FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
Where the Orioles once were, as the finest organization in the American League through the '60s into the '80s, and where they are now, after nine straight losing seasons, hit Executive Vice President Mike Flanagan right between the eyes two weeks ago when the Baltimore world champions of 1983 held a reunion. Those two dozen years melted away in a blink. Everybody picked up right where they left off, same jokes, same shared memories, same laughter until there were almost tears of pleasure.
"I asked Bobby Bonner, 'What've you been doing?' " Flanagan said. The ex-shortstop said he'd been on a ministry in Africa for 18 years and had suffered 19 attacks of malaria. A lifetime of stories poured out. "Bonner's telling me about black mamba snakes crawling up at him out of sewers," Flanagan said. "My hair is standing on end. All I said was, 'Hello.'
"It makes you realize how much time has passed -- a big chunk of your lifetime -- since this team was really a winner."
Then Flanagan thought for a second. "Actually, 1983 is the last time this organization was really happy," he said. "We were so close and loose, smart about the game, beating clubs with more talent. We lost the first game of the '83 ALCS. The next night it's 7:28 p.m. The TV announcers were saying, 'Where are the Orioles? They're not on the field yet. They must be in disarray after losing Game 1.' We were at the door of the clubhouse, packed together, watching 'Wheel of Fortune.' We're yelling, 'Pick a vowel!' Finally, somebody figured out the puzzle and we all barreled out the door."
And swept the next three games against the favored White Sox, then won the World Series. A few days ago, Flanagan called a team meeting to tell this year's Orioles about that '83 reunion, about how winning teams are bonded for a lifetime while losers forget each other quickly. "Champions are remembered in their town forever. It's a kind of immortality," Flanagan said.
Every spring, it seems, old Orioles gather in Florida, wrapping their wings protectively around the young birds, hoping that this is the year when camaraderie is reborn, when promising young pitchers actually pan out and become the next Orioles generation worthy of comparison to Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor, Dennis Martinez, Mike Boddicker and Flanagan.
The Orioles actually have three young hurlers -- Erik Bedard (15-11 last season), gigantic Daniel Cabrera and smooth 6-foot-5, 235-pound lefty Adam Loewen -- who might lead such a rebirth. Emphasis on "might." Their combined career record is 64-66.
Still, hope based on visible potential is far better than none at all. The last two springs, ex-manager Earl Weaver dropped into Orioles camp, largely because "he's fallen in love with Nick Markakis," Flanagan said. Trust the eye of the Earl. The outfielder hit an eye-popping .366 in June, July and August last summer and may have a batting title in his future.
The Orioles may invoke the spirit of '83 but they don't dare mention world titles in their near future, not after a 70-92 year. But a winning season, just a first step back toward pride and a place in the hearts of the bereft faithful at Camden Yards -- is both sensible and essential.
The Orioles may never face a season when their credibility can be so greatly improved, or buried. For this one season, the attendance-sucking Nationals seem indifferent to losing a ton of games. So the path is clear for the Orioles to reclaim some of their alienated Baltimore base as well as grab undecided voters in the battleground counties between the cities.
If the Orioles don't pounce immediately, they may regret it for years. Next spring, the Nats will have a new ballpark with a sleek modern design that deliberately seeks to contrast itself with Camden Yards and vie for architectural praise. The cash flow from the Nationals' new park will almost certainly attract a major free agent per season, following the Tigers' model. If the Orioles can only rebut with "A Decade of Losing" while their own fans protest in black armbands, they may slip back toward a small-market payroll. Their glorious ballpark alone should have, forever, saved them from such a dismal status.
Luckily, the Orioles have probably assembled enough talent (though barely) and a sufficiently improved clubhouse chemistry (no unhappy Lopezes, Javy and Rodrigo) to improve by the dozen games necessary to reach the sport's bare minimum level for bragging rights -- 82 wins.
"I think we're right there, ready to be a winner again," Flanagan says. "We've rebuilt our bullpen. Last year, it gave up 300 runs."
"And 86 homers. The Tigers bullpen only gave up 39," adds fellow Vice President Jim Duquette. "We had 16 loses when we were tied or ahead after six innings."
Now, for $42 million, the O's have added arms to set up closer Chris Ray. Don't get too excited. Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker and Scott Williamson aren't the Nasty Boys. They'll limit embarrassment, not thrill the multitudes.
"Our number one goal in the offseason was to improve our pitching depth. We've done it," Flanagan said. "The pitchers who would have been our 10th, 11th or 12th best at this time last year would probably now be our 23rd, 24th and 25th best."
Set-up relievers and pitching depth are nice. But the key to almost any team's season -- and the Orioles' season in particular -- is the quality of its starting rotation. And Manager Sam Perlozzo, glad as he is for new bullpen faces, knows it.
"If your starters give you seven innings, your bullpen always looks great. They're fresh. But if your starters only go five, your bullpen looks bad. They're exhausted," Perlozzo said. "On a good team, there should be two relievers that the fans say, 'Who's he?' because they almost never see 'em. Last year they knew all of our bullpen guys by their first names."
In the power-packed American League, the O's lineup didn't have a single hitter with 25 homers last year. Even if Melvin Mora bounces back, Aubrey Huff adds a little pop and Markakis hits .300, the Orioles will be only adequate by A.L. standards. So, with veteran Kris Benson (11-12) battling rotator cuff miseries, the Orioles probably will be as good as the progress of their two tall talented young pitchers behind Bedard -- Cabrera and Loewen.
Loewen draws raves for his savvy. He went 6-6 with 98 strikeouts in 112 innings and is more promising than many fans might think. Rookies should struggle. Loewen sometimes seemed comfortable. Cabrera, with his 100 mph fastball and precipitous curve, remains the mystery link. "Cabrera's gained another 20 pounds. That's 40 in two years. He doesn't stop growing," Flanagan said. "I think he's 6-foot-9 now. Or he was three days ago. Better go check."
Check back in a year. Despite all of the Orioles' recent failures, there is once again a best-case scenario about which Baltimore can dream. No, it's certainly not a probability, just a possibility. But if Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen can force early-career comparisons with Flanagan, McGregor and Boddicker, then, on some future day, the class of '83 may not be the last Orioles team that ever gets to hold a reunion to celebrate a season worth remembering.