Scott McGregor was always the phenom, which he learned can be baseball's highest praise and greatest curse. He also found the road to fame, or at least the increasing attention he now commands, is paved with ground balls.
"My high-school team was one of the best in California," said Oriole catcher Dave Skaggs, "and he pitched a one-hitter against us. He was a freshman at the time."
In high school, McGregor was 51-5 with a 0.39 earned-run average-- and arguably a better hitter than a teammate named George Brett. He was drafted in the first round by the Yankees in '72, favored with invitations to the big-league camp each spring but then frequently frustrated in Syracuse with two other highly regarded by anonymous left-handers, Tippy Martinez and Ron Guidry.
"Guidry was always going up and down, from Syracuse to the Yanks, like a shuttle bus," McGregor said. "I always had a taste of the big leagues each spring, which gave me a burning desire to get here, but I was the only one staying in Syracuse that year (1975).
"Cloyd Boyer would keep telling me there's 25 other teams in the majors and not to keep my mind set on the Yanks."
It was splended advice, for on June 15, 1976, a day that might live in Yankee infamy, McGregor came to the Orioles in a trade that ranks among the most lopsided ever.
The Orioles have correctly been celebrated for slickering Montreal in trades. But that one with the Yanks was the best of all, for in return for two pitchers whose careers would turn downward in a hurry, Ken Holtzman and Doyle Alexander, and journeyman Grant Jackson the Orioles got one quick star (Rudy May) and three future regulars (Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez and McGregor).
And two months after he finished an 18-14 season here, May helped Don Stanhouse and Gary Roenicke hop on the Oriole Expo Express. So that one trade has given Baltimore its bullpen this season, a combined 27-9 record and 19 saves, 28 home runs and one of baseball's fine arms behind the plate.
"I was assigned to Rochester," McGregor said, "but that was the incentive I needed. I was 9-1 there, with six shutouts." And on a team that produced 16 major league players, including Oriole luminaries Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray.
"He'd been a high prospect who never got his shot," said Ray Miller, Oriole pitching coach who was McGreor's coach in Rochester that year."With us, he realized if you changed speeds (instead of pressing for strikeouts) and let the defense do the work, keep the ball over the plate and down, you had a good shot at the big club.
"Scotty gets ground balls. That's the key, plus he doesn't walk anyone."
The on-the-field McGregor is rather like his off-the-field style, intelligent and understated. He has not Palmer's presence, Flanagan's fast ball, Dennis Martinez's arsenal of pitches or Stanhouse's bravado.
What he does have is a 8-1 record since the All-Star Game and some of the most efficient games in the majors. He is a joy to play behind, because nearly everyone gets a chance to participate defensively.
And the postgame focus is likely to be on someone other than McGregor, because a quick glance at the line score invariably hints it was no pitching masterpiece. McGregor can throw an 11-men-stranded shutout because he avoids that bane of pitchers-- the walk.
Stanhouse and McGregor are at the extreme ends of the Oriole pitching spectrum, although both are effective. Stanhouse fiddles while Earl Weaver burns. He has walked 47 batters in 61 innings. McGregor makes Weaver content, having walked only 20 in 146 innings.
"He (Weaver) has this big thing about walks," said Dough DeCinces. "He wants us to get 'em but he hates for us to give 'em. I'm convinced he goes home nights (after the Orioles win, of course) muttering to himself: 'We got three more walks.' That's why he loves Scotty."
Miller knows not to expect the conventional answer from McGregor to the conventional question he will throw during a mound conference. When Miller asks what McGregor plans to do with an especially menacing hitter with a man or so on base, out from that deceptively soft face will come: "Don't know. Depends on what he does with the first pitch."
McGregor frequently will say to DeCinces on the bench: Come over and visit me (on the mound) when I need it." He is known as Dr. Small, the fellow with the Ph.D. in pitching. Small is what Dennis Martinez considers the logical extension of Flanagan being called "Big Lefty" and McGregor "Little Lefty" -- even though Little Lefty is an inch taller than Big Lefty.
Little Lefty's 11-4 record is even more remarkable because he did not win his first game until June 11. That followed, by a few months, the most frightening moment of his athletic life. There always were doubts in the minors, but the tendinitis he developed this spring had the hint of doom.
"You wonder if this is it," he said. "One pitch could end it all. Reality comes in an awful hurry. You work too soon and you develop bad habits, and an injury somewhere else. But I rested it enough and finally was able to work back into the rotation."
McGregor's 2-year Oriole history has been brief periods of ineffectiveness and extended periods of excellence. His first three starts last year yielded three losses and a 13.50 era in 12 2/3 innings. He was 15-10 thereafter, with a 2.74 era.
The 25-year-old won seven games in a row last season, and Miller insists the potential is there for a "20-win season two or three years in a row, if he stays healthy enough to remain in the rotation all the time."
Still, on a staff with so many gifted arms, that might not bring the world panting toward his locker. For now, McGregor is scarcely concerned about that sort of thing. He has been in situations where too much was expected too soon, where too many fine pitchers might keep him from the big leagues instead of the Hall of Fame.
"The big thing in this game is patience," he said. "And I wouldn't have been comfortable in New York. I'll be here awhile."