The four of them always run together here, although they make a strange quartet as they sprint across the outfield, walk back to their starting point, then sprint across the grass again.
A year ago, the other Baltimore Orioles took to calling them Cy Young, Cy Old, Cy Present and Cy Future. That, perhaps, is because the only thing that Mike Flanagan, Jim Palmer, Steve Stone and Scott McGregor have in common is their uncommon excellence on a pitcher's mound. The first three of them have captured the Cy Young Award and the fourt won 20 games last season. No other pitching staff ever has been able to make such a claim.
From a distance, they seem an incongrous collection; no two are alike in any perceptible way. That they should all be consummate in the same craft is strange. That all four should go about their work with many of the same underlying principles is even more curious. And instructive. If baseball is (as has long been argued) 80 percent pitching, the four-fifths of the sport is on view when these men jog together, because, in the most encompassing sense, these men are complete pitchers.
Throwing a baseball is an act. Pictching a baseball is an art.
That is why the outward differences among these Orioles are superficial. To the casual eye, they are four different athletic body prototypes, four dramatically different personality types. On the inside, they are four masters of the same zenlike discipline.
Palmer, the eight-time 20-game winner, is tall, fluid, long-striding, so graceful that he elicits equine metaphors. Palmer is perfect. When the wheel of karma makes its final turns, when we have all put in our eons of reincarnation as beetles and rhododendrons and flat feet, we will, at last, reach nature's highest form. We'll all look like Palmer's poster.
While Palmer glides, Stone chugs. At least six inches shorter than Palmer's 6-foot-3, Stone looks like what he is: a self-made overachiever who pumps his arms diligently as he runs with a choppy, dutiful stride.
Beside them are Flanagan and McGregor, a pair of left-handers who are called Dr. Large and Dr. Small. This is ironic because Flanagan, who is the smaller, is Dr. Large. That's because he seems bigger. His legs appear twice as large as the others and he runs like a fullback with an appearance of controlled power.
McGregor is the mystery. He doesn't look like a man who is 48-24 since June of '78. Nothing he does has any particular flair; he could be a cheerful high-schooler who jumped the fence and sneaked in with the big leaguers. "Effortless," is how Flanagan describes him. "Runs like he throws . . . relaxed, almost limp," says pitching coach Ray (The Rabbit) Miller.
So, there we have them, four aspects of athleticism. Palmer is grace, Stone effort, Flanagan power and McGregor pure coordination.
In temperament, they are just as disparate. Palmer is high-strung, moody, artistic, has a legendary memory; a perfectionist in all things, he might count how many times he brushes each tooth.Stone is cultivatedly Byronic; he is a gourmet, and he writes poetry. Flanagan is a cross between Sal Maglie and John Belushi. McGregor is a choirboy with just enough twinkle in the eye to make him bearable.
Even in the pitches for which each is best known, these four run the gamut. Palmer will take his rising overhand fast ball directly to the Hall of Fame. Stone has the best classic "drop" curve of any righty in the American League. McGregor has one of the best straight changeups since Eddie Lopat. And Flanagan, as usual, defies categorization by having the reputation of owning the best four-pitch selection -- fast ball, curve, slider and changeup -- in the league.
From all this, it might be gathered that the four Birds have little in common and little to say to each other, since their ideas and theories could hardly be expected to overlap. On the contrary, the four have, over the last two seasons, become a sort of collective firm, each consulting the others, exchanging ideas and tricks, constantly. The thread that links them, makes them special, and takes us to the center of their trade is intelligence.
"If 80 percent of baseball is pitching," says Coach Miller, "then, at least at this level, pitching is 80 percent mental."
To back up this premise, ask Manager Earl Weaver which pitchers on his staff have the best "arms," the best overall stuff. "Probably Dennis Martinez and Sammy Stewart," he says, citing his fifth starter and his long-relief man.
And who has the team's best fast ball? "Tim Stoddard," says Weaver of the 6-foot-7, 250-pound bullpen ace whom the quartet of "Cys" refer to as "our Cy of Relief." Well, what aboutthe best curve ball? "Probably Tippy Martinez," he says.
The most important tools that Stone, Flanagan, McGregor and Palmer (now that he is no longer overpowering) bring to the hill are located between their ears. That, more than any other reason, is why the Orioles, after winning 202 games in two seasons, still have a disproportionately small national following.
A Miami newspaper is running an "adopt a team" contest to see which major league club the paper should follow as though it were Miami's "home" team. The orioles, who have trained here for 25 years and have a minor league club in the city's main stadium, currently rank seventh in the "adoption" proceedings.
This disgusts the Birds. But they understand. It's the fault of their pitchers. Or, rather, the way they pitch, the idea behind their work.
"Our starters are real pitchers, not flash individualists," says Peters, proudly. "The first thing we tell every pitcher in our organization is to make the other team hit the ball to our defense. Maybe the most overlooked idea in baseball is the dependence of pitching on defense.
"Last year, we set a major league fielding record. We made 50 less errors that the league average, and we probably made 50 less errors of omission than the average team, too."
"If everybody on this staff struck out 100 more men a season -- all the same won-lost and ERA stats, but more strikeouts -- then we'd be a more famous team," says Flanagan. "And all our careers would end up about five years shorter."
Last season, the O's, who allowed the fewest runs in the AL, did not have a pitcher with 150 strikeouts.
"Our pitching doesn't try to carry the club," says McGregor. "On other teams, you see pitchers trying to be overpowering early in the game, strike out a lot of guys as though they could beat you by intimidation. We understand that a team plays as a unit. Our job as pitchers is to keep the team in the game, not let us fall more than a run or two behind, so that every night we have a chance to let our hitters win the game if they can.
"That's not what people like to see. Everybody says we're dull. Yeah," says McGregor with uncharacteristic emotion, "we're dull winners."
The O's Cys get their edge in countless tiny ways. "They all work fast so that our defense is alert and so that they can find a rhythm," says Miller. "Our only starter who is a slow worker is Dennis, and that's one of his problems."
When the Birds talk pitching, they sometimes start to sound like gurus discussing. The Force. For instance, conventional theory holds that the worst time to walk a hitter is when there are men on base, since it worsens an already bad situation. The O's preach the opposite.
When no one is on base, the Birds dish up hitable pitches, trying to get easy, quick outs, even if it sometimes means giving up a gopher ball. The hitter is thinking, "He doesn't have to give me a good pitch now. He'll nibble." That's when the hitter gets his pitch, often in his area of strength.
However, once a couple of men get on, the O's reverse all known baseball logic. Their rule is "never give in to the hitter. Never give up the multiple-run hit." Weaver firmly believes that you seldom get beaten one run at a time. Consequently, his pitchers throw their toughest pitches to the hitter's weakest spots with men on base. Doesn't this lead to horrible walks, bigger jams, and even, occasionally walking home a run?
You bet it does. And Weaver doesn't care. You have to walk home four runs to equal one grand slam. The living embodiment of this theory is Palmer. From 1965 to 1980, over 3,400 innings, Palmer never gave up a grand slam home run in his career. With the bases loaded, he pitched to the corners, walk or no walk. Finally, last summer, he gave up a grand slam, but only after walking home a run to the previous hitter. Miller calls Palmer "the greatest of all 'situational' pitchers," by which he means that Palmer will do anything to avoid the two-, three- or four-run hit.
Plenty of teams talk about "getting ahead of the hitter" and "throwing low strikes." But how many teams teach "charisma" and "visualization?"
Miller's last words to McGregor are always "let's show a little charisma out there." "Sometimes Scotty used to look too much like a little boy lost on the mound," says Miller. "I want him to think of himself as charismatic." o
Before Stone pitches, he spends much of the day meditating, visualizaing all four at bats of every hitter in the lineup as he gets them out every time. Stone has also used some self-hypnosis, constantly talking about how he plans to "win 30 games this year" and "pitch a no-hitter in June."
"You think that's kind of comical until a guy who's averaged nine wins a year for his career goes out and wins 25 games in one year," says Miller. "Then, nobody laughes. Guess who's started to talk positively and sound a little like Stone already this spring? That's right, Jim Palmer."
The Birds' Big Four constantly use this cross-pollination of ideas. Flanagan, who won the Cy Young in '79, warned Stone, who won it last year, that he had attended too many banquets in his glory winter and gained too much weight. Stone took the advice even though he would have gloried in all the attention.
The four learn from others, too. "I was always old-school," Flanagan says. "No weightlifting, no fancy medical stuff. Just stick to the old-fashioned basics." However, throughout last year (16-13) he was mystified by everything about his mediocre performance. He thought his shoulder felt progressively weaker all year but he wondered if it was imagination.
In the offseason, he went to a team of New England muscle specialists. "They hooked me up with electrodes to measure my muscle activity," he recalls. "Every arm and shoulder muscle was the same. The machine went off like a Geiger counter around uranium. All except one muscle. They turned the machine on and there wasn't one click. It was totally shut down.
"They told me to lie on the floor on my stomach and lift my right (nonpitching) arm backwards above my head. I could have done it a million times. Then, I tried to do it with my pitching arm. I couldn't lift my arm five times. They told me that the biggest muscle in my shoulder -- the infra spinatus -- the one that allows you to throw directly over the top, had weakened to the point where it was almost 100 percent atrophied.
"My whole delivery had dropped and all my pitches had changed."
Seldom has bad news seemed so wonderful. "Instead of wondering about all these way-out things -- loss of confidence, psychological stuff -- I finally knew it was just a muscle." For nearly four months, Flanagan built his whole life around his infra spinatus.
"My arm hasn't felt this strong in four years. I'm anxious to throw my first real fast ball," he says.
This is the last year on Flanagan's contract -- his free agency season. His infra spinatus could cost somebody a great deal of money.
The Baltimore Orioles do not, by any means, have the most intimidating starting pitchers in baseball. But, they probably have the best. "Several other teams can probably put up three starters to match our best three, whichever you think our best three are," says Miller. "But nobody has a fourth starter nearly as good as ours, or a fifth starter as good as we think Dennis will be this year."
What truly distinguishes these men is not merely their awards and records, but the elegant method in their mastery. Baseball is pitching, always has been; and the Cys of Baltimore are baseball at its boring best.