Wisps of smoke have been coming out of Hank Peters' ears ever since he heard that the New York Yankees traded for Bobby Murcer Tuesday and are paying him $1 million over three seasons.
"What a typical Yankee power play," smoldered the Baltimore Oriole general manager.
"That means Murcer is making more money, than anybody on our term. You mean to tell me that our values in this games haven't gotten warped?"
No transaction could possibly bring the Birds into starker relief than the gauche Murcer grab by New York. His $330,000 annual salary is like a lightning flash that lights up the underpaid, underpraised Orioles by contrast.
In these free-agent times, the Birds are seen as the game's Cinderella team.Oriole watchers instinctively listen for the stroke of midnight to find out when the ball is over.
The universal response to the O's is pity. How can the poor Orioles compete equally?
the time has come, perhaps, to stop feeling sorry for the Birds. Their record - 50-24, the best in baseball - is no fairy tale. For more than that, it is possible that, for the long haul, Baltimore has chosen the correct way to build a genuine power; the old way.
Baltimore has become, gradually over the past three seasons, a club that is as fundamentally sound as it is widely unknown. Beneath a bland surface, the Orioles have a rich, complex and deliberately created internal chemistry.
Many view the Orioles' good fortune as a sort of quixotic triump of virtue, a glorious fluke.
That assessment, it now appears, totally misses the mark. The Orioles are on the verge of being a great term - a power - in all the century-old classic senses.
Almost any baseball evaluation is rash. Teams change with kaleidoscopic quickness, the whole character of a club's attack some times turning on one or two players, as the Yankee engine suddenly conked without Goose Gossage. The Orioles are no exception.
Nevertheless, something in the nature of the game seems to favor fair play, to benefit teams that are built along lines that have been tested for generations.
Baseball, that old-fashioned game, seems to reward traditional values. It may prove so again.
The Orioles have built with sturdy, if unspectacular, logs. The Birds are joined by the mortar of camaraderie gained from years of playing together in the minors, and from the simple knowledge that they are not talented enough to prosper without each other.
Baltimore has a dozen names, fellows making steady contributions, who must cause eyebrows to be raised outside the land of crabcakes - Skaggs, Ayala, Garcia, Kelly, Lowenstein, Billy Smith, Tippy Martinez, Crowley, Stewart, Stoddard, even Dempsey.
Folks in Dubuque must wonder who these guys are.
"Whe have had to build a team that fits together," says Peters.
"There are reasons why we have a different hero every night," aid Manager Earl Weaver mischievously. "We have a lot of players with specific abilities, which we use, and disabilities, which we hide."
Each time the Yankees gobble another name for their gilded bench, Weaver chimes the same refrain that he did for the Murcer trade: "Where can they play him? Where does he fit?"
After three seasons of fine-tuning, the O's have reached the point where they have zero dead wood - every player has a function.
The baseball world may scratch its head at the presence of Pat Kelly, John Lowenstein and Terry Crowley on a team that is blitzing its league - but Weaver knows that, as spot players and lefty pinch hitters, few are better.
To be sure, the presence of rookies, so-sos and never-will-bes is a primary reason that the O's have little nationwide following. It is equally true that the Birds have a uniquely underrated nucleus of stars.
It is also the misfortune of the Orioles standouts that there is not a barbarian in the lot. Civility and intelligence are two of the most widely unreported qualities in sports.
"This is the only team I'm aware of where more guys bring books onto air-planes than cassette decks," said Ken Singleton. "Lowenstein's our resident anthropologist and Steve Stone's our published poet."
The Birds' most conspicuous star, Jim Palmer, has been caught reading Boris Pasternak in public.
If there is a common thread among Orioles, it is Weaver's insistence that "brians are welcome."
"I want a team that talks the game and analyzes it," says Weaver. "I want the young players to hear the old players say smart things. Over and over, I want them to hear the words. It rubs off."
The Birds, like a 97-pound weakling after a body-building course, are still not entirely accustomed to their new weaponry.
In fact, it is only in recent days that Peters, the chief Oriole architect, has sensed that his team has changed its fundamental opinion of itself and its limits.
"Our confidence has been building all season," said the general manager.
"But it's only in the last two weeks that I have won 11 games by one run this month and that's the way we have to play.
"That's removed my last doubt. This team is built to win the close games, because the majority of your reason is one- and two-run games. And now we're doing it.
"For the first time, I am sure that our players are convinced that they can win everything, right through the World Series.
"When I look at our statistics, one thing makes me especially happy - not one player is having a great year."
Perhaps only an Oriole general manager could be quite so delighted by a seeming pradox.
"Because no one player is carrying us, we are not dependent on anyone. Basically, there's no way our record is a fluke. In fact, I could see us actually getting better. We've built our record despite several keys injuries and several individual slumps."
When a team has already had 28 come-from-behind wins, when it has rallied for victory in the eight inning or later on 17 occasions in less than half a season, those are frighteningly optimistic words.
In March, even the O's had no idea they would be so fierce in June. Who dreamed that Gary Roenicke would be in the top five in the league in slugging and on-base percentage? And that he might be the club's best outfielder?
"People ask how we got so goldarn smart," said the sometimes formal, deaconly Peters. "We're not. We've picked some lemons, like Carlos Lopez. And we've gotten some trouble-makers, like Holtzman, whom we traded as soon as we could.
"But sometimes you also surprise yourself when you think you've got a good player, like Roenicke, and he proves to be even better - or so it appears."
Many teams, intoxicated by first place, might start pouring on the coals, as Boston did last year, and exhaust itself trying to build an insurmountable lead.
The Orioles, by contrast, are following Weaver's lead and almost yawning from the top spot.
Chairman Earl, aphorist and tantrum-tosser, has been to the World Series and makes it clear that he assumes a well-known genius, such as himself, will be going again many times in the future. What's the rush?
It's a useful pose.
If anything, Weaver has made a show of using his irregulars even more than planned - one luxury of a lead.
Weaver has always fielded some bizarre concoctions in the second games of doubleheaders. Nightcaps are his showcase for a hundred eccentric statistical theories.
In the last month, he has flaunted the likes of Kiko Garcia and Bennie Ayala at the top of his lineup, and won almost every time.
It is all part of Weaver's basic belief that confidence is at the root of an athlete's success, almost more than talent. Weaver manages by psychological nuance as only man can who spits his tobacco juice and pretends never to have heard of a word with that many letters in it.
"Earl never throws his young players to the wolves," said Coach Jim Frey. "He always says that he wants a player's first year to be as easy and pressure-free as possible. He'll do anything to keep confidence from being shattered."
To that end, Weaver has adamantly kept erratic Don Stanhouse (29 walks in 39 innings) as his No. 1 reliever, while 6-foot-7 monster Tim Stoddard with the 1,66 ERA and a blistering 14-to-40 walk-to-strikeout ratio, gets the more relaxed assignments.
The result: Stoddard looks meaner and hungrier every time out, while Stanhouse is 6-1 with eight nerve-wracking saves.
While media sharpies have begged for rookie Sammy Stewart to join the rotation, Weaver has scoffed, saying, "I like him fine where it is. $
Weaver picks Stewart's spots like a race fixer with a phony horse: the time must be just right or Sammy does not run.
If any characteristics marks and Birds, it is their lack of jealousy, their air of mutual support. That atmosphere was born in the nine-rookie year of '77 when the young Birds, picked for disaster, won 97 games by banding together. That 'operation-bootstrap' mentally has never changed - only talent has been added.
"A lot of our players came up through the minors together and they have stayed close. In fact, 15 of our players live in Baltimore year round, including four who moved here from Southern California - you know, the land every ballplayer supposedly wants to go to.
"We try to build camaraderie, a family feeling," said Peters. "We try to do right by our players . . . despite what Palmer says. . ."
Ah, yea, the out-spoken Mr. Palmer.
"Jim is a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality," said Peters, who in Palmer's book is strictly Hyde. "People send me clippings from all over the country where Palmer has read his little script of complaints to the local reporters and they all think they've got a scoop.
"He's alienated himself with me and (owner Jerry) Hoffberger, but it doesn't really matter-because, no matter what he says, I'm not trading him. He's too valuable.
"Besides, Earl tells me he's great on the bench a real cheerleader, a teacher to the younger players. He's a workhorse for conditioning. If the other pitchers just followed him around, they'd be in shape.
"Periodically, Earl, or someone, will get disgusted with some adolescent remark Jimmy makes and they'll read him the riot act, but basically, Palmer's one of the key leaders on this team."
In fact, Palmer's role as designated bitcher has given the team a safety valve. Any player complaint against management will find the light of day roughly two seconds after Palmer learns about it. He is a walking leak.
Since Weaver is almost uniquely willing, among managers, to have his players jaw with him face to face, Palmer sets an ecellent example of how easy it is to talk straight to Weaver.
Te Oriole dugout may lead the majors in "clear air." Weaver runs group encounter sessions at maximum volume that would put EST and Primal Scream Therapy to shame.
"You can't live together for severn months and keep it all inside," said Weaver. "If you can't blow off steam, and know it won't be held against you, you can't play."
So when catcher Rick Dempsey threw a tirade after Weaver hooked him from a game his spring - flining bats, helmets and shin guards around the dugout, Weaver mimicked everything Dempsey did, keeping pace until he couldn't find a shin guard to hurl.
If the O's clubhouse mood is generally cerebral, then the dugout atmosphere during games if often manic, compulsively superstitious and highly charged.
"Earl is a nervous week, especially when I pitch," said Stanhouse."As soon as I throw 'ball two' you can see him running down the ramp back to the clubhouse. He can't bear to watch me pitch. He calls me 'full-pack' Stanhouse, because he says he smokes a full pack of cigarettes in two innings when I'm in there."
In conservative Baltimore, however, a wide-open locker-room ethos exits.
Children, women reporters and prolitical figures like Sargent Shriver wander around casually. Raised-voice arguments between Dempsey and an official scorer, or Weaver and a player, which would cast a terrified silence over other clubs, barely raise an eyebrow with the Orioles.
Weaver, Peters and Hoffberger stood in the presence of several reporters recently while Weaver gave a dissertation on why one of his current players was "absolutely the stupidest ballplayer I have ever had to handle."
In other sports, locker-room ambiance or team character may mean little. But in baseball, the everyday game where players come to the office 162 times as though they worked a normal job, it is significant.
At present, the Orioles face only one pressing problem, at least in Weaver's eyes.
"Too much is being written about one big-mouth guy on this team," Weaver said, "and it's me."
The skipper has become defensive about the way his reputation has sometimes overshadowed his players - witness his face on a national magazine cover this month.
"The way we're playing, they could leave me back at the hotel most nights," said Weaver.
To those who have followed the Orioles' growth in recent years, there is one serious problem on the horizon. Fandom is on the verge of discovering the Birds. Quaint and quiet Memorial Stadium is becoming jammed with noisy and naive fans who mistake every routine fly ball for a homer and roar their lungs out.
"Frankly, our crowds are unexpected and inspirational," said Peters. 'You wouldn't think that after 25 years a town would show a new pattern of attendance, but we love it.
"You can see that some of our players hardly know what to make of it. Stanhouse stepped off the mound the other night and looked up at the crowd like he was thinking, 'What the heck's the matter with these idiots?'
"The first couple of years that you get this sort of fan support, it unquestionably wins you games. While it's new, the players get fired up and it carries them."
Just three years ago, the Orioles looked like a distressing anachronism, a painful reminder of baseball's modest sanity in the past and the brutal uncertainty of its free-agent future.
Inside the game, the Orioles were asked about as one would inquire about a seriously ill friend. Was this exemplary franchise to be a casualty of baseball's dollar combat?
The dispatches from the fron have new returned. The team that went back to its roots - nurturing its farm system, cultivating its young players with patience, building a team of complimentary, if unprepossessing, players - has not only survived the battle.
It may be on the verge of winning the war. CAPTION: Baseball's Hottest Team, The Orioles have put together the best record in the majors with help from: Picture 1, Rick Dempsey; Picture 2, Doug DeCinces; Pictures 3, Lee May; Picture 4, Gary Roenicke and Al Bumbry. By Associated Press, United Press International and The Washington Post; Pictures 5, Hank Peters