Everything looks familiar in Miami Stadium.
When the Baltimore Orioles run their wind sprints, they set forth with arms flapping, then cruise across the green ocean of outfield until, finally, they decelerate to a stylish stop.
The players have much the same smooth white-clad elegance as those Florida egrets that battle their way into the air, then skim just above the surface of the Everglades before gliding back to the face of the blue water with a splashless serenity.
Despite this atmosphere of familiarity, the Orioles held their first full-squad practice of the spring today amid a rich sense of expectation. Normally, the Orioles' history is a seemless continuum. Faces change, but the Oriole ideas behind them don't.
For 14 springs, Earl Weaver's school of inside baseball began its classes in a tiny office here as the manager held court while munching his hard-boiled eggs. Now, the bowl of eggs is gone, replaced by Joe Altobelli's platter of cheese and peppers.
When Altobelli arrived as manager, he said his job was to continue Weaver's tradition of success with an established veteran team. "I'd be crazy to start changing things," Altobelli said. Nonetheless, he's changing things.
"I'm kind of glad we haven't changed personnel," said pitcher Jim Palmer. "This season is going to be like a laboratory test case of some new ideas. Nobody on this team really knows if Earl made us better than we were, or worse. We won (94) last year. But would we have won 105 with somebody else, or 85? I don't know. And Earl doesn't know either. We're all interested in finding out."
Several subtle strategic twists are already being planned by the new brain trust of owner Edward Bennett Williams, General Manager Hank Peters, Manager Altobelli and pitching coach Ray Miller, who will be much closer to the throne with Altobelli than he was under Weaver.
From recent discussions with these four, it's evident that several new plans have been formed, most in the area of pitching--Altobelli's strong suit. After the Orioles finished 19th in the majors in ERA (3.99) last season, the Weaver Way with pitchers was due for review.
* The Orioles will use a five-man rotation this summer with Storm Davis as the No. 5 swing man. Weaver usually preferred the four-man rotation that George Bamberger liked. "The extra day of rest should help everybody a little," said Altobelli.
The pitching rule is: more work, better control; more rest, better stuff. Weaver thought his finesse staff needed work to stay sharp. Altobelli and his advisers think the Orioles' arty pitchers need that extra foot on the heater to set up their other pitches.
Flanagan was 11-2 with four days rest last year, but 4-9 in all other starts. With age, Palmer, and his fastball, have also been more successful with extra rest. Scott McGregor has a history of burning out or getting hurt when used work-horse style. Davis' maturation process requires the 15-to-20 starts that the fifth man gets. Dennis Martinez, the theory goes, could be overpowering with extra rest.
* After years of muffled moaning from Tippy Martinez and Tim Stoddard, plus continual hair pulling from Peters and Miller, the Orioles bullpen will finally be used in a modern fashion.
"I lost count of how many times I warmed up last year. I'd ask myself, 'Doesn't he know what this takes out of you?" said Martinez, who warmed up more than 300 times last season, including seven times in one game in which he never appeared. "Joe knows pitchers a little more (than Weaver) . . . I've been told I'll never have to get up more than three times in a game. If I haven't been used by then, I won't pitch that day."
"Joe plans out his bullpen's work," said Miller. "You won't see both Tippy and Tim getting up at the same time so much."
Translated, this means Weaver waved to the bullpen every time a rally started, anxious to play his percentages and defuse a big inning. Both Stoddard and Miller believe that the chief casualty of this system was Stoddard. "Tim will be used this year a lot like (Goose) Gossage is used," said Miller.
This means Stoddard won't warm up 20 consecutive days as he did last year. In 1980, for instance, Gossage only warmed up nine times all season when he wasn't brought into the game. Weaver did that to Stoddard every month.
Now, Stoddard, who says, "I'm finally healthy," will get the chance to prove that, given star treatment, he can twinkle.
* Sammy Stewart, with a two-year contract extension through 1985, has accepted the fact that he's not going to be a starter. "I want to be the most valuable 'everything' pitcher in baseball--the guy who can do long relief, short relief and spot start. They made me happy with my contract, now I want to make them happy."
Also, the Orioles plan to add a pitcher--go with nine in spring and 10 in summer. Weaver always went with a minimum of pitchers because he craved extra bench moves for his keep-the-gun-loaded theories on rally building. Now, the Orioles will lighten up on the deep thinking and emphasize keeping all their pitchers' arms strong.
"This staff's going to have its premiere year," predicts Miller.
As far as everyday lineups go, the jury's out. Generally speaking, Altobelli and Co. would like to get more at bats for Terry Crowley and Benny Ayala, probably at the expense of either Ken Singleton or Dan Ford, depending on how the latter two rebound from their '82 problems.
Also, the Orioles brass wants to push rookies a notch faster than the vet-oriented Weaver did. John Shelby is breathing on Al Bumbry's neck. Leo Hernandez will be given a full shot to win all or part of the third base job.
Mike Young, a strikeout-plagued prospect who's gotten raves comparable to Cal Ripken Jr.'s last spring, may own right field sooner than many fans suspect. "Young has superstar skills--arm, range, climb the fence to steal home runs, awesome switch-hitting power. He has as many tools as anybody I've seen in my (37) years in baseball," bubbled Frank Verdi, who managed against him last season in AAA.
Here in this peninsula of the lotus eaters where rusty players knead their doughy muscles, everything seems sleepy and relaxed. The biggest Oriole subject of debate for the day, aside from a 500-foot homer by Young in batting practice and word that John Lowenstein had agreed to the last comma in his new three-year contract, was the flavor of the midday soup: chicken with rice.
Beneath the surface, however, wheels are turning. And in a new direction.