When Baltimore Catcher Rick Dempsey was bumped from the starting lineup before last Friday night's game against Texas, he could have sulked and criticized the manager in traditional big league style. But no. Suddenly, there he was, standing atop the bullpen dugout some 400 feet from home plate in left-centerfield, waving a towel and leading cheers for his teammates on the field. Several times he brought the Oriole crowd of 47,539 to full cry. Dempsey, whose parents were in vaudeville, stole the show although he wasn't even at center stage.
Which is precisely what the Orioles have been doing in the American League East. While fans keep watching to see whether New York or Boston or maybe even dark horse Milwaukee will dominate the division, it is the Orioles who have been in first place every day but one since May 18. At week's end they were a game ahead of Boston and 5½ up on the Yankees. Already the Birds have ripped off nine wins in a row—and 15 out of 16 in one stretch—and last week they won six of seven, while allowing only 13 runs. Says Dempsey, "We are a lot of no-names who have big talent."
Indeed, except for Jim Palmer (who missed his pitching turn last week because of minor tendinitis) and Shortstop Mark Belanger (who fractured a finger Sunday and will be out for three weeks), there is not another Baltimore player with a name worth dropping. "We're underrated because we're completely unknown," says Manager Earl Weaver.
The Orioles are a team with but three free agents, none in the superdollar category. Says Frank Robinson, the former Oriole star who is now a Baltimore coach, "We don't need free agents as long as we have good players." General Manager Hank Peters says candidly, "We can't afford them. We can't send a player a contract and say, 'Fill in the figures,' like some of these teams." Still, the Oriole player payroll has gone from $1.1 million in 1971 to $2.7 million this year, which means management is not exactly starving its flock.
"We're typical Baltimore people," says one team official. "We think small." But play tall. Coach Jim Frey says, "We're not trying to be respectable. We're trying to win more games than anybody else." Which is just what they have done. Over the last 22 seasons, Baltimore has more victories than any other team in baseball. During the last decade the Birds have won 951 games, Boston 891 and New York 883.
Basically because of the astuteness of the front office and the genius of Weaver. In 10½ years as manager, the sage of Baltimore has directed the Orioles to five division titles, three American League pennants and one world championship, and he has planted more lima beans lifetime—he grows them in his garden—than any manager ever. He knows good players when he sees them; he can handle them when he gets them. Of the 25 players on the Oriole roster, 14 have come up through the club's farm system.
Weaver may be mellowing, as some say; still, the volcano within erupts now and then. "He'll air a player out good," says one Oriole who has been aired out, "and then forget all about it. Of course, some of the players don't." A frequent target of Weaver's wrath is Dempsey, who says, "He puts us down and that makes us perform better to show him he's wrong. When you have been under the pressure of Earl Weaver, that's more pressure than other teams can put on you."
Ken Singleton adds, "Earl never lets you give up. Every year he gives us the same talk: 'If we play the way we should, we'll win.' For us, that means we have to play our maximum." The Birds tend to.
So does the front office. When the reentry, or Son of Croesus, draft struck, the Orioles looked at their checkbook and knew they were in trouble. They considered holding on to Pitcher Wayne Garland—until Cleveland showered millions on him. They figured maybe a guy like Mike Flanagan, whom they had picked up in 1973 in that other free-agent draft, the one for collegians and sandlot guys and such, might be worth more in the long run. Be a lot cheaper, anyway. And, lo, Flanagan was 19-15 last year. This season his record is 7-4. The Orioles agonized but decided in 1976 that their superb second baseman, Bobby Grich, could be turned loose, on the assumption that Rich Dauer would take up the slack. Last season Dauer made only one error while handling 433 chances.
When Brooks Robinson faded, young Doug DeCinces was, after a brief period of adjustment, ready; with Belanger perhaps on the slide, Kiko Garcia seems to be equal to the task of replacing him one day. On the other hand, the Orioles don't want to lose Palmer, and they pay him accordingly—about $260,000 a year.
"My one problem is I've got too many good pitchers," says Weaver. With a straight face. That explains why he could remain calm, even affable, when Palmer flew off to L.A. last Thursday to have his elbow examined. Promising young Sammy Stewart once sat for 22 days before he was called on. Reliever Tim Stoddard has waited 15 days between stints.
The infield, with Eddie Murray at first (he hit 54 homers his first two years with the team, 1977-78), is very strong. The outfield is adequate. Leftfielder Gary Roenicke, who wears a face guard to protect a cut mouth that required 25 stitches and plastic surgery earlier this season, is fielding well and hitting .298. Al Bumbry, who broke his left leg and dislocated his left ankle a year ago, a disaster that sunk the Orioles, is back in center and hitting .281.
In rightfield is Singleton, perhaps the best player on the team. His arm has recovered from 1977 surgery that hampered his throwing last season. The one Oriole weakness could be at catcher; both Dempsey and Dave Skaggs can throw well, but their hitting is so-so.
One night last weekend, after another win, the players were hovering over a crab feast in the clubhouse and DeCinces was explaining, "On this team we all need each other." True. On Thursday night Palmer was scratched, and Stewart promptly stepped up and pitched his first complete major league game. It was a two-hitter, and the Orioles beat Kansas City 3-1. On Friday night Flanagan emerged from a slump and went the distance, beating Texas 3-0. On Saturday night Roenicke scored a run on an all-out sprawling headfirst dive to the plate as Baltimore won 4-3. On Sunday, losing 4-2 in the ninth, the Orioles rallied for three runs to beat the Rangers and give Dennis Martinez his ninth victory.
It's a we team, not a me team. Ron Shapiro, a local sports attorney, recalls when Reggie Jackson was on the scene. "Observing Reggie was like observing an island," says Shapiro. "He just didn't tie in with the land around."
No one could ever say that about Dempsey—or the other Orioles.