When the Baltimore Orioles flew into New York last week, there was no mistaking the pecking order in the American League East. The harmonious Orioles were in first place, the disgruntled Yankees were in third—and the Red Sox were in between. "I have never been on a team with such love and esprit de corps," chirped one Oriole. "I can't stand all the bull that's gone on this year," groused a Yankee. "I'm unhappy even when I'm on the field."
The position of the Orioles and Yankees was reflected in the mischievous grin of Earl Weaver and the sad eyes of Billy Martin. Weaver was surrounded by people wanting to know how he had taken a young team, stripped of free agents Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland, to the top of the division. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was wondering how Martin had let a veteran championship club, bolstered by free agents Jackson and Don Gullett, slip to third. As part of his inquisition, Steinbrenner composed a list of seven commandments that the beleaguered Martin had to follow—or else join the unemployment line.
With a two-game lead over Boston and a three-game lead over New York, Weaver was enjoying his job, not struggling to keep it. "How can I be a better manager than I was before?" he asked, liking the sound of the question. "I've won five divisions, three pennants and World Series. We won more games from 1969 to 1971 than any team in the history of the league. Now we're two games ahead and everybody says I'm a bleeping genius."
A questioner persisted, "But what about the people who say you're the difference?" Weaver laughed. "No, I won't say they're full of it. But the players are the ones doing it, so don't belittle them."
August 7, 1977
The Orioles were more ignored than ridiculed before the season began. With Brooks Robinson, now a 40-year-old player-coach whose main job seems to be deciding when relievers are ready to pitch, Shortstop Mark Belanger is the only remaining regular from the Orioles' 1974 East Division champions. Boog Powell is pinch-hitting in Los Angeles, Paul Blair is platooning in New York, Grich is an injured Angel, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar are retired.
Ten of the 25 players on Weaver's roster began the season with less than a year's major league experience. When Jackson, Grich and Garland grabbed the mega-bucks of New York, California and Cleveland, Eddie Murray, Billy Smith and Mike Flanagan arrived to replace them. "I knew we had the potential to be here in first place," says Weaver. Maybe so, but this potential was lost on some of his senior players. "Not all of us believed we'd come through this way," Belanger admits. Robinson says, "I didn't know what to expect this year, but certainly not first place." Nor did Pitcher Jim Palmer. "I was really worried because for the first time in my career it looked like I was on a team that didn't have a chance to win. Even now you can't say we have the best talent. It's not like the old Orioles who won just by walking out on the field. We're in first but it hasn't been easy."
It has been exciting, though. More than half of the Oriole games have been decided by one or two runs, and Baltimore has won two-thirds of these. Nothing gets the Orioles down. A week after they lost four straight to the Red Sox in Baltimore, they beat the Sox three straight in Boston to launch a 14-of-16 July streak that lifted them from third place to first.
"These young guys were given a chance and they're taking advantage of it," says Robinson. "The funny thing is, Earl has always been the kind of manager who liked to bring young players along slowly. But he couldn't do that this year. He had to say 'the job is yours' and hope it turned out all right."
The Baltimore farm system traditionally has been a good place to look for help. One of the reasons the Orioles have had the best record in baseball during the last 20 years is that their minor league record has invariably been the best, too. When Catcher Rick Dempsey suffered a broken hand three weeks ago, two rookies, Dave Skaggs and Dave Criscione, took his place. Criscione beat the Brewers last week with an 11th-inning home run, his third major league hit. Two other newcomers, Rich Dauer and Smith, are platooning at second. Dauer was the International League's batting champion at Rochester last year, and Smith was a free-agent discard of the Angels. Murray, the switch-hitting rookie DH, has 16 homers, and Flanagan has won six straight games. They both advanced through the Orioles' system after being selected in the amateur draft. "It usually takes two or three years to build a team," says Belanger. "You've got to credit our front office, because they did it in one."
But as First Baseman Lee May points out, it would be a mistake to ignore the Oriole veterans. That, May says, is what the experts did in the spring. "They forgot about me," he huffs, "and Palmer and Belanger and Ken Singleton."
Fair enough. Despite a .239 batting average, May is still hitting homers (17) and driving in runs (59). Palmer has 12 victories and a 3.11 ERA; Belanger has played 52 straight games and handled 218 chances without an error; and Rightfielder Singleton is fourth in the league with a .315 batting average. Centerfielder Al Bumbry is batting .296, and until he pulled a muscle in his right thigh last week and went on the disabled list was enjoying his best season since his .337 Rookie of the Year campaign in 1973. Pat Kelly came over from the White Sox to praise the Lord, play left field and put together the longest hitting streak in the American League—19 games. And although living legend Robinson has only 46 at bats, he beat the Indians one night with a three-run homer in the 10th inning. "An extraordinary thrill," he says. "I hope we win the pennant by one game so I'll know I contributed. Sitting out in the bullpen makes it kind of hard."
Robinson has turned third base over to Doug DeCinces, who spent last season trying to live down the tag of The Man Who Replaced Brooks Robinson. This season his hitting, fielding and confidence are all up. "I had to learn that I was Doug DeCinces, not Brooks Robinson, and to play my own game," he says. "If I made an error people would say, 'Brooks would have had it,' as if he had never made an error in his life."
While the Orioles have successfully blended the old and the new, the Yankees, heavily favored to repeat as American League champions, have not. The addition of Jackson and Gullett did give the Yankees better personnel, but it has not made them a better team. Inconsistent pitching has hurt the Yankees on the field, and personality clashes have ripped their clubhouse. As one critic joked, "When the Yankees go out for dinner, they reserve 25 tables for one." Jackson hit well enough to be the only free agent voted into the All-Star Game, but his arrogance and unexpectedly poor defense have irritated his teammates, particularly the too, too sensitive Thurman Munson, and his mere presence has bothered Martin. The manager's biggest problem, though, has been his relationship with Steinbrenner. In fact, the only thing the two have in common seems to be a complete dislike for each other.
Steinbrenner almost fired Martin in June after Martin, enraged by Jackson's nonchalance in the field, had a brisk dispute with Jackson in the dugout during a nationally televised game at Boston. As Steinbrenner watched on his TV set, Martin tried to fight Jackson. The irate Steinbrenner confronted Martin two days later and apparently was prepared to fire him until Jackson, of all people, and Munson pleaded with him on the manager's behalf.
Martin's most recent crises are a result of a breakdown of team discipline and his failure to coax the Yankees into first place. Certainly Steinbrenner's moods have had an adverse effect on Martin. "I feel like those guys on death row," he said one day, fully expecting the ax to fall. "The first time you get fired you think nothing can be that bad again. But each time it gets worse. It was bad in Minnesota, but it was worse in Detroit and even worse in Texas."
Martin survived that day, probably because the Yankees beat Kansas City. But the next night Steinbrenner seemed to lay the groundwork for Martin's immediate dismissal by pompously announcing seven criteria by which Martin would be judged. The first, of course, was the team's won-lost record. But the rest appeared rigged so that Steinbrenner could get rid of Martin even if the Yankees did not lose another game the rest of the year. Does he work hard enough? Is he emotionally equipped to lead men under him? Is he organized? Is he prepared? Does he understand human nature? Is he honorable? In fact, Martin has been accused of being deficient in most of these areas at one time or another, but this has never prevented him from being a winner.
It was apparent to all the Yankees that Steinbrenner wanted Martin fired and replaced with a less volatile person. But he said he would leave the final decision to General Manager Gabe Paul.
Such was the state of the Yankees when the Orioles showed up Tuesday night. The consensus was that while it probably was too early to knock New York completely out of the race, Baltimore could knock Martin out of his job by winning at least two of three games. Martin's position was so precarious that even his nemesis. Weaver, felt obliged to come to his defense. "How can Billy be blamed if Jim Palmer pitches a shutout?" the Baltimore manager asked.
Martin has always insisted that his players and the fans support him, and that night they proved it. Before the game the crowd of 32,000 gave Martin a standing ovation when he came out to present the lineup card to the umpires. It took the Yankees a while longer to act on his behalf. Singleton's mammoth 437-foot three-run homer and Ross Grimsley's pitching had the Orioles ahead 4-2 as the Yankees batted in the ninth. But then Cliff Johnson tied the score with the Yankees' first pinch-hit homer in two years, and New York won 5-4 in the 10th on Jackson's home run.
The next night Steinbrenner changed his position again, saying on TV that Martin would almost surely finish the season. "It doesn't matter," said a Yankee before the game. "Billy is going to be fired at the end of the year no matter what he does or how well the team plays." New York did not play well. Smith hit Catfish Hunter's first pitch into the upper deck, Murray and May slugged back-to-back homers off Hunter in the eighth, and the Orioles—behind Palmer—won 6-3.
Although there were still 10 weeks left in the schedule, the Yankees and Orioles concluded their season's series Thursday afternoon. "Yeah, this is a big game," Munson said. "But do we win this one for Billy, George or the team? I haven't quite got straight yet which comes first." Munson's 100th career home run, a 15-hit attack and a crowd of 41,000 came to Martin's rescue and the Yankees won 14-2. Still, the Orioles remained in first place, and finished with an 8-7 season edge over the Yankees.
As the Orioles headed for Seattle, Weaver left Martin—and the Yankees—with this blessing: "I can't wish Billy anything but bad luck the rest of the way." He was laughing when he said it, but he probably meant it. On Sunday night, though, Weaver was not so chirpy because the Orioles had taken only two of three from Seattle while the Yankees were sweeping three in Oakland and the Red Sox were sweeping three from the Angels. Boston was in first place by .001 now, but Weaver was still one game ahead of Martin—and he certainly wasn't unhappy about that.