BALTIMORE -- The Orioles may have won their 11th straight and beaten Bret Saberhagen, the major leagues' winningest pitcher, about three hours before game time Saturday. It was still afternoon, the heat threatened to flatten everyone like a giant waffle iron and the empty concrete stadium looked like a blister when Eddie Murray came out to take extra cuts in the batting cage. It was 99 degrees; Murray was preparing for what would be a classic matchup -- his own and his hot team's -- with Saberhagen.
Cal Ripken Sr. threw pitches to Murray. What could be finer than to be a big league manager and still pitch batting practice? When he sat in the Orioles' dugout afterward, sweat dripped off every angle of his thin face, the tip of his nose and his chin. Never was there a happier man. Although all he looked was hot, he, like Murray, was deep in thought -- what he could do as manager to help beat Kansas City one more time. The Orioles were going for a remarkable seven for seven over the Royals in 10 days.
Murray was trying to improve his swing. The way he hit, cracking the ball deep to right and sometimes into the seats, suggested to Mike Young standing by the cage that Murray would hit a home run that night. A writer in the dugout also said Murray was going to hit one out against Saberhagen. A feeling like that comes up when a team is going good.
Pitching was on Ripken's mind -- not so much Saberhagen and his 15 victories. "The whole thing is throwing strikes with something on them," he said. "Getting ahead in the count, then geting them out. We've been getting that kind of pitching. When the pitchers keep you in the game, you have a chance." It was that simple, and hard. But if Dave Schmidt could keep the Orioles close, Ripken could do some managing. He'd have his chance to do his part.
Saberhagen-Schmidt (combined records, 25-6) was an appealing matchup, but for Ripken it was too fanciful a way to approach this game. He wanted to ruin the matchup for the Royals, any way possible. He said the Royals were loaded with good pitchers, naming each one, being appropriately respectful, it turned out yesterday, with Charlie Leibrandt's streak-stopping two-hitter.
To Ripken, Saberhagen simply meant more of the same Royals' pitching: Ripken's thinking seemed that the Orioles probably would have to scratch out a low-scoring, close victory. "We've just won 2-1 and 3-1 games," he said. But if this would be another hard night, it had promise; a team in a skid would have virtually no chance against Saberhagen, but the Orioles, after all, were hot.
"You can't explain when things go good, and it's hard to explain when things go bad," said Larry Sheets, talking not about the team's winning streak (which pitching easily explained, according to Ripken) but his hitting streak. Sitting down the bench from his manager, Sheets, too, looked deep in thought, rubbing his bat as if to keep it hot. "Saberhagen doesn't fool around, and you have to like that," said Sheets. "Your concentration level definitely goes up -- that will to succeed. You're going against the best, and you try to raise yourself to that level."
Ripken, before he played a little catch on the side with Cal Jr. like backyard fathers and sons (they throw it hard to each other), gave a seminar on some elemental baseball truths. One was the importance of getting a runner to third base -- former Oriole Rich Dauer, he mentioned, may not have been a .300 hitter but, besides being a good glove, "Richie could get a runner over there." Ripken nodded toward third base. He might have added that getting a runner to third couldn't be any more important than against Saberhagen.
The lecture came to life in the second inning. With no score, one out and Young on first, Ripken used hot-hitting Sheets to work the hit-and-run. Sheets lined a single to right-center, moving Young to third. The importance of being on third was demonstrated by Ken Gerhart, who scored Young with a fly to center field. Following the lecture, this was the Ripken laboratory.
Each team squeezed out its runs, and it was 3-2, Orioles, when Ripken went to the mound with two on and two out in the seventh to talk with Schmidt. "He said, 'I'm pretty well juiced,' " the manager said later. "I said, 'That's all I want to know.' " Ripken took the ball.
Relief pitching saved that moment but allowed the tying run in the eighth. Bottom of the eighth and up came Murray, zero for three in the game, and one for his previous 18 at-bats. Saberhagen slipped a fastball past Murray for strike one. It still felt like 95, the game-time temperature, but if the steamy night might come to a hot ending in the Orioles' favor, this was the time.
Orioles fans among the 36,472 who had come out into the heat for a game they could have watched on television, then got their deserved moment. Murray drove the next pitch high and far into the heavy air. He dropped his bat and watched it. The ball came down in the seats between the 360-marker and the foul pole.
Saberhagen backed down onto the grass behind the mound and stared in at the plate as Murray circled the bases, and the crowd chanted "Ed-die, Ed-die." A classic game had come down to one team's strength against the other's, and as if to help keep the ending intact, the crowd got behind reliever Tom Niedenfuer in the top of the ninth. Catcher Terry Kennedy sprang up, waving his glove with the ball in it, after Niedenfuer struck out Jim Eisenreich for the second out. When Danny Tartabull struck out to end the game, Niedenfuer and Kennedy ran into each other's arms like it was a World Series.
What more could one ask for? But the fans were asking Murray for a nod or a tip of his cap -- he had not tipped his cap or come out of the dugout after his home run although they had implored him. And now that he was back on the field with the other Orioles, congratulating one another, "Ed-die" chants rose again, but to no avail.
Ripken, in his manager's office, looked happy to have 23 cap-tippers and Murray on his club. He was seated behind his desk with a can of beer in front of him and a cigarette in a glass ashtray. His cap was perched on an old typewriter to his left. He answered everything, including whether Ray Knight had gotten the night off to rest. When guys get that age, you have to rest them occasionally, Ripken said. "They're not young like me."
Postscript: Part of a night at Memorial Stadium might be listening to Rex Barney's call-in show while driving home. Barney, the public address announcer, once was a Brooklyn Dodgers' fireballer -- a wild thrower. A copy of an old article from a New York tabloid hangs in the Baltimore press box. The headline says: "Rex 0-Hits Jints, 2-0," and he and his catcher, Bruce Edwards, are pictured holding a baseball.
Barney takes calls on a Baltimore station with a doctor's bedside manner. And he knows about pitching. "Some people said I could throw the ball as hard as anybody in the world, but I'd have given it all up to throw strikes," he said.
Like Ripken before the game, Barney attributed the Orioles' surge largely to the pitchers "throwing strikes." Instead, many of the callers wanted to talk about Murray and why he wouldn't tip his cap. A man said he had left the game with "mixed emotions" -- he hadn't seen so much excitement at the park for years as he did in the ninth inning. But Murray should have tipped his cap. A woman was almost beside herself. Her name was Angie.
Barney kept consoling her -- "You're right, Angie" -- but he pointed out that Murray has always been a man of his own ways, and that's how it is. No crowd wanted its home run hitter to tip his cap more than Boston fans when Ted Williams hit his last home run in his last at-bat. But he did not.
Murray in some ways is the Williams of the Orioles. He caused some fans joy and anguish at the same time, and Rex Barney was still offering consolation when he was overcome by static somewhere around Laurel. This was after he had reminded travelers to fasten their seat belts for the drive home and relayed "the news" -- the all-important news -- one more time for anyone in Baltimore who for some reason had not been plugged in: "The Orioles won."