Maybe Brooks Robinson absorbed all the good luck that third base had to offer. When the most beloved of Orioles retired, he seemed to take the kiss of fortune with him. In the eight years since Robinson stopped playing regularly in Memorial Stadium, every Baltimore third baseman has, in one way or another, been star-crossed, jinxed or thwarted.
The Orioles joke about the list of hot corner men who have succeeded but not replaced Robinson: Doug DeCinces, Cal Ripken Jr., Glenn Gulliver, Rich Dauer, Floyd Rayford, Aurelio Rodriguez, Leo Hernandez and, this week, Todd Cruz.
"There's a little-known story of how all this might have been avoided," said Ken Singleton conspiratorially today. "Before the last game of the '77 season (when Robinson retired), I told (then-manager) Earl Weaver that I wanted to play third base. I took infield there, had a good infield. But my name wasn't on the lineup. What if I'd played it well? Maybe we wouldn't have had all these problems."
Singleton was joking, but the Orioles don't really laugh too much about the curse that hangs over their third basemen.
DeCinces, the heir to the position, had six seasons of back injuries and excessive expectations. Only after he was traded, in the worst deal in Orioles history, did DeCinces blossom into a 30-homer, 100-RBI, .300-hitting All-Star.
Ripken succeeded DeCinces; even the gifted '82 rookie of the year was nicked by the jinx. Third base has always been the 6-foot-5, 208-pound Ripken's long-range position. But, because of a void at short, Ripken left third to make his name elsewhere. Ironically, he's gained more glory since he left third.
Since spring training, the Orioles have had six men at the position and even now, with Cruz's acquisition, can't be sure that they're any closer to a solution.
Gulliver, the man Weaver liked, was shipped back to AAA because owner Edward Bennett Williams couldn't stand the sight of a slow, no-range .200 hitter cluttering up his infield. Dauer was quickly put back at second base. Rayford was sent to Rochester where he hit so well (.376) that the Orioles, who'd run out of options on him, lost him to the alert world champion Cardinals.
Rodriguez, a creditable part-timer at Chicago last year (.241), has played like a shadow of his once excellent self (.132). Hernandez, a fine but raw prospect, was turned inside out by big-league pitching; he also made a dozen grotesque errors and is back at Rochester rebuilding his stance and his confidence. Then, the Orioles, who seldom panic, made a dicey move by purchasing Cruz, a flashy shortstop with a reputation for trouble.
Cruz, hitting .192, has played for six clubs in the last six years. He has started spectacularly as an Oriole, driving in six runs in his first game Friday, then hitting a home run today that was washed out by rain.
Nonetheless, the Orioles aren't naive. Cruz was put on irrevocable waivers by the worst team in baseball (Seattle) and nobody below Baltimore in the standings wanted him. When a .230-hitting shortstop who led the AL in assists per game and double plays in '82 is released after a season in which he hit 16 homers, baseball people scratch their heads.
Fair or not, Cruz has a reputation for tardiness and hot-dogging. More substantial, Cruz is haunted by one bad night in '81 after being sent back to the minors by the White Sox. According to newspaper reports of the time, Cruz was apprehended by Edmonton (Alberta) police and police dogs in the early morning hours after he allegedly smashed a jewelry case in a department store with a hammer. He allegedly had jewelry in his pockets.
Fortunately for Cruz, Canadian laws made it possible for charges to be "conditionally dropped," since he was a first-time offender. For nine months, Cruz had to make formal requests to be allowed back into Canada. "Everybody knows all about that, and I don't even want to talk about it," said Cruz today.
For Cruz, this Fourth of July represents what he hopes will be his independence from the bad teams and the bad raps that perhaps contaminated his play in the past.
"So far, so good. It feels good here. It takes pressure off you to be with a winning team. You can relax," said Cruz, who grew up in Detroit. "I told (Manager) Joe (Altobelli) I'd be happy to play anywhere."
Cruz's Friday heroics were both a coming-home celebration and a vindication after his release. "Seattle said it was 'Change for change sake,' whatever that means," said Cruz.
"My dad played a couple of years in the minors for the Tigers. He never really talked about it. I fulfilled his dream, I guess . . . He's 50 years old and still plays softball . . .
"Winning is habit-forming. In Seattle, when you lost, everybody'd just get down, down, down, and we couldn't seem to pick each other up. Here, I can tell that's different. After I had six RBI, the next night I went oh for four. When I was coming off the field, (Coach) Ray Miller came over and shook my hand and said, 'Way to go. We won. New hero every day.' "
Altobelli likes many things about Cruz--his range, his powerful forearms that promise home run punch, his natural athletic ability, the insurance he gives the Orioles at shortstop. But he didn't like the Cruz goatee.
"Joe asked me to shave it off. I guess they wanted to see if I had a good attitude," said Cruz. "I'll go along with the program."