Cleveland's Jorge Orta is not a pull hitter by trade, but he was smart enough to become one against New York Pitcher Rudy May in the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium last Friday night. Orta's timely conversion from a hitter who slaps the ball up the middle took place after he noticed that Yankee First Baseman Dennis Werth had created a tempting gap on the right side of the infield by holding a runner close to the bag. May's inside slider was all the invitation Orta needed. The lefthanded hitter swung early and slapped a single off Werth's glove, sending Miguel Dilone to third. Moments later Dilone scored on a sacrifice fly.
In the sixth inning Orta made another alert move. Seeing that Third Baseman Eric Soderholm was playing back, he laid down a perfect bunt and reached first without drawing a throw. Orta eventually scored on Joe Charboneau's double, and the Indians went on to win 2-0.
Though Orta's intelligent and subtle machinations had contributed to the game's only runs, neither the 30,000 fans in the stands nor the writers who crowded around winning Pitcher Rick Waits seemed to notice. But Orta didn't mind. "I didn't do nothing," he said in his slow, almost somnolent voice. "They should ask Rick the questions. He's the guy who won the game."
Despite a career batting average of .281, Jorge Orta has been an obscure presence for most of his eight years in the major leagues. He was a star in his native Mexico before he came to the White Sox as a second baseman in 1972. But he is not a stereotypical nimble-footed Latin, dancing the mambo in the pivot. In fact, when the Indians plucked him out of the reentry draft last winter, they immediately decided to shift him to right-field. Orta has a sprinter's body (5'10", 175 pounds) and he can run with a sprinter's speed, but after stealing 16 bases in 1975 and 24 in '76 he has stolen only eight more bases since. And even with his blacksmith-strong arms, his career high for home runs is 14. All Orta really does, it seems, is hit.
This year he's hitting better than ever. Through last Sunday's games he was second among American League batters, with a .335 average. Two weeks ago he cracked out nine hits in a row, including six in one game. Nevertheless, Orta's name was not on the American League All-Star ballot. Before the season began, a 192-man panel chose not to include him among the 27 outfielders.
Orta's case suffered for two reasons: he was an inexperienced outfielder, and last year he had the fewest at bats (325) and poorest average (.262) of his seven full seasons. This marked the lowest point of a sharp decline that began after averages of .316 in 1974 and .304 in '75. Orta says he fell off because he was ignorant of his capabilities, relying more on natural ability than intelligence. "I was hitting the ball as hard as ever," he said, "but the fielders knew where to play me, and I wasn't smart enough to adjust." Orta was also guilty of following bad advice that persuaded him to be a pull hitter. As a result, he developed a bad stroke. His problems culminated last year when he was unable to adjust to a new role as designated hitter. When it became apparent at season's end that he did not figure in the White Sox' plans, he put himself up for bidding on the free-agent market.
To cries of outrage in Cleveland and amusement in Chicago, the Indians not only signed Orta (to a five-year, $1.5 million contract) but also announced he would be playing rightfield. No one doubted he could regain his hitting touch. The question was whether he could play the outfield.
"Knowing his temperament, we were sure he would work hard to learn the position," says club President Gabe Paul. "The question was his confidence. Jorge doesn't like to be moved around a lot. We felt that by putting him in one place and giving him a chance, he'd be all right."
The results were better than even Paul had expected. Joe Nossek, who had turned former infielder Gorman Thomas into an outstanding centerfielder while working in the Milwaukee organization, was put in charge of the transformation. Nossek taught Orta to use a long, overhand throwing motion instead of the short flips of an infielder. He handed Orta an outfielder's glove, which is larger than an infielder's, and showed him how he could create a deeper pocket by the way he placed his fingers in the holes. Nossek also pointed out that high flies down the line can be deceptive; they rarely travel as far as they first appear to be going. Still, Nossek insists the real credit for the successful transition belongs to Orta himself.
"He took 1,000 fly balls in spring training to simulate about three years of play," Nossek says. "He's done in six months what some people can't do in a lifetime." Orta covers plenty of ground and catches almost everything hit his way, having committed only two errors so far this season. "The only thing he can't do," said Nossek, "is throw hard, and that will come." If Orta's throws are weak, at least they go straight to the cutoff man. That is a notable improvement over the play of his predecessor, Bobby Bonds.
Orta's reemergence as a hitter is also the result of his paying heed to some good advice from Batting Coach Tom McCraw and Rod Carew. "He wasn't using discipline," says McCraw. "They were throwing balls at 90 miles per hour, and he was reacting by swinging at everything. Everybody's a 'guess' hitter. Hank Aaron used to say he looked for a pitch in his zone. Ted Williams told me he would take any pitch that fooled him. Jorge has become selective. He's willing to be walked, and that's what makes a .300 hitter." Indeed, Orta's 38 walks are already within sight of his career high of 48 for a season.
Student Orta now sounds positively professorial: "I'm starting to look at the fielders and place the ball between them. Carew taught me that. He also told me to bunt. Even if he's off, he can get a hit with a bunt. Or else the infielders come in and—boom!—he hits it by them. That's how he does." And now that's how Orta does.
"The main thing I try to do is establish the outside of the plate," Orta adds. "If I can get hits on outside pitches, they'll have to come inside to me, where I'm strong. But I won't try for homers, even if the bases are loaded and we're down by three."
Few Mexicans have done well in the major leagues. Orta is one of only nine there today, and he's the best hitter from Mexico since Bobby Avila, who won the league batting title with a .341 average for Cleveland in 1954. Avila made the All-Star team that year, going 3 for 3, driving in two runs, scoring one and helping the American Leaguers to an 11-9 victory. Earl Weaver, a man often guided by precedents, may want to take note of this when he chooses his All-Star reserves this week.