Owlish Frank Cashen, the general manager of the Orioles, was sitting in the lobby of the Executive House in Chicago Saturday morning after the second game of a four-game series with the White Sox. "We are like a Latin American dance," Cashen said of his club. "Two steps forward, then two steps backward."
Starting their next-to-last Western trip of the season, the Orioles won the first game 4-3 in the eighth inning when Brooks Robinson looped a single to center to score Bobby Grich from second. The next night the Orioles took a step backward when they blew a 2-0, two-out lead in the ninth inning with Dave McNally pitching. By the time Bob Reynolds and Eddie Watt had finished relieving, Chicago had come up with three runs, much to the joy of the self-proclaimed "Sox maniacs" in the left-field stands. Lo, then a staggering step forward in the third game as Jim Palmer and the Orioles lurched to a 5-4 win with the White Sox scoring three menacing runs in the ninth. The Sox had the bases loaded with one out, but a double-play pitch by Reynolds stopped another slide over the abyss.
But, ah, Sunday brought another forward step, a 3-2 victory. For a club that has started, sputtered and started again all season long, the Orioles are in excellent position in the American League East. On Sunday night they were in third place, but had lost three games fewer than the first-place Yankees and one fewer than the Red Sox, a statistical situation that prompts Manager Earl Weaver to gloat, "We've got everybody in the loss column."
Weaver said the Oriole Western swing should tell a lot. "Boston and New York are at home, and we're playing against the teams with the better pitching," he explained. "We get Wilbur Wood here in Chicago, and then we go to the West Coast and get Catfish Hunter and Ken Holtzman in Oakland. Then we go down to California to see Bill Singer and Nolan Ryan [who threw his second no-hitter of the year Sunday, striking out 17 Detroit Tigers! and maybe Rudy May. Now, that's tough. If we come home over .500, a couple of games over .500, that would be an accomplishment."
And there is light at the end of this tunnel, even if the Orioles are staggering as if blinded by it. "After the All-Star break," Weaver went on, "we have 21 games with Texas and Cleveland, the two clubs at the bottom of the league."
So the Orioles are getting ready to run away? "This team has a chance to be great," Weaver said. "I honestly expect us to win six pennants in the next 10 years; the talent seems like it's here. Guys like Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, Al Bumbry, who should come into their own. We're young. Earl Williams just turned 25 years old. Then there's Powell, McNally, Cuellar and Robinson, who give us the right mixture to stay in contention while breaking the young fellows in. Grich, Baylor, Williams and Bumbry all have a chance to be the Most Valuable Player someday. It's a club that's going to explode like our '69 club that just pounded right through the league. It could explode tomorrow, it could be a month away, a year away." So ends the litany of optimism. But what about the Orioles today?
Against the White Sox last week Baltimore was showing so-so pitching, fine speed of foot and resurgent hitting. The team has already stolen 83 bases, exceeding last year's total of 78, and is sure to break the club record of 97 set in 1963. Yet, as Weaver says, "Our hitting is the key." As of last week some of it was coming at long last. The most consistent hitter over the season has been Tommy Davis, two-time National League batting champion for the Dodgers before he broke an ankle. On Rochester's roster last winter, he was passed over by other major league clubs in the $25,000 Triple A draft. Baltimore's designated hitter, Davis is batting .299. "I'm getting plenty of chances to bat," says Davis, who had seven hits in 14 at bats in four games against the White Sox. "And between at bats I try to keep my mind clear."
Centerfielder Paul Blair tries to put his mind at ease while batting. Struck on the left side of his face by a fastball in 1970, Blair had been fearful of hitting against right-handed pitchers. He consulted Dr. Jacob Conn, a Baltimore psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis. Conn put him into a trance and gave him advice on how to relax. As a result of this Conn job, Blair says, "He has me completely relaxed now. He told me, 'You have the ability to get out of the way of the ball and go to the plate without worrying about it.' So now I just go with my natural abilities." Blair's average has jumped from .259 to .309 in a month.
Meanwhile Boog Powell, a notoriously slow starter who was also prevented by a bad shoulder in the early going from taking a full swing, has moved from .186 to .259. The major disappointment so far has been Earl Williams, the big catcher who was acquired from Atlanta to supply the long ball. True, although Williams is hitting only .229 he leads the Orioles in homers (12) and runs batted in (43), but Baltimore was expecting more. The thinking now is that a) Williams is "acclimating" himself to American League pitching or b) maybe he hit the way he did for the Braves because of the home-run potential of Atlanta's stadium.
Williams is not enthusiastic about discussing the subject. What is the difficulty? "The strike zone is different," he says with feeling. How different? "It varies from day to day." How does it vary? "Like I say, it varies." Are the pitchers different from those in the National League? "There are fewer fastballs and more breaking balls. In this league when the pitcher gets behind you he gets trickier." Pause. "I think I'm still struggling."
An irony of the Williams trade is that the much-esteemed pitcher, Pat Dobson, who went to Atlanta for Williams, has returned to the division race with the front-running Yankees. The Orioles could hardly have wanted that. But Weaver says, "It don't mean nothin' to us. You don't even think about it." Typical of the curious thinking that prevails in baseball, one Oriole, who requested anonymity, confided that Atlanta and not Baltimore was hurt by the Dobson deal. "The Braves gave up on his arm, but it's O.K.," he said.
On a genuinely optimistic note, the Orioles have a lot of faith in their rookies, notably Bumbry, a 26-year-old left-handed-hitting left fielder who has 13 stolen bases and six homers and shoved his average to .311 in the last month. Weaver says Bumbry is capable of hitting .340 and stealing 50 bases a season. Bumbry would like to oblige. An Army lieutenant in Vietnam, where he won two Bronze Stars, he is delighted at being a major league player, and he lets no opportunity pass to better himself. When Ryan struck him out three times in one game Bumbry did not despair but analyzed the situation. "I have to be quick with my hands," he says.
Bumbry is so fast afoot that he had found himself "running before I was bunting the ball." He talked to Davis and Tony Kubek and was advised that he had speed enough to bunt the ball to a certain area and then worry about running. It worked. On two occasions recently Bumbry has gotten base hits on sacrifice attempts. Bumbry is also the sort of a player who loves to rise to the occasion before a hostile crowd, especially fans who shout, "You've got bum in your name." He says, "That happened to me in Milwaukee. I was so eager the first time, I struck out. The second time I got a hit on a high chopper. I got four more hits, the last leading off the 12th inning, then scored the winning run. Instead of calling me bum, people were saying, 'Man, you can really run!' "
Along with the rest of the Orioles Bumbry is just waiting for the club to hit its stride. "It's a matter of being consistent," he says, "of putting it all together." When has a ballplayer ever said that before? But with Bumbry, Davis, Powell and Blair hitting, Baltimore could make its move soon. The confidence is there. Says Shortstop Mark Belanger, "We're like Secretariat in the second turn."