As Joe Altobelli prepared to leave the Baltimore Orioles' locker room here today, he looked at the clouds about Al Lopez Field and asked, "Have the tornados lifted?"
Told that a tornado watch was still in effect, Altobelli frisked himself and even examined his cap.
"Well," said the Orioles' manager, "the first thing I better do is take this metal button off the top my hat."
The only thing Altobelli has been a lightning rod for this spring is questions. Luckily, his club has made the third-degree task fairly pleasant, playing more commendably than in many springs by splitting the first dozen games. Though the mood here today--as the Orioles lost to the Reds, 13-10, in a comic, sloppy, shower-spattered 10-inning game--was still basically lazy, the baseball business of spring is gradually turning serious.
Orioles pitchers arrived almost a month ago and the hitters have been in camp for three weeks. The starters are trying to go five innings and the regulars are still in for the seventh-inning stretch. With only 2 1/2 weeks left before opening day, spring training is beginning to take on its first bit of bite. The little moments of truth are arriving, the time for decisions is approaching.
For some teams, even defending division champs like the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, this spring training has already been traumatic, bringing the worst of all March news: serious injuries to the pitching staff.
For other clubs, like the Orioles, camp has gone according to schedule and, in many ways, even according to hopes. Spirits are as high as they're supposed to be in March, and worries are temporarily on hold.
"Spring (pause) pitching (pause) lotsa runs," said pitching coach Ray Miller, staccato style like Joe Piscopo of "Saturday Night Live."
"Fun (pause) love it," joined in Cal Ripken Jr., who later homered.
Despite three errors today and a number of other goofy plays in a high wind, Baltimore has little of substance to complain about, while several important matters have provided encouragement.
Most important, the entire pitching staff has gone through three "rounds" without a hint of arm trouble--something of major concern to the Orioles, whose pitchers have all had arm trouble in the last three seasons.
For two seasons, the Orioles' pitching has been substantially below expectation, with the team leaving Florida holding its wings. Last spring, Tim Stoddard was headed for the disabled list and Steve Stone was sliding toward retirement.
"This can be an awful foolin' time of year," says Altobelli. "You can talk too much about what you're going to do and forget to do it.
"I remember one year in Toronto (in AAA), we all said, 'This is the best balanced club we've ever had.' Then we went out and finished dead last," said Altobelli. It doesn't help to have balance if everybody is equally bad.
Nonetheless, Altobelli says that, "Up to this point, I'm very pleased with how things have gone and I couldn't be happier with the way the pitching has looked."
Miller concurs in this mandatory good cheer, calling himself "extremely optimistic . . . Now we're reaching the point where we'll really see what the pitching can do. Your first time out, you feel strong. The second time, your body is strong, but your arm feels weak. By the third time, your body and your arm should be getting together."
Most pleasing has been Stoddard, coming back from knee surgery. "Throwing in the 90s (mph) for strikes," says Miller.
The Orioles' two trouble spots--third base and center field--have both shown indications of becoming modest strengths.
"Leo Hernandez has really looked good so far," says Altobelli. "He made another good play yesterday. That's what's been so pleasant. He doesn't look green at third. He's only struck out four times. Looks like he can hit the breaking ball as well as the fast ball. If he can play there and hit his 25 to 30 home runs this year, we'll have a heck of an infield."
In center, the Orioles may suddenly be strong. John Shelby is 11 for 28, with another two for two day today. "Shelby still looks like a fine player and (Al) Bumbry is busting his butt," said General Manager Hank Peters. "That's a healthy problem."
"A fine tandem," says Altobelli, perhaps giving away that Shelby has already won half the job.
Before long, Altobelli will have tormenting decisions to make in naming a 25-man roster. Who will be the club's ninth pitcher from among Don Welchel, John Flinn, Mike Bodicker and lefty Dan Morogiello. Welchel, with a 0.00 ERA in nine innings and another powerful one this afternoon, has the inside track.
If the Orioles' infield picture includes such backup fellows as Lenn Sakata, Floyd Rayford and Aurelio Rodriguez--and Altobelli seems to like them all--then the outfield is genuinely cluttered. Somebody has to go, perhaps in trade. The man cluttering the picture is Rayford, who's playing like his career is on the line--which it is. This afternoon, his two-out, two-run, first-pitch homer in the ninth turned a 9-8 deficit into a 10-9 Baltimore lead.
As this afternoon's slapstick rookie-infested game proved, the regular season is still safely in the distance. On this blustery day, seven routine popups were sent into the sky only to fall to earth untouched with fielders diving in all directions to avoid collisions. On one high pop that landed near the mound, the Orioles almost turned a catcher-to-second-to-first double play.
For a little longer, baseball here will be silly as often as it is serious. However, reminders of the hardball to come peek out. In the Orioles locker room there was a sign from the commissioner's office. In letters an inch high, it offered this gentle reminder: Do Not Assault The Umpires.