The Baltimore Orioles locker room is silent now. Gone are Frank Robinson's Kangaroo Court, Paul Blair's rock 'n roll, Reggie Jackson's state of the buck messages and the chirping of two dozen cocky, boisterous, pennant-hungry Birds.
"This is the quietest bunch of ball players I ever saw," said Brooks Robinson, his soft voice the loudest thing in the crowded clubhouse. "These new kids never say a word."
The old Orioles are gone. Since last opening day 14 of the 25 players on the roster have changed.
Seldom has a club gone through so radical a transformation as these Orioles. For better or worse, the future of the O's franchise is on the Memorial Stadium field right now.
What Oriole fans see on the Birds' 25-man roster now is basically what they will get not just for the next few weeks but probably for the next several seasons.
Over the last 20 years the Orioles built the best record in baseball with the jewels mined from their rich farm system. Now the AAA level of that system has been plucked of every feather. Every promising player in Baltimore's high minors has been called up and given a shot at a job in this time of distress.
Either these young Birds fly or the Orioles fall. There is no one behind them to take their places and the O's aren't planning to join the free-agent sweepstakes.
As general manager Hank Peters said, "We now have a vacuum at the AAA level. Our pennant-winning team at Rochester last year has been almost completely dispersed through the expansion draft, trades and the players we have brought up."
It is appropriate that in a time of crisis when the free-agent wars and simple old age have disassembled a once-powerful team, the Orioles should look to the minors.
The source of the Orioles' 20-year success was simple and indisputable. The O's signed and developed a dozen players in the late '50s and '60s who made at least one All-Star team during their Bird days: Jim Palmer, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Blair, Mark Belanger, Dave Johnson, Milt Pappas, Andy Etchebarren, Steve Barber, Ron Hansen, Chuck Estrada and, of course, Brooks Robinson, the only player to spend 23 seasons with one team.
What these dozen farmhands did not produce on the field, they brought in trade, e.g., Frank Robinson for Pappas.
Ironically, the Orioles' gradual slide in the '70s from being the scourge of baseball from 1969 to 1971 to the role of just another solid contender, can also be laid at the farm system's door.
After those dozen all-stars blossomed in the '60s, Baltimore's minor leagues produced only one Bird who broke in during the '70s who has made an All-Star team - Bobby Grich.
For the most part, the highly touted farmhands of the '70s - Don Baylor, Al Bumbry, Rich Coggins. Dough DeCinces, Jim Fuller, Paul Mitchell, Terry Crowley and Dyar Miller have been at best slight disappointments and at worst absolute flops.
As Brooks and Frank Robinson, Powell, McNally, Mike Cuellar, Blair and Don Buford were either traded because of advancing age or simply grew ancient in the Baltimore harness, they were never adequately replaced with youngsters.
Nevertheless, the Orioles' shrewd front office kept the team near the top for the past two years with a pair of larcenies pulled off within 24 hours in December, 1974.
Lee May, Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez were spirited out of the National League in trades for five players who have since produced almost nothing (McNally, Coggins, Red Andrews, Enos Cabell and Bill Kirkpatrick). Had it not been for Andy Messersmith and a judge, those thefts might have been enough to keep the Orioles above 90 victories a year through the decade.
When Peters got Jackson and Ken Holtzman for Baylor and Torrez last April, the Orioles seemed to have done it again, stealing in shrewd trades what they were no longer developing themselves.
Then the full meaning of free agency came home to Peters and the Orioles. It was nothing less than a death knell for Baltimore pennant hopes for the foreseeable future.
Baltimore executives could not kid themselves. They knew exactly what attendance their town could give them. "The absolute top is 1.2 million," said Peters, adding that, more realistically, the average (for a winning team) is just under 1 million.
"You project your future attendance, then apply it to a budget and a payroll," said Peters. "If you put the financial jigsaw together and the pieces don't fit, you have to take a look at what you're doing."
The Orioles took that long look into the future last year and what they saw was bleak. Peters felt the O's could not match free-agent offers for Jackson, Grich and Wayne Garland and still maintain the sort of modest payroll structure that Baltimore attendance absolutely dictated.
"If you can fool yourself into thinking you'll draw 2-2 1/2 million fans a year by buying a couple of top stars," said Peters, "then you can justify what some teams are gambling on doing. But we know the limits of what even a world champion will draw in Baltimore."
Just as infuriating is another side effect of the twin talent drainers, free agency and expansion. "Our trading surplus has evaporated," said Peters. "Our ability to put together a deal is knocked way down."
How do you trade a Lee May for an Enos Cabell if you don't even have Enos Cabell any more?
The overall picture for cities like Baltimore and Oakland, which know that their maximum possible attendance is alarmingly low, is debilitating, to say the least.
"Initiative and dedication, foresight and intelligent people in your front office are all being overcome by the shear weight of dollars," said Peters with no attempt to hide the potential disaster he fears for his team. "We can't sign a Brooks Robinson and have him for 23 years. Someone will buy him away after six years."
So Peters and the Orioles are playing it "year-to-year," trying to wait and see how all this shakes down, what the future will be like.
For the present, however, the health of the Orioles is in the hands of a dozen young, unproven farmhands.
Of the entire batch only righthanded pitcher Dennis Martinez, 21, has the raw tools to make his name a sort of quiet hum that runs throughout baseball. He could be a steady 15 to-20-game winner once he gains weight and experience.
The other young Bird pitchers - Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Fred Holdworth, and Tippy Martinez - have a bit of style, but lack the true fast ball, the numbing hook, that fellows their age should have. In an era when the tend is toward 6-foot-4, 210-pound pitchers, the Orioles are stuck with a half-dozen economy-size cutey-pies.
However, Flanagan and McGregor are lefties, as are veterans Rudy May and Ross Grimsley, so Baltimore certainly has the dept to tempt either Boston or Texas in a trade since both are flag-crazed and desperate for southpaw starters.
The O's aspiring everyday players - Rich Dauer, Eddie Murray, Dave Skaggs, Kiko Garcia, Larry Harlow, Billy Smith and Tom Shopay - are the sort of players who in time may reach the same level of acceptable mediocrity as Bumbry and DeCinces. The alarming thing about them is that they are all currently on the O's 25-man roster.
No wonder Brooks Robinson said, "We're going to be forced to play the kids all at once. It's going to be tough."
It is little wonder that the Baltimore clubhouse is silent. At least for the worrisome time being, the new Orioles have a great deal to be quiet about.