This month, more than September, is the one when pennants are won. This is the month o fundamentals.
The conclusive proof of that statement is the baseball team that holds spring training here: the Baltimore Orioles.
Over the last 20 years, the O's have won far more games than any other team in baseball, finishing 501 games over .500. They eclipse the second-best club, Cincinnati, by 43 1/2 games.
Again last year, Baltimore won more games than anybody else.
The Orioles don't do it with money or attendance, or publicity, or a beautiful stadium. They rank in the middle of baseball in all of these areas. b
The most basic reason for their superiority, say the O's, is always the same: Fundamentals are the Orioles' edge.
"What is a baseball fundamental?" says ken Singleton, the most valuable Oriole in 1979. "It's any baseball act that is so simple that the man in the stands thinks, !I could do that. Why can't those big leaguers?'
"Fundamentals are the easy plays and the basic thoughts that we work on more than any team."
"From the seventh inning on, we make those plays, the other teams don't, and we win again."
"Baseball is pitching, three-run homers and fundamentals," says Earl Weaver, the manager with the second-highest winning percentage in the 20th century.
"For instance, the most fundamentally sound player in baseball might be Jim Palmer. What I've always appreciated about Jim is the enthusiasm he brings to our fundamentals.
"He doesn't need them, but he realizes they are a necessary evil. He leads by example. I appreicate that," Weaver says with a straight face. "Be sure to talk to Jim."
t"God, don't talk to me about fundamentals," rails Palmer, sweat still pouring from two hours of fielding bunts, covering first base, backing up bases on cutoffs, and, finally, running 18 foul-line-to-foul-line wind sprints.
"So dull . . . so dull," mutters the 225-game winner. "I hate fundamentals. Cursed Oriole fundamentals. . . I've been doing them since 1964. I do them in my sleep. I hate spring training."
Ah, fundamentals, the caster oil of baseball.
The term, "fundamental" is one of the vaguest, most ubiquitous, and least understood in baseball. But it's simple.
"Baseball is richer in 'situations' than any sport," says Ray Miller, Baltimore pitching coach. "What's the score? What's the count? Who's on base? How many outs?
"For every baseball situation, a player must have a conditioned reflex for every play that can happen.
"Those conditioned reflexes -- those basic situations and the plays that grow out of them -- are the fundamentals.
"Just being smart and alert isn't always enough," says Miller. "You want your players to react to those familiar plays without thinking. It's conditioned reflex . . . over and over."
"Extra bases and extra outs, that's what fundamentals are all about," says Weaver. "You want to make the other team earn all four bases, and you don't want to give them any extra outs."
Although it is not as universally understood as it should be, baseball is a game of "big innings." In a substantial majority of games, the winning team scores more runs in one inning than the loser does in all nine.
Fundamentals are the plays that minimize your opponents' big innings, while maximizing your own. The Orioles not only understand this, but preach it as gospel.
"When Earl goes to the mound in a jam, he always says the same thing," Miller says. "He tells the pitcher, 'Stay out of a big inning. Take the out if they'll give it to you. Don't worry about one run.'"
"Our whole objective," says Singleton, "is to make the basic plays, never give up a cheap run, and keep the game under control.
"We wait for the other team to give us an extra out, or put extra men on bases with walks. We'll have more chances to explode, because we'll make less of those mistakes, that open up a big inning."
"What distinguishes the Orioles is that they have a whole theory of how the game should be played," says Miller. "You feel it the first day you're in the organization. It stretches down to the lowest rookie at Bluefield (in the minor leagues).
"We may not do things the right way, but we do 'em the Oriole way. And, in the end, that's just as good."
Oriole fundamentals lend a sense of order to the entire organization. "It almost irritates other players," says Singleton. "They'll ask you in August, 'Don't you guys ever throw a ball away? Don't you ever miss the cutoff man?'"
That sense of order and control and restraint runs, like a baseball Ten Commandments, through the Orioles' system.
For example, "On the sacrifice bunt, we'll always grab the sure out," says Weaver. "If you play for one run early in the game, you'll end up losing by one run. We will never turn down an out and take a gamble."
"We tell all our pitchers the 'pick off' is an incorrect name," says Miller. "We are not attempting to pick off runners. We are trying to make the runners worried and defensive on the bases. That's enough.
"There is not now, and never will be, a pick-off play worth throwing the ball away."
To many players, becoming an Oriole has been a sort of revelation. One the first day, they are handed an organizational book that outlines the Oriole way to do everything. It is a proof of something they suspected: Baseball can be simple.
"That book is under lock and key in my home," laughs Miller. "Nobody gets it away from me.
"It's no accident that the same few teams keep winning, like the Orioles and Dodgers and Reds. They are the best fundamental teams. Clubs like Cleveland and San Francisco keep watching their players become all-stars as soon as another organization gets them. Wonder why that is?"
When Frank Robinson, after 25 years with the Reds and Orioles, became manager at Cleveland, he was stunned to leard that the Indians taught the game differently at every level -- or, rather, didn't teach it at all.
"I was teaching fundamentals to big leaguers," says Robinson.
Robinson was spoiled. He figured every pitcher knew, from the first day of spring, that after covering first base to take a throw, the next move is always to turn to the left quickly and face the infield.
Why? So that if there's a fast runner on second base he can't score on a routine ground out.
In just such small ways -- dozens of them -- a team gains a sense of composure and mutual trust.
"One bonus of longevity is that you can do everything the same at every level from rookie league to majors," says Weaver. "When a Mike Flanagan or Eddie Murray reaches the big leagues, they already feel at home.
"Organizations that change managers at the top every year also have to change at the bottom every year, too. Since last March, almost half the teams in baseball have changed leadership. How can their young players have a sense of continuity?"
The Orioles don't worry about the athletic feats that beat them. A home run against them, or a shutout, only produces a yawn. They know they aren't the only team with talent.
Because Baltimore is so self-assured in fundamentals, it can become fascinated with the nuances of the sport.
In the first game of spring training, the Orioles were tied, 4-4, in he eighth inning.A Bird rookie outfielder, Drungo Larue Hazewood, overthrew the cutoff man while trying to nail a runner going first-to-third on him.
The throw bounced crazily into foul territory as the go-ahead run raced home. But, the O's pitcher -- a veteran -- was down the left-field foul line, backing up the play.
The runner was out at the plate. The O's won in the ninth.
"Didn't take long for us to start playing Oriole baseball, did it?" Singleton says, grinning. "You can practically go a whole season without seeing our outfield throw to the wrong base or miss a cutoff man.
"But when a rookie screws up, there's our pitcher, practically sitting in the boxseats, so he can back up the play."
It dismays the Orioles that the trend of their game is away from fundamentals, rather than toward them.
"I could understand it 15 years ago when I started pitching," says Miller.
"We had so many rookies in camp that the Giants gave me No. 465.
"With that many players, who has time to teach?
"In seven years in the Cleveland organization, I never remember working on a bunt play. In spring training, we'd run, shag flies, and cover first base for three days -- those were our fundamentals for the year.
"Today, the minor leagues are much smaller, so you ought to be able to instruct more. But most clubs don't.
"They spend their money on free agents, or else they teach baseball as though it were football.
"Everywhere -- in colleges or pros -- you see weightlifting equipment for baseball players," says Miller. "I disagree with that overemphasis. I tell my young pitchers, 'Son, in this game, It's never going to be a third down-and-one."
"You don't hit off tackle in baseball, and you can't play the game with your teeth gritted.
"Muscles are fine. But this is a game of relaxation, condition reflex and mental alertness."
If you want to see weightlifting, go see the Chicago White Sox or the Texas Rangers -- teams with talent and muscle but ridiculously inept at fundamentals.
An Oriole spring training is an education in the minute technical secrets of how to make the basic plays correctly.
"Show the glove early," a Bird coach yells to a young pitcher covering first. That is to encourage the first baseman to make the underhanded toss quickly. If he doesn't see the pitcher's glove, he hesitates.
"Pull it in," another coach calls out to a pitcher fielding grounders, then wheeling to throw to second to start a double play. "Catch, pull in, look, step, throw."
By pulling the ball into the belt buckle -- almost going into the pitching stretch position -- the pitcher composes himself and gets into the most familiar throwing position.
"That's why we never throw a ball into center field," says Miller.
As each Oriole finishes his batting practice swings, he follows a base-circulating ritual. After sprinting to first, he takes a lead, then steals second on the next pitch. He takes a lead at second and imagines breaking for third on a sacrifice bunt. Finally, he breaks for the plate, then retreats, tags up at third and comes home on the first available fly ball.
This endless drill begins the first day at Bluefield and continues right through batting practice before World Series games.
"We score a lot of runners from third base on infield grounders with one out," says Frank Robinson. "That's because we're aggressive and practice it.The runner's front foot should hit the ground in a running stride just as the pich crosses the plate. That's what everybody practices in BP."
"Our strongest fundamental is probably our sacrifice bunting in the late innings of close games," says shortstop Mark Belanger. "Getting the bunt down to move the runners is becoming extinct. Some teams practice it serious in March. We practice it seriously before 162 games.
"On the other hand, our weakest fundamental is certainly defense against the sacrifice bunt. With more Astro-Turf fields and more trick defensive plays teams have proved that you can nail the lead runners more than anybody ever thought.
"But Earl is so adamant about taking the 'sure' out that we seldom gamble for the lead runner even when we could get him."
"You'll never see all our infielders moving simultaneously to defense the bunt," says Robinson. "Too many things can go wrong. It's not worth the risk. Just take the out."
If the Orioles have one huge advantage, it is their current total commitment to play as a team.
"Most good fundamental teams are unselfish teams," points out Miller. "With a man on second and none out, every player in our organization is under instructions to take one shot (swing) at moving the guy to third by hitting to the right side.
"On many teams, it's a half-hearted effort -- a foul ball -- because the guy doesn't really want to give himself up. He wants that hit for his batting average.
"The first day I was with the Orioles in AAA, we had a guy named Robby Andrews, who was leading the league in hitting, reached out for a curve in the dirt so he could give himself up. When he came back to the dugout, 23 guys were beating him on the back. I said, 'Hey, what's this? It must be baseball.'"
Fundamentals are infectious. They become a teamwide obsession, almost a badge of honor. Even themost obvious chores become part of a ritual of success.
Some teams for instance make fun of the Oriole doctrine -- which goes back 25 years to Paul Richards -- that pitchers must run.
"Last year, Steve Carlton of the Phillies, who won't run, was making cracks about us," says one Oriole. "Then, in mid-season, three Phillie starters came up injured, I didn't hear any more smart remarks from Carlton." s
Oriole theory says that when the legs, which have 60 percent of the body's muscle, gets tired, something must compensate. So the arms gets hurt.
"Its an illusion that our pitchers get stronger as the year goes along." says Miller. "The rest of the league just falls by the wayside.
"The Rangers run very little because they say it's too hot in Texas. But they have to pitch there. And every winter their staff goes back under the knife."
Oriole pitchers are so religious about their running (through they profess to loathe it), that they grouse whenever their slave driver of the day is a minute late to oversee them.
The key to getting a player to love his caster oil is to prick his pride.
Two years ago, the O's had a poor, frightened outfield. Last year, it was competent, and even occasionally good. The reason: Frank Robinson went back to fundamentals in spring training.
"They were praying that the ball wouldn't be hit to them," says Robinson. "I stirred their pride, convinced them they could enjoy the outfield if they wanted to catch the balls."
Robinson even invented a new teaching technique, eschewing those traditional, lazy 300-foot fungoes that coaches hit.
"Man, anybody can catch those. They retard you because you get false confidence. We had to get to work," he says.
So, each day, Robinson and his out-fielders stood just 150 feet apart as the coach hit grounders and liners to the edge of their reach.
"They could get more work in less time," the coach says." They could hear me when I had something to say because they had to run hard, short bursts, they could work longer without tiring. At the shorter distances. I could hit accurate enough fungoes that every play was difficult, instead of a lazy shag.
"They learned to see the ball come off the bat, and they got more excited the more good catches they made.
"People made jokes and asked, 'What do you need an outfield coach for?'"" says Robinson. "Well, our outfield did not lose one game for us last year."
The tactical implications of having a fundamentally sound team are wide-ranging, but they have the greatest impact on pitching, which of course, is the Orioles' trump.
"The first thing we tell our new pitchers," says Miller, "is that now they have eight guys on their side. If they will just make the other team hit the ball, we'll catch it for them. Avoid walks, avoid home runs and let the fielders do the work."
The ultimate Oriole pitcher is Palmer, who makes the game look effortless, who seldom strikes out anybody except in a jam.
"Palmer is the greatest 'situation' pitcher I've ever seen," says Miller. "He never makes the two-run pitch. He makes them beat him on a single and one run at a time. Most of the homers he gives up are solos because he only works to their power when the bases are empty."
At heart, the Orioles have operated for the last two decades on the assumption that baseball is a game of basic situations and fundamental plays. They seldom stop studying their game.
In the Oriole clubhouse is a TV set, attached to a videotape machine. Recorded are all the pitches of the previous game, spliced so that a three-hour game can be reviewed in 30 minutes, every pitch seen from directly behind home plate.
The Birds gather nonchalantly around that TV, but the banter is the stuff of pennants.
"Hey, ol' (Nelson) Norman's got himself a new stance," says Tim Stoddard, watching a replay of a game against Texas.
"Bet he can't handle the jammer," mutters Rick Dempsey. Heads nod agreement.
"Here comes the Doctor of Leather," laughs a Bird as glove-man Pepe Frias steps to the plate.
Frias steps far out of the batter's box while fouling off a Steve Stone pitch.
"Pepe no like that big curve ball very much," says Dave Skaggs.
"Watch," says Stone. "He doesn't like this next one much either."
Suddenly, the realization grows that every player in the room recalls every pitch -- its sequence, its location -- from an exhibition game in Florida.
"Did you hang this next forkball?" Singleton asks Stone.
"Yup," says Stone. "I hang one in three. This is the one."
"Hey, somebody call me when (Johnny) Grubb hits his three-run homer," announces Palmer. "I want to see where that pitch was."
But Grubb hasn't hit a home run this game, Palmer is told by an outsider.
"Sure he did," says Palmer. "He hit two of 'em. One off me and one off Stony. The wind just happened to blow 'em back in the park and Singleton caught them at the wall.
"You know, the wind's not always going to be blowing," says Palmer. "This is a good chance to find out where his power zone is."
Slowly, the Orioles dress, preparing themselves for their game of fundamental plays and fundamental thoughts.
What base do you throw to? Who is the cutoff man? Who backs up? Which direction do you pivot after tagging the bag?
What is Nelson Norman's new stance? What pitch can't Pepe Frias hit with a shovel? What pitch don't you throw to Johnny Grubb with men on base?
All these things can be practiced in advance or known in advance. They require neither great talent nor great intellect. They may seem exotic, but to a big leaguer they are fundamental.
The fan, as he leaves the park, remembers the towering home run, the acrobatic doubleplay, the blazing fast ball that struck out a dozen helpless batters.
The players love the spectacular, too. The patois of the games is full of "dingers and taters," "heaters and hooks."
Some teams love the sublime too much. "Boston never wins at all," says one Oriole, "because they can't be bothered to play dull baseball."
But the best players, the best teams, usually digest the game and then dream about it, at a different level.
They grumble about the sacrifice bunt that was popped up, the pitcher who forgot to cover first, the cutoff man missed, or the catcher who called the wrong pitch.
Perhaps more than any of our other major sports, baseball rewards the mundane and the extraordinary in almost equal measures. That, mayhap, is why free agents have altered the game's competitive balance less than expected.
Willie Mays climbing the fence, or Mickey Mantle hitting the upper-deck facade on old Yankee Stadium are what first attracted us to the game.
But, year after year, it is subtle, yet totally accessible fundamentals of the game that keep us attached to baseball as we see common sense, alertness and perseverance rewarded, while the slipshod is relentlessly punished.