After long labor, a certain residue of feeling must be left, whether satisfaction or lingering discontent. Few labors are longer or more arduously intense than a 162-game baseball season. And few endeavors leave a more palpably distinct aftertaste.
As Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles sat in his manager's office in Boston on Wednesday, signing chits and meat-money forms, he turned to traveling secretary Phil Itzoe and said, "Jeez, Phil, it's the 10th month (October). We started signing these things in the second month (February)."
These are the days when ballplayers, after driving themselves for nearly eight months, begin to gather a collective sense of their season, digest all the emotional elation and depression and come to a final evaluation of themselves. Paradoxical as it may seem, the Orioles seem almost certain to end this season on a more self-forgiving and mutually encouraged note than they did in 1979, despite the obvious fact that last year they reached the seventh game of the World Series, while this season it is unlikely that they will win any tangible prize.
Yet, the reason that the Birds feel better about themselves now is simple. In '79, they proved to the world that they had talent, which was something that they already knew. But, they also lost the last three games of the Series, leaving valid doubts about their ability to play their best under the most extreme pressure. This year, the Birds have documented their character, something which even they could not be certain that they -- taken as a group -- posessed.
The Orioles for the last 3 1/2 months have played nothing but pressure games. Nothing in baseball is more difficult than playing catch-up in the lost column. Since June 15, Baltimore has played 101 of these tension-filled, grinding games -- and they have won 70 of them, making up 8 1/2 games on the Yankees and clearly playing the best ball in the majors over that span.
To begin August, the O's won 10 in a row and 15 of 16, culminating in a three-game sweep of the Yankees in Yankee Stadium to come within 2 1/2 games of the Bronx Bombers. And, ironically, that is where they began yesterday -- still 2 1/2 games behind. Since that sweep in New York, both clubs have gone 34-17 (.667).
If losing one game hurts when you are playing catch-up then losing games back to back, especially to a bad or mediocre team, is a true body blow, and the sort of thing that makes even the best teams pack their tents. Yet, in the last seven weeks, the O's have suffered back-to-back looses seven times. Baltimore has reacted by ripping off winning streaks of eight games, six games, five games, five games and their current streak of five wins.
But this Oriole team also had one Achilles' heel -- hubris. The O's undersold the Yankees time and again. They underestimated New York's offseason improvement and talked disparagingly about the Yankees' fast start for months. When they met head to head, they respected New York, but looked on the six-of-eight result as further proof that they were measurably better. It would have been wiser to realize that they had beaten the New Yorkers during their one mediocre stretch of the year, just as the Yankees won four of five from Baltimore early in the year when the O's were bumbling.
When the numbers are added up at season's end, it may be a shock to see how many Orioles have done as much, or more, than was expected of them in March -- Al Bumbry: 201 hits, .317, 44 steals; Eddie Murray: 32 homers, 115 RBI, .302; Ken Singleton: 104 Rbi, .305, 19 game-winning hits; Rich Dauer: .288, 18 strikeouts, 63 RBI; catchers rick Dempsey and Dan Graham combined: 22 homers, 91 RBI; DHs Terry Crowley and Bennie Ayala combined: 22 homers, 83 RBI in just 390 at bats. cExcept for Kiko Garcia and Gary Roenicke (nine homers), no regular players have been below realistic expectations.
Among pitchers, Steve Stone and Scott McGregor have had career years. Tim Stoddard (2.49, 26 saves) and Tippy Martinez have been as good as management hoped. Jim Palmer (16-10) was sayvy personified with batting practice stuff in many starts. Only Mike Flanagan (16-13) and Dennis Martinez have combined bad pitching and bad luck to have poor years. Whether they rebound is, easily, the biggest key to the 81 Baltimore season.
Ironically, it is Martinez, who has been the year's biggest disappointment and the player most mentioned in trade rumors, who best explains the current mood of internal peace and professional contentment among the Orioles. c
"I hate to think of being traded," says Martinez, a 24-year-old Nicaraguan. "These are family people. when other players come here, suddenly they feel free, like they have found a home. Everyone is friendly here. I took at other teams and it is ugly. You know many of them don't like each other. Here, one person says, 'Anybody want to come to dinner?' and everybody goes, just like a huge family of relatives.
"When other teams would get mad, we laugh. When a defensive player goes in late in the game, we say to Dempsey or Singleton, 'Oh, I see you are still a seven-inning player.' If I must go to the bullpen, they say, 'Oh, Dennis, you have become a relief pitcher very young.' Baseball can be very hard. Being on this team makes everything much easier."
Perhaps one incident illuminates the reason why the O's have refused to quit and played up to their considerable pride. In midseason, Weaver pinch-hit for Lee May. "It was the first time he had even been batted for," say Weaver."I felt like a horse's rear. Here a guy hit 20-or-more homers for 11 straight years. He comes back from the on-deck circle, puts the bat away quietly like the classy gentleman he is and sits down like nothing's happened.
"Five minutes later, Rick Dempsey, who's hurt, hobbles up the dugout steps to go warm up a pitcher in the bullpen. Lee sees him, says, 'Gimme that glove You're hurt. I'll warm him up.'
"So, "says Weaver, "a guy with 350 homers, who's just been humiliated for the first time in his career, volunteers to be a bullpen catcher.
"It's people like that," said Weaver, "who give a team character."
And now, indisputably, cahracter is something the Orioles have in abundance.