The one still point in baseball's turning world is the Baltimore Orioles. It often seems they are the lone keepers of the game's clean flame.
While the Yankees are getting and spending, the O's are calmly looking for the proper part-time lefty pinch hitter and late-inning defensive outfielder.
While the Red Sox desperately slash their throats by slashing their payroll, the Orioles re-sign a 20-game winner for $500,000 less than he could demand because, the pitcher admits, "I didn't want to take all the money. Let the other guys get some. Let's keep the club together."
While the Brewers, Cardinals and Angels seem to turn over half their roster in trades, the Birds agonize over the effect on morale of pink-slipping old, worn-out Lee May, whom they considered a force for team dignity and stability. "You can replace talent; it's everywhere," grumbles Manager Earl Weaver. "It's harder to replace class people. They're rare."
While the indians and Giants lose faith overnight in their own farm system products, the Orioles suffer for years with the progress of their pupils, treating them not as commodities, but as almost cherished prodigal children. "I worry about Kiko Garcia," says General Manager Hank Peters of the 199-hitting shortstop. "He has not developed quite as we thought. But we'll wait, see how his (injured) back feels. Never give up on your own people."
While the Dodgers and Phillies threaten their veterans with job extinction whenever a hotshot rookie appears on the horizon, the Birds play "wait your turn."
"We don't do things as others do," says Peters. "We'd rather give a young player one year too much in the minors rather than one too few. We might be the only club left that does. Right now, we don't want to rush (20-year-old) Cal Ripken Jr. Even though he tore up the Puerto Rican Winter League (third in MVP balloting for champion Caguas), we are not asking, or expecting, anything from him this year at the major league level."
"Right now, Ripken is not on the book (to go north)," says Weaver. "Let's not interfere with Doug (DeCinces) getting off to a good start," says the manager, protecting the feelings of the one player with whom he probably has the least-cordial relationship.
While others are impatient for success, the Orioles are interminably patient, confident, at least in baseball, that is the only way to have long-term success. For two straight offseasons they have resisted the temptation to trade much-sought Dennis Marinez, the live-armed but too sensitive young pitcher who, after beginning his career 45-28, has gone 7-12 over the O's last 200 games. Now, Martinez will report to camp coming off a stellar winter ball season. "We have certainly not lost faith in Dennis," says Weaver.
The Orioles, it seem, never lose faith in anything. Not in their theories about the preeminence of starting pitching, flawless though not flashy defense, power over average, and (above all) boring fundamentals. Not in their long-range judgement of talent, or the necessity of a proper mix of contrasting yet compatible personalities on a roster. And certainly not in their absolute confidence that Weaver can get more victories out of the 15th through 25th men on his versatile, deep squad than perhaps any manager in history.
Watching Baltimore play baseball is like listening to a Bach fugue on a resonant church organ. Everything is simple, repetitive, a variation on the most elementary chords. There is no splash, no extraneous straining after effect. If the O's have any magic, any sleight of hand, it is of the most sophisticated sort; perhaps, long after you have returned home from Memorial Stadium, you realize that Weaver has tucked the ace of spades into your pocket, leaving it there for you to find at some odd, unexpected moment.
Perhaps the best news of this imminent baseball spring is that, on the Oriole front, there is no news. They have, against all apparent odds, remained intact. For three years, even the most ardent ornithologist have assumed that, by early '81, the first signs would have begun to show in the economic and moral collapse of this heralded Baltimore franchise which has, over the .500 and won 55 more games than any other franchise in th sport.
Instead, the O's had an offseason that was even more vital to their future than their 100-win season in '80. Every young star that had to be signed was signed to a long-term contract -- Eddie Murray, Scott McGregor, Rich Dauer, Tippy Martinez. Those few who, in the next year, still have to be lured into the nest probably will be signed as well. A year ago, that seemed almost unthinkable.
One of the saddest thoughts in the game's recent history was the prospect of watching the Orioles be destroyed by dollars before they, as an entity, had a chance to play out their collective athletic fate to its natural conclusion. Anyone who watched the Red Sox blossom in the '75 World Series, sustain a vivid excellence through their fabulous '78 playoff defeat, then come to sudden grief on the fiscal rocks, could not doubt that the Orioles, too, could be ripped apart just when they should have been at their peak.
The Birds, reborn in '77 when they christened nine rookies and won 97 games, then authenticated when they reached the seventh game of the '79 Series, will now have a full chance to continue and conclude their classic running war with the Yankees.
Perhaps all that needs to be said about the brilliant, bristling rivalry between the Bronx bankrollers and the Bird brains is to relate Weaver's immediate reaction when told that George steinbrenner had predicted 110 Yankee wins this year in light of his $25-million signing of Dave Winfield.
"Then if we don't win 111 games next year," retorted Weaver, "I should be fired."
Even in his placid, rational moments, Weaver's most cautious evaluation of his team is: "Unless unusual things start happening, we should be better than last year." For a man who is leery of predicting a sunrise, this is the wildest speculation.
The truth is that Weaver considered last season's 100 victories a sort of disappointment. While others have congratulated him on his team's noble persistence in chasing New York, Weaver Knows, in his gravelly gut, that there is little ceiling on what the O's might accomplish if they stumbled into one of those blessed-with-luck seasons.
"Our pitching can certainly be better, maybe much better," says Weaver. "I'd consider '80 an 'off' year. We gave up (58) more runs than the year before. Three of our five main starters had significant injuries -- Mcgregor (early-season tendinitis), Flanagan (year-long shoulder muscle problems) and Dennis Martinez (first career sore arm, fewer than 100 innings)."
What Weaver really means is that the two pitchers on his staff that, in the long run, he would bet his house on, Flanagan and Martinez, had bad years (dropping from 38 wins to 22), while the three pitchers on his staff about whom he had the most important questions and the most doubts, Steve Stone, Mcgregor and Tim Stoddard, all proved that they were better than he had ever hoped.
Could the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Stoddard replace Don Stanhouse as a true stopper? While Stanhouse's career foundered and now seems in jeopardy, Big Foot had a 26-save, 2.51 ERA year.
Would the popular McGregor ever be more than a cute, cunny-thumbing 15-game winner? McGregor missed two weeks, didn't win a game until May, yet won 20. In ice-water games, he was the guttiest Bird and his dozen complete games were more than were ever expected of him. At 27, it now seems appropriate for McGregor to wear Whitey Ford's old No. 16.
As for Stone, he has gone from nonentity to 25-game winner. Like Preacher Roe, Red Ruffing and about 10 others before him in baseball history, Stone has discovered a new performance level after age 30. Even if Stone has injuries, or ill luck, he will not revert to mediocrity. He won't ever win 25 again (his '80 good fortune was phenomenal) but he shouldn't be a pumpkin, either.
The Birds are not a team to count their chickens. "If you could predict this damn game, there wouldn't be no fans in the stands durin' the season," says the compulsively superstitious Weaver. Certainly, Baltimore has its worries and nightmares. Jim Palmer, 35, was the luckiest 16-10 pitcher in baseball last year; he's now a six-to-seven inning pitcher and losing speed every year.
Clearly, Flanagan and Martinez must improve, because Stone and McGregor will do perfectly well to win 35 games, compared to the 45 they had in '80. Relief long-men Sammy Stewart and Dave Ford have to shape up to prevent a repeat of the bullpen's 15-17 record last year (plus a modest 28-23 team mark in one-run games). Also, it's been a long time since the O's had a season-ending injury to a major star, like Al Bumbry's broken leg that blighted all of '78.
Nonetheless, the Birds enjoy thinking about all the wonderful things that, without the least stretching of imagination, could befall them. Their catchers, Rick Dempsey and Dan Graham, in 628 at bats (seven more than Murray) had a splended 24 homers and 94 RBI.
That's a huge hidden edge. The Birds' totally disguised superduperstar is the three-headed deep-depth creature named Terry Crowley-John Lowenstein-Bennie Ayala, which manifests itself in many different forms but which, in just 599 at bats last year, batted .290 with 80 walks, 99 runs, 26 homers and 110 RBI.
That's like having Reggie Jackson on your team without anybody knowing it. The only difference is that, because this monster has three heads, Weaver can save his megasubs for just the late-inning at bats that tilt a game most dramatically, Since only one of the three usually starts, Weaver has two mini-Reggies to detonate at the most propitious moments.
Weaver, in his endless attempts to milk the DH and pinch-hitting roles as no manager ever has before, has replaced May and Pat Kelly with modest free agents Jim Dwyer and Jose Morales. Concerning these two, what the Yanks don't know could hurt them; while their Winfield had 20 homers, 87 RBI, 156 runs produced and a .276 average in 558 at bats, the tandem of Dwyer and Morales had 17 homers, 74 RBI, 144 runs produced and a .294 average in 501 at bats. That's a standoff. Except the O's paid one-tenth the price and got twice the flexibility.
It's conceivable that Weaver, because of his passion for flexibility, depth, and the multiple pinch-hitter ploy of "keeping the gun loaded" against late-inning relievers, might prefer his pair to Winfield. Weeell, almost.
When the Birds daydream, they think about Gary Roenicke's 25 homers in '79 (rather than 10 in '80) and DeCinces' 28 taters in '78 (rather than 16 in '80). Unrealistic as it may seem, the O's are entitled to fantasize about the power potential of a lineup with switch-hitters Ken Singleton (104 RBI) and Murray (116) at its heart, plus platoons of authoritative hitters revolving at catcher, DH, left field, and even third base (where Graham can play).
Any team can go semi-sour, especially a bunch like these Birds who have had an April curse for four straight years with consecutive starts of 1-4, 5-11, 3-8 and 6-11. However, what separates these Orioles, expecially in the delightful world of spring training imagination, is the sense which hangs about this club that it has not quite yet had its breathless run of fortune, its one long, feed-on-itself explosion of a season.
"Last year," says Peters, "the (10-day spring training) wildcat strike sealed our doom. We broke apart. Only seven or eight guys stayed together in Miami. When the season opened, we were not mentally or physically prepared to win. Two teams that stayed together -- the White Sox and Yankees -- played us a dozen times in April and beat us nine of them. In retrospect, that may have cost us the season.
"Just once, I'd like to see this club get off fast, because once we get rolling, we seem to play off that momentum for months at a time with no real slumps . . . This is a team that needed no overhauling, just some fine tuning.
"I think we're all waiting for the same thing, the season when everything falls in place for this team," says Peters. "In light of that, I would not say that anything which any other team has done during the offseason has caused us any undue alarm."
Baseball is not, nor has it been for a quarter century, a game which the Baltimore Orioles view with any alarm. They will gather officially Wednesday in Miami. "We will start from scratch," says Weaver.
Or as Bach might say: "Gentlemen, we will begin with scales."