The New Year may start with an explosion for the early Birds of Baltimore.
The Orioles are digging hard for three prize worms: New York free agent Reggie Jackson, St. Louis shortstop Garry Templeton (whose in-the-works deal to San Diego is unraveling), and California's Dan Ford.
Of this talented and controversial trio--three immodest gents who have, over the years, nicknamed themselves Buck Tater Man, Jump Steady and Disco Dan--Baltimore doesn't just hope to get one. The Birds are setting their beaks for all three.
The traditionally cautious Orioles seem ready to take their first brave, if dicey, chances under "contest-living" owner Ed Williams.
This is the time of year when many clubs have drawing-board fantasies about what team they could put on the field if all their offseason finagling could come to pass.
After all, as Earl Weaver says, "You win pennants in the winter with the smart moves you make. The manager just loses them in the summer."
Pulling off their daring parlay will take a lot more than just a New Year's resolution; it would take a gambler's guts, a politician's powers of persuasion, and a willingness to spend big bucks in hopes of big returns.
Nevertheless, if, in January, everything goes the Orioles' way, they would:
* Shock the baseball world by signing Jackson. This is not the longshot it seemed a month ago. However, it is easily the least-likely link in this scenario.
* Trade American League ERA leader Sammy Stewart, Gary Roenicke, Bob Bonner and another player, probably either Al Bumbry or hot prospect John Shelby, to St. Louis for Templeton and decent reliever Bob Shirley.
* Trade Doug DeCinces plus a mystery pitcher of modest abilities to California for Ford.
* Finally, sign reclamation project reliever Sid Monge, a Cleveland free agent of whom the Orioles seem to have a higher opinion than anybody else.
This, then, would be the sugar-plum lineup that the Orioles could daydream about for April: Al Bumbry in center; Templeton, the first of three straight switch-hitters, at short; Ken Singleton in right; Eddie Murray at first; Jackson as DH; Ford in left field; Cal Ripken Jr., at third; Rick Dempsey catching and Rich Dauer at second.
Even after all their trades, the Orioles' starting rotation would be Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone and Jim Palmer (pick four of five), plus a bullpen of Tim Stoddard, Tippy Martinez, Bob Shirley and Monge.
After all this, the Orioles' deep depth bench of Lowenstein, Crowley, Ayala, Morales, Sakata, Dwyer, Graham-or-Royster, etc., would still be intact.
How much of this could actually happen and how?
First, the Orioles privately believe that Jackson will end up in one of only two towns--New York or Baltimore.
However, even the Baltimore brass, among themselves, concede that the Yankees have the inside track on re-signing Jackson--if they still want him badly.
"We would like to have Reggie very much," Williams said. "We are deeply interested."
Another person close to the negotiations said, "The Orioles' chances are much better than before the Yankees signed (outfielders) Ken Griffey and Dave Collins. But, if you had to bet the house, bet it on the Yankees. They have a history of bidding high just to keep their free agents away from competitors in their own division. The more Steinbrenner thinks Williams wants Jackson, the more he'll want to keep him."
From Jackson's viewpoint, all this is gravy. Baltimore's lovey-dovey talk gives him his first significant lever in his arm-wrestling with Steinbrenner. The interest in Jackson expressed by California and Atlanta does not worry the Yankee boss; the Bird overtures to Jackson do.
The Orioles are not damaged by heating the Reggie-to-Birdland talk because anything that takes money out of Steinbrenner's pocket can't be all bad. If they don't get Jackson, they don't mind helping to drive up his price. After all, whatever George spends on Reggie, he can't spend on somebody else.
Oriole telephone talks with Jackson's agent, Gary Walker, will continue next week. A meeting with Williams isn't far away.
The Orioles, whose trade hopes were blighted at the sleepy winter meetings, are now ready to get back on the trail of Templeton and Ford.
"We are getting back to work on a Templeton trade," said a team official.
At the winter meetings, the Cardinals and Padres agreed to a Templeton for Ozzie Smith deal, contingent on both clubs being able to work out contracts with their new players. Templeton was assumed to be the potential stumbling block. He wasn't. The serious snag is glove-genius Smith who, after hitting .220, wants a contract in the million-dollar-a-year range, plus a straight buy-out of his right to demand a trade after one season with a new club.
The more cash Smith demands and the more fresh fuel he provides to his can't-be-pleased image, the better Baltimore's original offers for Templeton look. The Orioles' primary bait is still Stewart and his 2.32 ERA. As in Florida, Baltimore, if it can't finish filling out the trade with deadwood like Bonner and Roenicke, is willing to view Al Bumbry and Steve Stone as tradeable commodities in a larger deal that might include a Cardinal long reliever. The Cards' main worry is still the Orioles' inability to throw an experienced, competent major league shortstop into the deal. The man the Cardinals covet is John (T-Bone) Shelby, who the Birds view as the only outfielder in their minor league system who can run, field and throw.
However, the Orioles, after a 59-46 season in which their record was actually better than any other satistical or esthetic measure of their play, are as committed to making a major deal as the Cardinals are determined to dump Templeton and his well-publicized problems.
To the Orioles, Templeton looks like a once-in-a-generation Hall of Fame salvation project.
The Orioles' desire to make a DeCinces-plus-somebody deal for Ford has been redoubled by the fact that the touchy DeCinces is livid over the way he's been (1) shopped around in every conceivable trade package and (2) mentioned as a candidate for exile to left field so young Ripken can inherit the position it took DeCinces so long to wrestle from Brooks Robinson.
Baltimore sources say that DeCinces, usually the good-citizen type who plays hurt, is miffed enough at what he thinks is get-no-respect treatment that he may balk at any move to left field.
For the entire free agent era, the Orioles have been one of the quietest, most stand-pat teams in baseball, making few significant trades or signings. They haven't completed a blockbuster since 1976.
The last time the Orioles made such major moves was in the spring of '76. Within two months, they had acquired Jackson, Ken Holtzman, Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, McGregor and Dempsey in major trades.
Lulled by the pattern of the past five off-seasons, most Bird watchers expect more of the same--nothing.
This time, don't bet on it.