Enormous fireworks filled the sky above Memorial Stadium tonight, some exploding in all directions until their tracers seemed to fill the bowl of the ballpark with their colored splendor.
"God Bless America" filled the air -- loud, clear and poetic enough so that even Baltimore's Francis Scott Key couldn't have resented the selection. Behind the panoply of sight and sound, a cannonade of bomb bursts ripped the night.
In the dugout and beside the third base coach's box, several Baltimore Orioles, fresh from their 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, sat with their families and watched the show.
This has been a season of deferred pleasures for the Orioles. Back on May 28, when this Fireworks Night was originally scheduled, the Orioles were below .500 and, that night, they were rained out.
Now, after 13 victories in 14 games, all that has changed. It's the Orioles who are not only watching fireworks, but making them, too, moving within four games of first-place Milwaukee in the American League East with their victory and the Brewers' 5-2 loss to California.
This is the September when the Orioles plan to take out five months' worth of pent-up frustration. This evening was typical of the newly revived Orioles. Cal Ripken Jr. hit a two-run, 400-foot homer in the first inning. Eddie Murray followed with another drive to the bullpen in the third. Before the Twins could turn around, they were behind, 4-0, and Mike Flanagan was working on a one-hitter through six innings.
As badly as circumstance and their own flaws conspired against them earlier this season, when they were in slumps of 0-9 and 2-8, that's just how easily and smoothly the Orioles are winning now--even if the opposition in this 13-1 streak has been Texas, Toronto and the Twins.
The Orioles have won six in a row, and, after Milwaukee's second straight defeat, are a mere three games behind in the lost column.
Old familiar signs of the Orioles' confidence were showing this evening after Flanagan (12-10) pitched a commanding six-hitter in which he walked only one, struck out six and didn't allow an earned run. Like almost every other Oriole pitcher at the moment, he seems to be in the midst of countless streaks; Flanagan has won four in a row (and five of six) and pitched three straight complete games. Also, he has beaten Minnesota 12 straight times.
"I'm not worried about this pennant race at all," said reliever Tippy Martinez after the game. "Everything is working out perfectly, just falling in place at the right time."
In particular, the Orioles are getting the kind of almost overpowering starting pitching that was supposed to be their trademark this year; the Orioles have eight complete games in their last dozen and have provided the bullpen with needed rest.
The power and pitching combination has been simple and effective. In its last 14 games, Baltimore's team ERA is 2.42. And, in 18 games, the Orioles have scored 83 runs (4.4 per game) on homers alone. They have hit 30 homers during that time.
All these things, plus a general attitude of serene confidence, is enough to put Manager Earl Weaver in a tale-telling mood.
Once upon a time, way back in 1974, the Orioles found themselves in third place, 8 1/2 games behind Boston on Aug. 28 with a miserable 63-65 record. On Labor Day, Baltimore was still seven games back as it faced a doubleheader with Boston.
"I'm figuring if we lose both games, we're nine out and it's time to start looking for (minor league) recalls and building for the future," Weaver said. "Well, we won both games, 1-0. I went home knowing we were going to win that son of a gun."
The Orioles went on to pitch five consecutive shutouts, win 28 of their last 34 games, finish seven games ahead of the Red Sox and win the division title.
"That Toronto series (when the Orioles won three straight earlier this week), especially the way our pitching looked and (Jim) Palmer winning, 1-0, got us all feeling we're going to do it," said Weaver, drawing the analogy to '74.
Certainly, the Orioles would have difficulty finding discouragement in this victory. Oh, to be sure, they put 14 men on base after Ripken's homer and managed to score only one of them, on Rich Dauer's bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the sixth.
"I thought I was watching a replay of the same inning over and over," said Flanagan. "Two on, nobody out and we don't score."
And, it shouldn't be overlooked, that an error by Ripken, a balk by Flanagan and a two-out, two-run double by Mickey Hatcher in the eighth pulled the Twins back to 4-2.
Nevertheless, on a night that featured a belly dancer in the box seats behind home plate ("I knew they weren't cheering for me," said Flanagan), the Orioles finally felt as explosive as those fireworks.
Pleasures deferred are all the sweeter.