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The O's of '83
By Thom Loverro
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2004 Thom Loverro
All rights reserved.
History and Legacy
Eddie Murray sat on a stool in front of his locker in the visitor's clubhouse at Veterans Stadium before Game 5 of the 1983 World Series. His wrists were hurting him, and so was his batting average. In Game 1, he had been embarrassed by Phillies rookie pitcher Charlie Hudson, who had struck Murray out and showed him up at Memorial Stadium by pumping his fists and going through a show on the mound after he got Murray out. He would be facing Hudson again that night, but his mind was on more than his own personal quest for redemption.
Rick Dempsey was getting his equipment ready so he could warm up that night's starting pitcher, Scott McGregor. He had a year's worth of aches and pains to deal with — 137 games of squatting behind the plate — but he was feeling no pain. Dempsey had emerged as the hitting star of the Series. But he was thinking about the same thing Eddie Murray was mulling over quietly.
McGregor was going over the Phillies hitters in his head. He had already faced them once in Game 1, in which he pitched brilliantly but lost 2–1. If he could have been anyone that night, it would have been Don Larsen in 1956 — because McGregor wanted to pitch a perfect game, if that was what it took to win this game. He was thinking that because he was also thinking about something else — the same thing that Eddie Murray and Rick Dempsey were thinking about.
Nearly every man in that visitor's clubhouse had the same subject on his mind — history.
History hung over the 1983 Baltimore Orioles squad like a ghost over a graveyard. History was like a shot of adrenaline through their bodies and a vice on their chests. History was their inspiration and their greatest fear.
It wasn't ancient history. It was the history that many of the players in that room had experienced firsthand during seven days in 1979 and three days in 1982 that drove this 1983 team — the culmination of the so-called "Oriole Way" — to this point in October 1983.
In 1982, the Baltimore Orioles came from eight games behind in the American League East in the middle of August to tie the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the 161st game of a 162-game season. The entire season — from the first day pitchers and catchers reported in mid-February to a crisp early October day in Baltimore — came down to just one game in Baltimore, before 50,000 screaming hometown fans at Memorial Stadium.
The Orioles lost 10–2.
"When we lost that last game in 1982, there wasn't a guy on that ballclub that didn't believe that we would come back and win in 1983," Murray said, reflecting on that disappointing day in October.
It may have been the loss in 1982 that inspired these players from the day they reported to spring training in 1983, but it was the fear of 1979 that ate at their guts as they waited to play Game 5 of the World Series.
In 1979, the Baltimore Orioles led the Pittsburgh Pirates three games to one in the World Series, with Mike Flanagan, a 23-game winner and the AL Cy Young Award recipient, taking the mound for Game 5. It seemed like a lock. The Orioles lost 7–1. Then they lost 4–0. What had been a 3–1 Series lead now came down to a seventh game between the two teams. Who would pitch for Baltimore in Game 7 in 1979? Scott McGregor.
The Orioles lost 4–1.
"We were disappointed for quite a few years," Dempsey said. "Finally, we got another chance to get back there. When we were up 3–1 in Philadelphia, there wasn't a sound in that clubhouse. Everyone was thinking the same thing: that we were not going to let what happened in 1979 happen again. It was an eerie quietness. We had thought about it for four years."
History, in the form of tradition, was always very important to the Orioles organization. It is how the Oriole Way of doing things — training players how to play the game the same way, and the right way, from rookie league ball all the way to the major leagues. It had become one of the richest traditions in baseball, yet the Orioles did not have a long and storied past, like the Yankees or the Dodgers. The Orioles came and went around the turn of the century — from the 19th to the 20th — and didn't exist in Baltimore again until one of the worst franchises in the history of baseball was sold and moved, about 50 years later.
The origins of a Baltimore Orioles baseball team date back to 1883, when a second version of the Lord Baltimores, playing in the American Association, changed the name of the club to the Orioles, after the official Maryland state bird. The franchise joined the National League in 1892 and fielded one of the great 19th-century baseball teams, managed by Ned Hanlon and boasting such legendary baseball men as John McGraw, Dan Brouthers, Hugh Jennings, and Wee Willie Keeler on the roster and managed by Ned Hanlon. They won three National League pennants from 1894 to 1896. But the franchise folded after the 1899 season.
Two years later, the Orioles were revived and joined the American League. But it was a short life, and after two seasons the team moved to New York and became the Highlanders. That team would later change its name. They became the New York Yankees — a historical fact that stuck in the throats of Orioles fans years later when the Yankees became the Orioles' most bitter rival (and they remain so).
Another version of the Orioles — a minor league club — began play in Baltimore in 1903, this one in the Eastern League and then in the International League from 1912 to 1953. Early on, the owners considered moving the franchise out of town. Those early 20th-century Orioles were managed by Jack Dunn and briefly featured a young Baltimore native, a big kid pitcher named George Herman "Babe" Ruth. The Babe had grown up just a few blocks from the current home of the Orioles, Camden Yards. (In fact, the tavern owned by Ruth's father was on the site of the new ballpark.)
Baltimore would remain a minor league baseball city until Bill Veeck was forced to sell his dismal St. Louis Browns, a major league team, to a group in Baltimore led by Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro. They moved the franchise and played in a renovated Memorial Stadium in 1954. That was the first year of the existing Orioles franchise in Baltimore.
The team struggled in those early years, losing 100 games in its first season (54–100), finishing 57 games out of first place behind the Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games that year. The Orioles didn't have a winning season until 1960, when the team went 89–65 and finished second. But the club was on its way to developing a strong farm system that would be the envy of other major league teams. They slid back to a losing record (77–85) in 1962 but would have only one more losing season (76–85 in 1967) over the next 24 years.
With Brooks Robinson leading the way, the Orioles began building the gold standard for an American League franchise through their minor league system and key trades. They put together a star-studded pitching staff — with Dave McNally, Wally Bunker, Steve Barber, and a young Jim Palmer — and fielded such standout position players as first baseman Boog Powell, second baseman Davey Johnson, and center fielder Paul Blair. They then made the most important trade in the history of the franchise, acquiring outfielder Frank Robinson from the Cincinnati Reds on December 9, 1965, for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
Everything changed for the Orioles after that. Frank Robinson — considered to be on the tail end of his career by the Reds — had a Triple Crown season in 1966, leading the American League in batting (.316), home runs (49), and RBIs (122). More importantly, he led the Orioles to their first AL pennant, as the team finished first with a 97–63 record. Then the Orioles shocked the sports world by sweeping the defending world champion Los Angeles Dodgers and their two aces, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, in four straight games.
That 1966 world championship season was a watershed year for the Orioles and for baseball. The Yankees were suffering through their second straight losing season after nearly 40 years of dominating baseball, and the Orioles had suddenly emerged as a nationally recognized franchise, beginning their own version of a dynasty. The core of that 1966 club would play in three more World Series in the next five years.
They reached the fall classic again in 1969, this time as the big favorite, winning the most games ever in franchise history (109–53) and winning the newly created American League Eastern Division (the first season the two leagues broke into two divisions) by 19 games. While Hank Bauer managed the Orioles to the 1966 World Series championship, he lost his job two years later, and a feisty little manager from the minor league system named Earl Weaver took over.
Baltimore swept the Minnesota Twins in 1969 in the first American League Championship Series ever held, with a combination of great pitching (Game 1 a 4–3 extra-inning win and Game 2 a 1–0 shutout by Dave McNally) and an 11–2 beating in the third and deciding game. It was on to the World Series in Weaver's first season as manager.
It was the Orioles who were now the favorites, a turnaround from their last World Series appearance, and they found themselves in the same position that the Dodgers had been in during the 1966 Series — losing to an underdog team. But the New York Mets were not just any underdog. They were one of the all-time underdogs, the Amazing Mets, who had been one of the most famous and popular losers in baseball history. A team with a roster of good players — Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, Bud Harrelson — didn't seem to compare to the likes of Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, and Brooks Robinson. But the Mets had a great young pitching staff, led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, and turned in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history by defeating the Orioles four games to one. Baltimore won the first game, a 4–1 victory by Mike Cuellar over Seaver, the Mets ace who had won 25 games that season. But the Mets pitching shut down the big Orioles bats over the next four games. Koosman edged McNally 2–1 in Game 2; Gary Gentry shut down Palmer and company 5–0 in Game 3; the Mets won Game 4 in 10 innings, 2–1; and Koosman came back to win the clincher 5–3, as Jones caught a fly ball from Davey Johnson for the final out, leaving the Orioles the dumbfounded — and numbed — losers.
Elrod Hendricks, the longtime bullpen coach of the Orioles, was a catcher on that 1969 team. He remembers how the loss ate at them all winter. "When we lost to the Mets, we couldn't wait to get to spring training the next year," he said. "All winter we thought about those games we lost."
When the Orioles came back in 1970, they played like a team on a mission. They nearly matched their 1969 win total, finishing with 108 victories, and took the AL East title by 15 games. And just like in 1969, they swept the Twins in three straight in the ALCS. They then faced a Cincinnati Reds team in the World Series that was in the early stages of the Big Red Machine, featuring such big-name stars as Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.
This time the Orioles, still driven by their 1969 failure, were not going to let the Reds have the chance to gain the upper hand. They won the first game 4–3 (a Palmer victory), with home runs by Hendricks, Boog Powell, and Brooks Robinson, who, although already recognized as the best third baseman in baseball and perhaps of all time, used the nationally televised Series as a stage to showcase his unforgettable diving plays at third base.
Baltimore went on to win Game 2 6–5, then exploded in Game 3 with home runs by Frank Robinson, Don Buford, and McNally, the winning pitcher, in a 9–3 victory. Down 0–3, the Reds came back to win Game 4 in another one-run game by the same score as Game 2, 6–5. Now the Orioles found themselves up three games to one in the Series — a position that would both haunt and inspire them in years to come. "We wanted to close it down in Game 5," Hendricks said. "We didn't want to let the Reds back up. We didn't want to lose it again after 1969."
They didn't. In a repeat of Game 3, the Orioles pounded Reds pitching in a 9–3 win, clinching their second World Series championship in five years. Cuellar got the win, with home runs by Merv Rettenmund and Frank Robinson. The defeat of the Reds was particularly satisfying for Frank Robinson, since it was the franchise that he had starred with in the early sixties but that had dealt him away in 1965 when management determined he was an "old 30" — or was too much of a problem to deal with, depending on the story you believe.
The Orioles remained the class of baseball and the most dominant franchise in the game the following season, making their third straight trip to the World Series in 1971. They won the AL East by 12 games, with a record of 101–57, giving them a three-year regular-season record of 318–164. And they managed to make baseball history with four 20-game winners — McNally (21–5), Cuellar (20–9), Palmer (20–9), and Pat Dobson (20–8). Again they swept their opponent in the ALCS. In the three years the championship series had existed, the Orioles had yet to lose a series game, going 9–0. This time they won Game 1 by a 5–3 score, Game 2 5–1, and Game 3 5–3. Who did they defeat? The team that would unseat the Orioles for league dominance very soon, a young Oakland Athletics team led by a brash slugger by the name of Reggie Jackson — a future Oriole.
Baltimore faced a different team for the third straight time in the World Series — the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team led by one of the most exciting and charismatic players of his time, Roberto Clemente. His presence on the field and at the plate was too much for the Orioles to handle, and he proved to be the difference over seven games, batting .414 and leading the Pirates to the World Series championship in seven games. Baltimore had won the first two games, and, with their pitching staff, appeared to be on their way to a second straight Series championship. But when the Series switched to Pittsburgh, the Pirates won the next three straight at home. The Orioles won Game 6 in 10 innings because they treated it like Game 7, starting Palmer and using Dobson and McNally in relief. But despite an outstanding pitching performance by Cuellar in Game 7, the Orioles went down in defeat 2–1, thanks to a better pitching performance by Steve Blass and a home run by Clemente.
The defeat would mark the end of two eras, neither of which was expected. One of them was far more tragic — the death of Clemente a year later on New Year's Eve 1972. He was aboard a plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from Puerto Rico on a mission to bring supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
It also marked the end of the legacy of this great Orioles team, though no one knew that was coming, either. The Orioles finished in third place with an 80–74 record in 1972 (a strike- shortened season). They bounced back with 97 and 91 wins in 1973 and 1974, but their ALCS dominance was a memory. They were beaten by Oakland in five games in 1973 and four games in 1974, and during that time the team that had been so dominant since 1966 began to fall apart. Frank Robinson was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1971 season, and it was clear they missed his bat and his presence. Dobson and second baseman Davey Johnson were dealt to Atlanta in 1972, although Johnson was ably replaced by Bobby Grich. Boog Powell was moved to Cleveland in 1974, and McNally, with 181 career wins for the Orioles, was traded to Montreal after the 1974 season in a deal that would eventually help the Orioles rebuild and create another era of excellence, as they acquired a young outfielder named Ken Singleton.
Excerpted from Oriole Magic by Thom Loverro. Copyright © 2004 Thom Loverro. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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