Spring training is traditionally the season of "ifs" -- everywhere, that is, except here in the nest of the Baltimore Orioles, baseball's if-less team.
In Bradenton, the Pittsburgh Pirates wonder if 39-year-old Willie Stargell can hit 32 homers again. And in Winter Haven, the Boston Red Sox agonize over whether dead-armed Carlton Fisk can ever catch regularly again.
Over in Lakeland, Detroit's ifs are a famous rookie from the past -- Mark Fidrych -- and the most touted rookie of the present -- center fielder Kirk Gibson.
From the Milwaukee Brewers, who say, "if Larry Hisle returns from shoulder surgery," to the California Angels, who wonder if they have anbody who can replace Nolan Ryan, every contender has its favorite conundrum. It's almost a baseball religion.
The Orioles are spoilsports. They won't play. They break an ancient rule and willingly admit that they are a pat-hand team.
Seldom does a major league team come to spring camp with the quiet, almost velvety, confidence that seems to hang like a mantle around the shoulders of the Baltimoreans.
They were good last year -- just one win away from being world champions. But among themselves, they think they are going to be even better, perhaps a lot better. Like kids with a toy, they can hardly wait to play.
Ask Manager Earl Weaver the ritual first question of spring: "What will it take to get back to the Series?" -- and he says, casually, "Nothing."
In other words, nothing special is required of any particular Oriole -- just an ordinary don't-strain-yourself season by the team that won more games (102) than anybody else in baseball last year.
Ask superscout Jim Russo who the Birds still might want to swing a deal for, and he will say, "We have our eye on a third-string catcher in the National League. He'd help a little, but it's not rush."
A third-string catcher? With the world to choose from the only player the Orioles covet -- and he with a yawn -- is Joe Nolan of Atlanta.
To most of the baseball world, this is a mystery. They still don't understand what the O's did last year and keep mumbling about "intangibles" and "no-names" and "Weaver magic" and about how much losing Don Stanhouse will debilitate the Birds.
"People are still picking us to finish third and fourth," Ken Singleton said with a resigned grin today. "They never catch on. We don't play in New York or Boston, so that means we must not be very good.
"Well," said Singleton, raising his voice a bit so several other Orioles could hear, "let's just do it to 'em again.Let's sneak up on 'em and whup 'em all.
"Maybe a couple of world titles would open some eyes," Singleton said, laughing, "cause for the next coupld of years, this is going to be a real tough team to beat."
Every Oriole knows that this season and next could be a special, magic time. After 1981, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan and several other new-wave Birds enter free agency. It's doubtful that all can be kept. And, by 1982, will veterans such as Lee May, Pat Kelly and John Lowenstein still be able to play? Will Jim Palmer and Singleton, now 34 and 32, still be stars?'"
But, for the present, the O's only have one tiny problem. And it, in reality, is a blessing.
"Everyone says we have to replace Stanhouse," Scott McGregor said today.
"Well, that's not an 'if', that's a 'which.'
"The only question is, which of three guys will replace him -- Tim Stoddard, who signed a one-year contract today) Sammy Stewart or Dave Ford? You're talking about three big mooses who are all overdue and chomping at the bit to make a name in the majors.
"We'll miss Stanley himself," McGregor said. "But I doubt that we'll miss his pitching. He just opens up a spot on the staff so that we can have some competition and fresh blood."
"All winter I've heard people say, 'Can you guys duplicate the year you had last year?'" Singleton said. "If they studied the numbers, they'd know that, as a team, we had a slightly subpar year. We had a lot of injuries, several off years and not one player who did more than could have been predicted from his past history."
In fact, any number of Orioles expect, in their quiet way, to make their '79 statistics look anemic.
"If Palmer is healthy enough to get 35 to 38 starts, he will, without a doubt, win 18 to 20 games," said Russos. "Palmer may be the best-conditioned athlete in baseball. I see no indications that he isn't still a great pitcher. Look at his postseason: three good starts."
The real postseason eye-opener however, was McGregor, whose stock has gone up faster than mortgage rates.
"I've proved to myself that I'm a big league pitcher," McGregor said. "Winning 20 games on a club this good . . . well, it's an ideal situation, so you have to set high goals.
"We've all gained experience and poise that's irreplaceable. You can't explain it until you've been through it, but it has to help you."
If the Orioles don't have one of the 10 best pitching staffs in history, then statistics mean nothing.
The worst earned-run average of the five starters was 3.77 (by Steve Stone), which ranked in the American League's top 20.
In fact, the team ERA of the second best pitching staff in the league, New York's was 3.83. The Bird's ERA was 3.26; the other 13 AL teams had a combined mark of 4.27. That's a huge gap.
The citations are innumerable, but their sum total is that the Orioles can't help wondering what would happen if they had had a good year.
Each baseball season sows the seeds of its own future. This year's reaping is usually last year's planting.
The Orioles have seen the first returns on a bumper crop. This year, they suspect, may be their great harvest.