"We'd love to see Jimmy Carter here in October." Baltimore Oriole Ken Singleton said with a grin. "We'll let him throw out the first softball of the World Series."
Already the Orioles - the ragamuffins of 33d Street - are dreaming pennant. Perhaps it is an ominous sign, the first hint of pride before the collapse. But they just can't help it. The infectious esprit de corps in Memorial Stadium - from the clubhouse to the upper-deck stands - makes it almost inescapable.
"It's a joy to come to the park every day," said rookie Billy Smith, the only free agent the Orioles could afford. "Just like I dreamed it'd be as a kid."
It would be hard to imagine a more harmonious flock than these Birds. "Every club has jealousies, rivalries, potential explosions," said Tony Muser, the self-appointed Captain of the Nurds, or a similar word which the Orioles use for their rinky-dinks. "But all that stuff is really submerged on this club. Everybody put us down all winter and we had to help each other just to salvage our self-respect."
That sense of a team pulling together for mutual redemption has awakened Baltimore's dormant fans.
Seven times in the last nine home dates, the notoriously low-drawing O's have pulled from 38,000 to 52,000 people into Memorial Stadium, an unheard of succession of big houses. The all-time 1966 mark of 1,203.366 is definitely in danger.
The result has been the birth of separate cheering sections, a la Colts football, throughout the stadium, some backing individual players, others the team.
One bearded fellow in a white cowboy hat has put himself in charge of leading an entire upper deck section in an "O-R-I-O-L-E-S" chant before Baltimore's turn at bet.
Even Washington's customarily Oriole-proof fans seem to be getting a crush on this team that sometimes starts five rockies and has won 30 of its games by one or two runs.
"When we won 14 of 16 games earlier this month, we had eight of those games on TV in Washington," pointed one Oriole official. "We may have turned some sort of corner (in drawing fans up the parkway) in the Washington market."
Even Brooks Robinson cannot believe the transformation of Memorial Stadium, which resembled a chilly sarcopharus in April. "People are singing, chanting, doing any darn thing they can think of," said the 23-year vet. "I don't think it's ever been quite like this before."
It is a measure of the Birds' growing confidence that they have stopped talking about playing "day-to-day" and are now willing to look down the line. Doug DeCinces notes that during the worst August dogs days the Birds get to play 17 of 22 games at home.
Singleton points out that 15 of Baltimore's last 27 games are against the worst teams in the division. Toronto and Detroit. "And our last three games are against Boston," said Singleton. "I told (Boston's) Fred Lyne that I sure hoped they still meant something."
That like today's confidence draining 1-0 loss in 14 innings, is the major question about the Orioles. Every game in Tension Central as fans wonder. "Is this the day we start falling apart?"
"Of the so-called "surprise teams" we're the only one that's built on pitching," said manager Earl Weaver. "That's why I think we've got a chance to be in this thing until the end."
Already it is clear that Weaver thinks Boston is a greater threat than New York, "Pitching," Weaver keeps saying. "If Boston starts getting pitching like they have the last few games," he stopped and rolled his eyes.
The best news for Oriole fans is that the team is unlikely to score runs at a lower rate than its current 364 in 93 games. "We've just waiting for Lee May to get hot," said Singleton. "Every season he's had a streak of 50 RBI in 50 games (44 in 44 last year). When he goes off, our lineup is going to look different."
Nevertheless, the Birds still carry whiffle bats at three spots in the order - catcher, shortstop and second catcher Rock Dempsay, who now leads cheers with a cast on his fist, will be out three more weeks, putting a burden on Dave (.232) Skaggs. Come September, however, the Orioles may be glad to have a rested Dempsey and a less green Skaggs.
While mysterious Mark Belanger, who bats .270 one year and .200 the next, may not improve his current .194 by very much, the second base combo of Smith and Rich Dauer certainly should swing with more authority than its current combined .228. More important, however, is the way the Orioles insist that their averages mean nothing. That is almost always the hallmark of a "miracle" team.
"It's nice not to have to worry about stats so much," said DeCinces. "On a contending team you think about making crucial plays and understanding the strategy of game situations more than getting a meaningless hit to make your average look better."
"Different star everyday," is the cliche on out-manned, hustling teams. Since the day Skaggs replaced Dempsey and immediately got a ninth-inning game-winning hit, the Orioles have picked up that chorus.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these Orioles is that many baseball men expect their pitching to get even better. "I'm surprising that the young pitchers haven't d even more," said ex-Bird coach Billy Hunter, now Texas manager. "Scott McGregor (just 1-1) looks just like Dave McNally on the mound and he and (rookie) Dennis Martinez (8-6) have the best stuff on the whole (rookie) staff."
Martinez and McGregor have been brought along gently, giving themd confidence and allowing the Orioles the luxury of two "swing pitchers" - strong-armed hurlers who can start, or work any kind of relief.
The final key to Baltimore sustaining its fantasy season is the work of the Big Four. Jim Palmer seems finally to have righted himself and should do better than his 11-8 thus far. Rudy May, proud possessor of three new off-speed pitches taught by coach George Bamberger, seems finally to have transformed himself from a .450 pitcher into an 18-to-20 game winner.
Ross Grimsley and Mike Flanagan are If I and If 11. When the Orioles fall behind early, they almost invariably die quickly. When their starting pitcher keeps it close until the late innings, the Orioles become terrors.
Grimsley, the lefty who measures the oil in his hair with a dipstick has a suspicious new pitch and a 9.5 record. Fans in Baltimore should appreciate him more. His 82-63 carcer record at age 27 may make him the pitcher in all baseball who has done the most with the least raw ability.
Flanagan, the human chimney who never breathes without a cigarett, yet can throw 175 pitches in a games, has been a 5-1 bellweather of late. Weaver believes in him and will pitch him no matter what.
The Oriole bullpen is a little-used mystery. No fireman has more than four saves, but 42 complete games have made rescue unnecessary. At any rate, when New York's Sparky Lyle and Boston's Bill Campbell are working their 80th games. Tippy Martimez and Dick Drago will think it is still May.
Everything is completely different from the horrible feeling last year when we were 12 games out by now," said Weaver, stressing won-lost record and glossing over the endless contract disputes, desperation trades and occasional clubhouse feuds that made the Bird nest thorny in '76.
"Then you felt you couldn't afford to lose a single game. You'd come in and say, 'Oh, my Lord, now we're another game behind.'
"It's a heck of a lot easier now. People seem to be excited about this team. Maybe the fans had gotten used to what we used to have. Ya know.Brooks and Frank and Boog had to get old. The new heroes had to come.
"Anyway, that horrible feeling's gone and every body's laughing when you come in the clubhouse."
That laughter only lasts from day to day, just as the Birds' suddenly booming attendance and their growing popularity are endangered by even the shortest losing streak.
Nevertheless, as July wanes and baseball's serious business begins, the current Orioles find themselves in a position unattained by even the world champion clubs of '66 and 70'. Those teams were respected and even feared, but these young Birds of Baltimore are on the verge of being loved.