceeded to blank Bobby on seven appearances at the plate before Tiant walked him, to no damage, in the eighth inning of the second loss.

"We came here on Monday and won," Grich said, "and it looked like we were finally getting it together. On Tuesday it rained. I was ready to play ball. There was a big psychological let down when the game was called. Then we blow both games Wednesday. That's how it's been for us all season. We just start to get going, and then we blow it. I hit the ball decently twice, and that was about it."

It was 58° in Fenway for the key Boston doubleheader, but a dour wind sent the chill factor plummeting to some point near the level of liquid nitrogen as 28,777 persons simultaneously shivered and cheered through Pattin's 9-1 victory and Tiant's 4-0 shutout, his sixth of the season.

"When we lost I really felt way down," said Grich. The Orioles' losing pitchers, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar, were equally glum. "Our only run was driven in by me, the pitcher," Palmer said. "And there I was, throwing a wild pitch and dealing up doubles."

Under similar circumstances earlier in the season Bobby and his wife Marty would have sought some solace at a movie during the team's two-day hiatus in Baltimore. That, or tried another escape gambit, which calls for loading their black Labrador named Boog into the Grich Volkswagen bus for a tour of the Maryland countryside. ("We knew the dog was going to be huge when he was a pup," Grich says, "so we named him after the most huge, likable person we knew.")

Marty Grich, however, left the East Coast two weeks ago to enroll for the fall term at Fresno State, where Bobby will join her in pursuit of his physical education degree once the baseball season is over.

"I've always wanted to be a coach," Grich says. "That and a professional athlete. My wife is a speech major who has her degree, but she's working on her teaching credentials so we'll have something to back us up if suddenly I can't hit a slider."

With Marty gone, Grich played his first round of golf since spring with Mark Belanger, Mickey Scott and Doyle Alexander. "It was great to play golf," he said. "I shot an 84 and I think I could probably go out and break 80 if I played more often."

Weaver sent the Orioles through a light practice Friday before they flew to Milwaukee where, if you were looking for omens, the National Renderers Association was also ensconced in the Pfister Hotel—similarly trying to keep the fat out of the fire, one assumes.

Grich spent the evening trying to extricate a few dollars from his teammates in a card game, and there he offered a possible reason for the Orioles' fall this season.

"All year it seems that we've been looking over our shoulder," he said. "We were looking at the Detroit sixth-inning scores back in June and July. That's hardly the time to be worrying about Detroit or anyone else. We should have worried about our own game. Emotionally this race has you anxious inside. The thing is, it's constantly on your mind. I think about it 24 hours a day."

Nor did the lowly Brewers provide any respite the next afternoon, scoring a 2-1 victory over the Orioles despite 10 Baltimore hits and a masterful pitching job by McNally before Weaver lifted him for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning. Under another leaden sky and with a damp chill that was becoming the expected thing, the Orioles stranded 11 men on base. Grich singled in his first trip to the plate, but his only other appearance on the base paths came after Milwaukee's Jim Lonborg hit his left biceps with an errant pitch.

"My arm went numb almost immediately," Grich told a teammate. "I thought the thing was broken."

"Let Nolan Ryan dig one into you, then see how numb you feel," his friend replied.

All the Orioles were left numb by their latest loss, one that reduced the usually loquacious Weaver to a terse, "We've just gotta play the eight games we have left and see what the rest of them do."

"The toughest part of being a major league ballplayer," Grich said, "is trying to keep physically and psychologically ready to play every day. You have the little nagging injuries, and it's tough to maintain an aggressive attitude day in and day out. That's what separates the superstars from average ballplayers. They can do it every day; the other guys, maybe every fourth day." Now everybody was trying to do it every day and every day.

Well, came Sunday—gray and misty at first, but the sun peeked out in the sixth inning and Baltimore came on in the seventh with a run to go ahead 3-2. In the ninth Palmer singled, Paul Blair also singled and Grich ripped one up the middle to score Palmer with what proved to be the winning run. For Palmer, who had a seven-hitter, it was win No. 21 for the year against nine defeats and No. 100 in his shining career; for Grich new evidence that, like it or not, he is this year's Bird with the bat.

"All we can do now," Bobby said afterward, "is go for seven wins in a row." He is even beginning to sound like a manager.

PHOTOWhen Bobby's bat faltered so did Baltimore, but then came a game-winning hit—and hope.