The best way to win a division pennant is to grab it in a hurry. Blow out of the blocks on opening day and leave the league gasping. Open a healthy lead, then let the competition stew in its juices the rest of the season.
If circumstances ever conspired to give a team a perfect chance to do just this, it's the 1983 Baltimore Orioles. As they open the season today against the Kansas City Royals in sold out Memorial Stadium at 2:05 p.m., every twist of fortune seems to be straining to give the Orioles a leg up.
The early sprint is a baseball staple, particularly in recent years. Often, such teams have just gotten a new manager.
In '77, Tommy Lasorda took over the Dodgers from Walter Alston, made several spring training alterations, and left the Cincinnati Reds--World Series champs in '75-76--far behind. In '79, the Orioles began the season 18-9, galloped to 54-24, and never gave the Yankees, world champs in '77-'78, a fair fight.
In '80, the Yankees, under a new manager, Dick Howser, returned the compliment, leaving the Orioles seven games behind in May. In '81, Billy Martin got Oakland to an 18-1 start. Then, in '82, it was Atlanta's new manager, Joe Torre, who spurred his Braves to a record 13-0 beginning.
What would make a soothsayer suspect that the Orioles, who usually play so badly in April, might be on the verge of a blitz?
Every Orioles' report from Florida has been gold. Rookies have surpassed hope. Questionable veterans have prospered. Thanks to no rainouts and almost perfect health, the Orioles had a textbook spring training. By contrast, defending champ Milwaukee had a bad news spring. Two Cy Young winners, Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich, are ailing. Vuckovich may miss the season.
"Everything went very, very smoothly; very, very well," said Manager Joe Altobelli yesterday. "Don't know what else you'd ask for."
Going to Miami, the Orioles had six primary worries.
* Could either old Al Bumbry or young John Shelby play center field?
* Could anybody play third base?
* Could Ken Singleton rehabilitate his right arm enough to be a quality right-handed hitter once more?
* Could big, but often awkward, Tim Stoddard come back from knee surgery?
* Could the lefty starters--Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan--use the winter to strengthen their arms, which looked tired or sore in parts of '82?
* Could Dan Ford bounce back to his form of the previous seven seasons?
Altobelli would have settled for a couple of "yesses," a couple of "nos" and a couple of "maybes." So far, he's gotten five yesses and a maybe.
* Shelby has had what Altobelli calls "the best spring of any player I have ever seen." Shelby hit .444 and slugged .714 with 11 extra-base hits and 26 runs produced in 63 at bats. He'll be the first man up against Kansas City's Larry Gura. "Shelby may get in 150 games, because of all the things he can do," says Altobelli. Shelby's also lit a fire under Bumbry, who batted .306 with a .403 on-base percentage. A hungry Shelby and a rested Bumbry could make center fielder a strength; at their Florida pace, they'd score 155 runs and get 235 hits in a 625 at-bat season.
* Rookie Leo Hernandez hit .289 with three homers and 12 RBI in 83 at bats. Just as important, at third base, Hernandez made only two errors in 26 games. He has more speed and range than such '82 third basemen as Glenn Gulliver and Rich Dauer. The job is his until further notice.
* Singleton slugged .224 right-handed last year, lower than Mark Belanger in his worst year; he was the weakest right-handed hitter in baseball. This spring, he slugged .650 right-handed with two homers, one a tape-measure shot to the opposite field. The jury's still out after just 20 at bats, but the verdict could be not guilty.
* Stoddard, notorious for injuring himself, has arrived in one large piece. His spring ERA was 2.63 in 11 games with only one run scoring in his last seven appearances.
* Flanagan and McGregor looked exceptional in their final tuneups. Flanagan shut out Texas for seven innings on 69 pitches and has a streak of 10 shutout innings. McGregor walked only two men all spring and had as good a fast ball as ever Saturday against Atlanta.
* Spurred by the knowledge that Shelby or Gary Roenicke (.159, no homers) could get his job by June, Ford (.258) has looked adequate. At this point, it doesn't really seem to matter; the Orioles are loaded with outfielders and Ford'll either produce in a hurry or disappear.
Other things have also gone well. Storm Davis (1.50 ERA) was excellent. Strapping rookie Don Welchel (1.33 ERA in 20 innings) looks like a fine ninth pitcher. Sammy Stewart appears recovered from torn muscle fibers in his rib cage. Jim Palmer (3-1, 2.88) looked like he did in '82 until lower-back stiffness, assumed to be minor, bumped him from an opening day start, which will go to Dennis Martinez. The club's run-scoring was up 23 percent over last spring, while its pitching and defense were almost identical to '82.
As though all this weren't enough, Baltimore's early season schedule is a dream: Birds beat up pigeons. Except for two games with the White Sox in Chicago next week, the Orioles don't have a series until the last week of May (in K.C.) that's against a team and in a park that they fear.
Only one piece of news clouds the opener. Terry Crowley, 36, was put on irrevocable waivers yesterday to get the squad down to 25. In the last six years, Crowley has been the best run-producing pinch hitter in baseball, with a .296 average, a .399 on-base percentage and an astronomical 46 RBI in 186 at bats. Crowley had 10 RBI in 35 pinch hit at bats last year.
When a club can cut one of the best left-handed pinch hitters in baseball after he hits .357 in spring training, that team has either suffered a lapse in judgment or it's a very strong club indeed.
Asked what this opening day meant to him, Altobelli said yesterday, "A good chance to go to the World Series."