Memo to the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers: If you want to escape the cellar, you should 1) trade a Hall of Fame-caliber player for two borderline pitchers and a minor league shortstop; 2) trade the ace of your staff for two un proven players; 3) change your uniforms; 4) make the new ace a lefthander with a degree in geophysics and a lifetime record of 10-20; 5) sign a switch-hitter from the state of Oklahoma named Mickey; 6) draft a kid out of college who has had only 24‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings of minor league experience and make him your bullpen stopper; 7) pay no attention to Al Campanis; 8) employ everybody named Ripken you can find; 9) have at least two former Big Eight quarterbacks: and 10) never, ever give up hope.
Who knows? Next year you might be the best teams in your divisions. After all, just look at the Baltimore Orioles.
It's only June, as everyone connected with the Birds is quick to point out, but there they perch, atop the American League East by four games as of Sunday. The shocking, sensational and unbelievable success of a team that lost 107 games last year is attributable in part to the fact that this season the American League Least is, well, the reason birdcages are lined with newspapers. Baltimore went 2-4 last week and lost only one game to its pursuers. However, the O's would be in the hunt in every other division, too. And even if they weren't in first place, they would still be the most pleasantly surprising story in baseball.
The plan behind the Oriole turnaround may not be a blueprint for other teams to follow, but it does show what a little pluck, luck and intelligence can do. Don't be afraid of hiring other teams' rejects, for one thing. So what if vice-president and general manager Roland Hemond was dumped by the White Sox? So what if manager Frank Robinson was canned by the Cleveland Indians and the San Francisco Giants? Give the ball to a pitcher, Jeff Ballard, whose previous major league statistics gave no hint he would stand 9-2 at week's end with a 2.51 ERA. Let the Oakland Athletics slip you a Mickey—namely, American League home run leader Tettleton (16), who was released in '88 by the A's. Don't let it bother you that both the Phillies and Seattle Mariners wanted to get rid of outfielder Phil Bradley; their track records speak for themselves.
This ability to see what others haven't seen is particularly impressive to Dave Ballard, who was in New York and Baltimore last week to watch his younger brother Jeff's team play. The Ballards are sort of the Ripkens of the oil-exploration business. Bill, the father, is president of the Balcron Oil Company in Billings. Mont.; Dave, the geophysicist, decides where to drill; Jeff, who majored in geophysics at Stanford, helps out in the off-season. "If you hit on one of nine wells," says Dave, "you're doing O.K. When you find oil, it's called a discovery, just like in baseball. You go over the seismic data—our scouting reports—looking for an 'anomaly,' something that tells you there may be oil. The big companies like Exxon have gone over the same data we have, so we have to find something they've missed—just as the Orioles did with Tettleton and with Jeff. By the way, our company is having a pretty good year, too. We've hit oil on two of six drillings."
Emblematic of Baltimore's gusher this year was last Friday night's 7-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Memorial Stadium, a victory that combined good pitching and outstanding defense with the medicinal powers of the longtime team physician, Dr. Longball. Tettleton, whose surge has been attributed to the benefits of a breakfast cereal, hit two home runs—a three-run opposite-field shot in the first inning and a solo blast in the sixth. Some of the 31,000 fans on this rainy night showered the field with Froot Loops, those tiny orange, yellow and pink rings—O's for O's—that have become the rage in Baltimore. Tettleton dedicated his homers, numbers 15 and 16, to his parents, who live in Oklahoma City and were watching him play in Baltimore for the first time.
Robinson, who has done a masterly job all season of finessing an ordinary staff, showed a sixth sense by lifting starter Brian Holton in the fifth, though Holton had a shutout going. Mark Williamson came in and pitched 3⅖ strong innings for the win before Kevin Hickey finished up. Hickey, a 33-year-old former White Sox reliever, is a perfect representative of these O's. He had spent the past five seasons in the minors, and nobody expected him to do much this year. Short of money last season, he lived in the clubhouse of the Triple A Rochester Red Wings. "It wasn't bad," he says. "There was cable TV, a weight room, a washer and dryer, 24-hour security and a very big lawn in the back."
The most impressive aspect of Baltimore's performance on Friday night was its fielding. The Orioles have what broadcaster and eight-time 20-game winner Jim Palmer calls the best defense in club, history, which is a heady compliment, considering that Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich and Paul Blair played together behind Palmer. If you checked the weekly stats in your sports pages on Sunday, you saw that the O's were 11th in the league in batting and fifth in pitching. They were, however, first in team fielding, a statistic that does not appear in your newspaper.
In the fifth inning rightfielder Steve Finley came sloshing in on a line drive, hoping to make a shoestring catch. When the ball bounced in front of him, he made a sensational grab to keep it from skipping by for extra bases. Two batters later, first baseman Jim Traber, who hadn't made an error all season through Sunday (nor had his platoon partner, Randy Milligan), dove to his right for a ball and deflected it to second baseman Bill Ripken. Traber, a former Oklahoma State quarterback, jumped back up and got back to first in time to get Ripken's throw and the runner, the speedy Paul Molitor. In the ninth, Ripken made a wonderful diving stab for a catch going to his left.
Friday night's win was the Orioles' 32nd of the season, a plateau they didn't reach until July 28 in '88. "It's only June," says Robinson. "Yes, I'm proud of the way we've played, but we still have two-thirds of the season to go."
When Robinson took over for Cal Ripken Sr. after Baltimore had suffered six of a league-record 21 consecutive losses at the start of last year, he inherited a team with such former All-Stars as first baseman Eddie Murray, catcher Terry Kennedy, outfielder Fred Lynn and pitchers Scott McGregor, Don Aase and Mike Boddicker. The Orioles didn't exactly catch fire under Robinson last year, and none of those former stars are still with Baltimore.
The season was dismal in other ways, too. Edward Bennett Williams, the popular owner of the club, passed away last August after a long fight with cancer. A month earlier Ralph Salvon, the Orioles' beloved trainer, had died of complications following heart surgery. The only bright moment came in July, when shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. signed a new three-year contract. "Last year was doubly frustrating for me," says Cal Jr., "because I was both an Orioles player and an Orioles fan. I re-signed because I love this organization, and I felt that eventually we would be back, though not this soon, certainly. Now I'm doubly happy we're in first place. Remember, though, it's only June."
Never in '88 did either the Orioles or their fans give up hope. The front office went ahead with plans to give the uniforms a more traditional look and the hats a more stately oriole. Larry Lucchino, who became president of the team upon Williams's death, says, "I went to EBW just before he died to tell him of the new uniforms. I'll never forget what he told me. 'Let me get this straight,' he said. 'Rome is burning, and you want to change the caps.' " As it turns out, the new hat is the best-selling cap in baseball.
Hemond, a Rhode Islander of French descent with a joie de baseball, took a lot of heat in his first season, but that didn't stop him from making some bold moves. He traded the staff ace, Boddicker, to the Boston Red Sox last July for outfielder Brady Anderson and pitcher Carl Schilling. Although Anderson is struggling at the plate (.208 at week's end), he has played a terrific centerfield and has 14 stolen bases. In Hemond's biggest deal, in December, he swapped Murray, whose unhappiness had become contagious, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitchers Holton and Ken Howell and minor league shortstop Juan Bell. Hemond followed that by sending Howell to the Phillies for Bradley, a former Missouri quarterback who has given the O's solid defense in left and leadership by example. "When you have a Cal Ripken in your infield and a Phil Bradley in your outfield, it's not hard to get the younger players working," says batting coach Tom McCraw.
Largely unnoticed in the off-season was Robinson's hiring of McCraw as batting coach and Al Jackson as pitching coach. Both were working with the New York Mets' minor leaguers at the time, and the Mets, who have borrowed so much front-office and coaching talent from the Orioles over the years, returned the favor by giving Baltimore permission to hire McCraw and Jackson.
Both are indefatigable teachers. McCraw, who has worked closely with Tettleton and could, but doesn't, claim credit for Tettleton's stroke of fortune, was found earlier this season studying videotapes of Milligan at nine in the morning after the team arrived from a West Coast road trip at 3 a.m. Jackson studied tapes of the Oriole pitchers in the off-season and came to the conclusion that Ballard would benefit from 1) changing his style from power pitcher to finesse pitcher; 2) turning the ball over to get a good sinking fastball: and 3) moving his right foot toward the third base side of the rubber so that his fastball, which moves away from righthanded hitters, would stay in the strike zone.
The fact that Robinson, McCraw, Jackson, bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks and Calvin Hill, a team vice-president, are all black is a repudiation of those in baseball who have dragged their heels on affirmative action. The Orioles have almost as many black managers and coaches in their minor league system—roving instructors Don Buford, Minnie Mendoza and Deacon Jones, Erie (Pa.) manager Bobby Tolan, Rochester (N.Y.) coach Curt Motton and Bluefield (W.Va.) coach Jose Soto—as some teams have had in their entire histories.
The Orioles also brought back Ripken Sr. to coach third base. His presence has undoubtedly helped Bill Ripken raise his average from .207 last year to .252 this season. On June 6 in Yankee Stadium there was a nice tableau after Cal Jr. and Bill turned a spectacular double play to end the eighth inning. They ran off the field, holding their gloves the same way, step for step, smile for smile. Heading toward the third base coach's box, Cal Sr. nodded in parental approval as he passed them.
Robinson has done a remarkable job with Baltimore in many ways. He's not afraid to use former Auburn standout Gregg Olson, the O's No. 1 draft pick last year, as his closer. Robinson uses his bench well; nobody can complain about lack of playing time. And he is patient, despite his long-standing reputation to the contrary. "The biggest change in Frank," says McCraw, "is that now he can go to sleep as long as he knows his players did their best." Robinson is also one of the first managers to use a fax machine on the job. That's how he gets up-to-the-minute reports on opponents from advance scout Ed Farmer.
One of the more popular items of apparel in the Baltimore clubhouse is a T-shirt with the inscription FAT BIRDS DON'T FLY. Well, the Orioles are no longer fat. And they're no longer averse to having fun. The other night in New York City, security personnel at the Grand Hyatt were called to a room at 4 a.m. to investigate a disturbance. In the room they found Olson and Traber shouting over a video game. "It's called Gauntlet," says Olson. "Good mental training for the pennant race."
Will the Orioles still be flying when the days dwindle down? Nobody thought they would get this far. "Actually," says Tim Kurkjian, the baseball writer for the Baltimore Sun, "a radio guy in Cleveland told me he picked the Orioles to win the division. I was impressed until he asked me to point out which player was Cal Ripken."
It's only June, Baltimore. But isn't it nice?