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Joe Altobelli, who led Orioles to 1983 World Series title, dies at 88

Joe Altobelli raises his finger to that of first base umpire Jim Evans during a game against the California Angels in 1983. (Doug Pizac/AP)

Joe Altobelli laid out his businesslike managerial philosophy during his introductory news conference as Baltimore Orioles manager in November 1982.

“I don’t think it’s a compliment when a player says, ‘He’s a nice guy to play for.’ That doesn’t come out right, somehow,” Altobelli told reporters. “In the minors, I had a love-hate relationship with my players. I love none of ’em. I hate none of ’em.”

That even keel served Altobelli well in his first season, when he took over a loaded Orioles team from the legendary Earl Weaver and guided it to its first World Series title since 1970 and its most recent to this day.

Altobelli, whom the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in November 2017, died Wednesday at age 88.

“The Orioles mourn the loss of former manager Joe Altobelli, who led Baltimore to a World Championship in 1983. We send our sympathies to Altobelli’s family and many friends throughout the game,” the franchise said in a statement.

Altobelli spent most of his career, both as a player and manager, in the minor leagues: In a playing career that stretched from 1951 to 1970, he played in a grand total of 166 big league games. After spending most of his final playing years in the Orioles organization, he began a slow coaching ascent up the franchise’s farm system, culminating in a successful six-season run as manager of the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.

But with Weaver firmly entrenched in Baltimore, Altobelli grew weary of waiting and in October 1976 was named manager of the San Francisco Giants, where he lasted just three seasons. And after a few more years of biding his time with the New York Yankees, the Orioles finally hired him as manager after Weaver’s retirement.

The difference between the tempestuous Weaver and the levelheaded Altobelli was immediately felt.

“Earl definitely wanted to be the dictator,” pitcher Scott McGregor, one of several players on the 1983 Orioles who had played for Altobelli in Rochester, said at his introductory news conference. “Joe doesn’t overmanage. He’s there with the right word at the right time.”

Said Cal Ripken Jr.: “Joe, with his easygoing leadership style, was very helpful to that team. There wasn’t any angst, any pressure. … He was a calm, confident leader, and one who knew the ups and downs of the season and pushed through them without overreacting or underreacting.”

Weaver’s final Orioles team of his first stint as manager in 1982 won 94 games, one fewer than the AL East-winning Milwaukee Brewers. Altobelli’s first Baltimore team won 98, with the Orioles beating the Chicago White Sox in four ALCS games and then easing past the Philadelphia Phillies in five to win the World Series. Baltimore would allow only 12 runs over those nine postseason games.

Altobelli’s run as Orioles manager would be brief, however. After the World Series title, Baltimore went 85-77 in 1984, a better record than 18 other teams but good for just fifth in the AL East. In 1985, the Orioles started 18-9 but quickly tailed off, and owner Edward Bennett Williams — who openly referred to Altobelli as “Cement Head” — replaced him with Weaver in June after publicly courting the former manager, a situation Altobelli admitted was “awkward.”

“I was fired by someone who doesn’t know baseball,” Altobelli said in 1986, referring to Williams in a Thomas Boswell column about how the owner had all but single-handedly gutted the Oriole Way that had produced so much success — six World Series appearances, with three wins, plus two more ALCS appearances — over the 18-season stretch from 1966 to 1983. “I was not fired by the baseball people.”

Two years later, in 1988, the Orioles would lose their first 21 games of the season, a modern-era AL record that still stands. They haven’t been to the World Series since Altobelli guided them there in 1983.

Altobelli finished his MLB career as a coach for the Yankees and Chicago Cubs before becoming Red Wings general manager in 1992. He also served as color commentator for the Class AAA team’s radio broadcasts, becoming known as “Mr. Baseball” in Rochester, where he had made his home since 1966.

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