The best team brains can make, the Orioles were the best in baseball the last 104 games of 1980. Better now than then, the Orioles need only keep certain elbows, shoulders and backs in working order. If healthy, the Orioles will win 100 games, as is the habit established by this team the last four years.
"If we don't win 111 games, I should be fired," said Earl Weaver after hearing that Steinbrenner Mercenaries planned to win 110.
Don't hold the little Napolenon to his 111. He is subject to fits of egomaniacal bravado. At other times, the Orioles' manager has said 100 victories is his goal, as always. Just a week ago, when asked how many victories he wanted, Weaver said, "One more than anybody else."
The engine that moves the Orioles was put together in 1977 and now, by baseball custom, should be as powerful as it will get. By midseason the nine-man lineup will average 31 years old, just beginning the downhill slide on baseball's actuarial tables. The five starting pitchers will average 30 years old, again near the optimum-performance age revealed by a century of statistics.
Now is the time for greatness, if greatness there be for these Orioles, who have been very good the last four seasons, winning 97, 90, 102 and 100 games. The progression began in 1977, when this team assumed its current identity with the flowering of Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Rick Dempsey, Doug DeCinces, Mike Flanagan, Al Bumbry and Ken Singleton.
Yet for all those 389 victories, the Orioles have only one pennant to fly over Memorial Stadium.
That one, coming in 1979, was so unexpected after '78's fourth-place finish that the team had been sold for a tacky-cheap $12 million to a Washington lawyer who (it says here) intended to move the Orioles to his town.
By now, Edward Bennett Williams is so dippy in love with his Birds that he sits in the sun of spring training -- "This is the best time of the year," says the man once given to football Sundays with his Redskins -- and talks convincinly of a new stadium in downtown Balmer.
This season could transform such dreamy talk into steel and concrete, for the Orioles are so deep, so versatile, so talented that come the deciseve late innings Earl Weaver can look to his bench and see five or six ways to fire the gun he keeps loaded.
Need a right-handed hitter? Jose Morales, the eighth-best pinch hitter of all time with 94 hits (and a .294 lifetime average), is new on the bench.
Need a left-handed hitter who can stay in the game at first base or in the outfield? There is Jim Dwyer, who hit .285 with nine home runs for the Red Sox last year.
A left-hander who can pinch-hit, catch and play third? Call on Dan Graham, who hit .278 with 15 home runs in only 86 games last season.
By adding in the solid role players Terry Crowley, John Lowenstein and Benny Ayala, Weaver has the flexibility to use 16 hitters every day.
What the Steinbrenner Mercenaries accomplish with millions, the Balmer Brains do with cunning.
Between them, Morales and Dwyer had virtually the same statistical season as Dave Winfield. And they significantly strengthen the Orioles in specific roles as important as Winfield's. With the difference in salaries -- Winfield gets $1 million a year, Morales and Dwyer maybe $300,000 total -- the Orioles can spread their limited money around to the Murrays and McGregors.
A certain serenity marked the days of the Orioles' spring in Miami. A year ago, that was not the case.
As much as we are told that Grapefruit League games mean nothing, it galled Weaver to lose the last eight in a row because the Orioles, for reasons unknown, had started badly the three previous regular seasons.They won only four of their first 21 games in '77, '78, and '79.
Last year, the eight-game losing streak in the spring was compounded by the players' ministrike the last week of training. By the time the season started, Eddie Murray had hit .164 in the spring and Ken Singleton .240. Three pitchers had physical problems (Scott McGregor an elbow, Dennis Martinez a shoulder and Jim Palmer his back) that left them aching as the season began.
Six weeks into the season, those three pitchers had won four games -- after winning 90 the previous two years.
Murray hit .272 in that time.
Singleton hit .236.
The Orioles, on June 14, were 38-30, in sixth place, 8 1/2 games behind.
If we believe the poor spring caused the slow start (and it can be argued so), then the signs of greatness arriving for these Orioles include more than the maturation of talent. The signs include good spring-training statistics and reports that everyone is healthy and unhurting, except for minor injuries, even the hypochondriacal Palmer.
Murray hit .407 in his first 16, games this spring.
Singleton hit .345.
For the first time in two springs, McGregor is throwing easily and with no pain from his shoulder or elbow. Unless the last two Aprils -- he has won only four games in April and May the last two seasons -- McGregor said, "It feels great just to be able to contribute in April."
Martinez is ready, too, in contrasdt to 1980, when he worked only 16 innings the first half of the season. Seven strong innings recently against a Montreal contender using its big guns showed that Palmer isn't aggravated by the bad back that limited him to three victories the first six weeks last season.
More good news: DeCines' back hasn't bothered him (.310 average), Al Bumbry is free of the hip-pointer pain of three weeks ago (hitting .385), and Flanagan's shoulder is strong again.
After that 28-30 start last year, the Orioles played the best baseball in either league. They won 72 of their last 104 games. That is an astonishing .692 percentage, a practically unheard of rate of success over so many games. Next best in that time were the Yankees at 67-38, .638, good enough to hold off the Orioles by three games. No other team in baseball was over .600.
Singleton hit .338 the last 105 games and Murray .325 the last 116.
If the Orioles can break in a sprint this season rathe than the stumble-crawl of the past three years . . . if they can avoid injuries to important people . . . if improvements offset forgiveable drops in production (say Gary Roenicke returns to '79 form while Ken Singleton turns .34 in June and doesn't drive in 100 a third straight year) -- then every reason exists to think this can be the best Baltimore team ever.
This can be the best Oriole team ever because it has a pitching staff so good that a 20-game winner (McGregor) is not guaranteed a spot in a four-man rotation that includes three Cy Young Award-Winners. (Well, the Orioles could use a left-handed reliever, but except for Ann-Margret there is nothing perfect in this world.)
They could be the best ever because they execute the fundamentals well and lead the league in fielding practically every season (a major league record last year of .9849, with only 95 errors in 6,293 chances).
They may be the best ever because Earl Weaver is still thinking. If you don't know, he will tell you that (1) only he and Al Lopez of Cleveland in '54, when the Indians won 111 games, ever managed a team with four 20-game winners, and he may do it again this season; (2) only he and gentlemen named Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy ever managed teams that won 100 games five times, and (3) he has a chance this season to be the only manager ever to win 100 games three straight years twice.
Don't forget Mark Belenger, either. The shortstop may be 37, but he still makes the plays no one else makes. And he is as good with the bat as ever.
In Miami the other day, Hank Peters, the Baltimore general manager, watched Belanger pop one up to the Orioles' rise, Belanger has hit .206. This was not his first popup to the infield with men on base.
"Midseason form," Peters said happily.