It's No Longer Up In The Air

A late-season surge has lifted the Orioles to the top of the heap in the strong American League East
September 25, 1983

Joe Altobelli, who is too the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, paused long enough in the course of his pregame rounds last Thursday to have his picture taken by a news photographer near the third-base box seats at Fenway Park. Altobelli is an unflaggingly cheerful man, but his granite features are about as easily deployed in a smile as are those of any of the visages on Mount Rushmore. The photographer's futile efforts to elicit a response so amused the jesters in seats nearby that one of them finally called out to Altobelli, "Aw, c'mon Joe, smile like a champion." Suddenly, encouraging fissures appeared in the great stone face. Altobelli was grinning like, well, like a champion.

As of Sunday he and his Orioles had not yet been enthroned as the American League East winners, but they seemingly had converted what once had been a thrilling five-team race in baseball's toughest division into a cake-walk. Early last week they won three of four games from the hapless Bosox in Boston, then wheeled on the staggering Milwaukee Brewers in Baltimore and won another three, effectively eliminating them.

As recently as Aug. 12 five teams were huddled together at the top of the division. Detroit and Milwaukee were tied for first that day, the Yankees were half a game back, the Orioles one game out and Toronto 2½ games behind. Then Baltimore made its move. From Aug. 12 through last Sunday the Birds won 29 and lost only seven and moved to a seven-game lead over second-place Detroit. Altobelli, who has a keen sense of baseball history, winces—or at least seems to—when someone mentions "playoffs" in his presence, but the Orioles are prohibitive favorites now. So don't ask why that man is smiling.

It's Altobelli, the big guy with the five o'clock shadow, not the retired Earl Weaver, who is now making all the moves in Baltimore, and they're as numerous, if somewhat more predictable, than his sainted predecessor's. Weaver has visited the Birds' clubhouse only once this season—on his way to being inducted into the Orioles' Hall of Fame—and at dinner that evening he and Altobelli had their only serious conversation. "Earl gave me good advice," says Altobelli, "He told me, 'Joe, I could tell you about this ball club, and I could tell you about managing, but I'm not going to. You'll just have to do it your way.' He was right."

Altobelli, who's a mean singer of popular songs, has indeed "done it my way," which has involved some of the most extensive platooning this side of the NFL. The players protest, however, that it doesn't make any difference who's managing them because they're going to do it their way, which is the Oriole way, the winning way. Some of the veterans on this excellent team have long bristled over the widespread notion that they were mere pawns in the hands of chess master Earl. With Weaver retired, they have seized the opportunity to establish once and for all that they're the ones who have been winning all those games.

"What we've done this year is testament that we've had a few good ballplayers on this club," says Designated Hitter Ken Singleton, an Oriole since 1975. "The first question all of us were asked after Earl left was, 'Will you miss Earl?' How do you think that made us feel? One writer even picked us to finish next-to-last without him. Well, we became just a little more determined this spring. It's a matter of pride. I actually believe we're a better team this season." Singleton laughs. "I think the only real change is that the decibel level has gone down a little. I was sitting next to Scott McGregor on the bench one night not long ago when we were losing by something like 10-0. Scotty turned to me and said, 'Isn't it good to know you stink and not hear about it every two seconds?' "

The Orioles have long stressed the organization above the individual, the sacrificing of personal goals for team wins. "Our success lies within the system," says Outfielder John Lowenstein. "We retain our talent much longer than other organizations. We quietly weed out the unwanted, the unnecessary and the unproductive. We fit diverse personalities into the system." It's appropriate that this paean to conformity should be delivered by Baltimore's most outspoken and independent individual. Lowenstein is, in fact, a sort of symbol of Oriole-ism. A caller on Larry King's nationwide radio talk show recently referred to Baltimore as "a team of John Lowensteins."

Altobelli would happily platoon everyone, but he has contented himself with using lefty-righty combinations in leftfield and centerfield all the time, third base most of the time and rightfield and catcher much of the time. It matters not what the score or the inning: If the other team brings in a pitcher who throws with a different arm, Altobelli will bring in batters who swing from the other side. Everybody gets into the act, which is great for total team involvement.

The system works almost all the time, which makes it far easier to get the players to accept it. That, too, is the Oriole way. Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in tandem are the equal of any single left-fielder in the American League, with the exception of Jim Rice. Both are excellent fielders and their averages at week's end, .280 for Lowenstein and .272 for Roenicke, were nearly identical, as were their times at bat, 279 for Lowenstein, 294 for Roenicke, and hits, 78 for Lowenstein, 80 for Roenicke. Together they had hit 31 homers and driven in 113 runs. Roenicke says, "Earl went by stats or hunches, so I'd hit against some righthanders. Joe goes strictly by the percentages. I've hit 18 of my 19 homers off lefthanders."

Rick Dempsey, certainly one of the headiest catchers in the game, is equally well adjusted to sharing time behind the plate with Joe Nolan. "I'd be a fool to say I should play every day when we've got Joe Nolan around," he says. "Not one of us on this team is indispensable." He thinks a little about that last statement. "Not any of us, that is, except our three offensive guns—Singleton, [Eddie] Murray and [Cal] Ripken."

There's no sense in platooning Murray and Singleton under any circumstances, because both are switch hitters. Besides, through Sunday, Murray was among the league leaders in average (.305), runs (107), homers (28) and RBIs (101). He's a strong candidate for league MVP. An even stronger candidate might be Ripken, the 23-year-old shortstop. Ripken was Rookie of the Year in '82, having hit 28 homers, scored 90 runs and driven in 93 while batting .264. That was merely a warmup. At week's end Ripken was hitting .308 with 24 homers and 94 RBIs and was leading the league with 109 runs scored. He had reached base either through a hit or a walk in 130 of the team's 147 games. Ripken is also the only major league player this season who has not so much as missed an inning of any game.

Ripken was virtually born an Oriole: his father, Cal Sr., managed in the Oriole farm system and is now the Baltimore third base coach. Cal Sr., who never played in the majors, was standing at the batting cage watching Cal Jr. hit towering shots over the distant fences in batting practice Saturday when Larry Haney, the Milwaukee bullpen coach, approached him. Pointing to the younger Ripken, Haney announced loudly, "Boy hits just like his father—righthanded."

Cal Jr. is a strapping 6'4" 210-pounder who may still be growing. Since the Orioles signed him in 1978 he has added two inches in height and gained 30 pounds. "There's no telling how good he can be," his father says cautiously. Cal Jr.'s teammates are less circumspect. "He'll be a household name," says Lowenstein. "I thought he'd improve his hitting by 10 to 20 points this year," says Singleton. "He's improved by 40. He could be Rookie of the Year one season and MVP the next. He's really going to be something. There could be 15 years of breaking the walls down."

Breaking walls down is another part of the Orioles' system—they have 153 homers this season. Yet another is pitching, but for a while it looked as if it might break down. "In spring training I saw us as having eight quality veteran pitchers, with five kids vying for the ninth spot," says the esteemed pitching coach. Ray Miller. "I didn't know we'd need those kids." Disaster struck the Orioles' staff in midseason. There was a three-week period in July when Cy Young Award winners Jim Palmer (back, neck and triceps problems) and Mike Flanagan (stretched knee ligaments) and star Reliever Tippy Martinez (emergency appendectomy) were all on the disabled list. And another starter, Dennis Martinez, was struggling through his worst season ever. To the rescue came "the kids," Allan Ramirez and Mike Boddicker, both 26. Ramirez won four important games before he, too, got injured—pulled side muscle. And Boddicker? Well, to everyone's surprise, including his own, he became one of the league's premier starting pitchers. His 2.72 ERA through Sunday was second-best in the league. Boddicker also had a 14-7 record and was second on the Orioles to McGregor (17-6) with nine complete games. Exults Altobelli, "He has been little short of sensational."

Boddicker's most effective pitch is a forkball changeup, which Miller calls a "foshball," a contraction of "dead fish," the Orioles' term for change-up, and "fork," as in forkball. None other than Yaz himself has said that the foshball is unhittable even when the hitter knows it's coming.

It will come as little comfort to the other fading contenders in the East that Orioles pitching is now in tip—or Tippy—top shape. Flanagan, who won his first six decisions before he got hurt, won his 12th game Saturday against only three losses, and Tippy Martinez, also fully recovered, got his 18th save that night. McGregor is having his best season since 1980 when he won 20, and young Storm Davis is 12-6. Only Dennis Martinez, 7-14, has failed to recover.

The Oriole clubhouse is among the most subdued in all of baseball—no radio or tape deck lays aural siege. There is comparatively little boisterous profanity. And there are few high jinks, save for an occasional dry McGregor jest—"Well, there's Flanagan sitting there in his underwear, trying to decide whether or not he'll toe the rubber tonight." That is also the Oriole way. Cal Ripken Sr., who is a father figure on the team in more ways than one, feels there's strength in serenity. "We don't get real high or very far down," he says. "It's been that way for years. We know that win or lose, it's always going to be nothing-to-nothing tomorrow."

That is, until the Orioles come to bat. Then, it's quickly plenty-to-nothing. With more on the way.

PHOTOJERRY WACHTERSecond Baseman Rich Dauer is one of only four Baltimore starters who aren't being platooned. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERRipken has taken his rips in all the games this season. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERMurray can pick 'em just as well as he can poke 'em.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)