That Black and Orange Magic

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October 26, 1970

That Black and Orange Magic

All the Orioles seemed to have a hand in casting a spell over Cincinnati but there was no one to compare with Brooks Robinson, the friendly ghost, who made the Reds disappear in five games

by William Leggett


Andy Etchebarren was sitting in the Baltimore dugout before the fifth and final game of the 1970 World Series, his eyes transfixed by the strange patterns created by raindrops falling on a heavy green tarpaulin covering the infield. Brooks Robinson sat down beside him and tapped him on the knee.

Brooks Robinson

Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson stole the show

photograph by
Herb Scharfman


"Feeling O.K., Andy?" asked Robinson.

Etchebarren smiled. "Brooksie, he said, "make it stop raining."

"Thanks," Robinson said, "but I'm not going that good."

Maybe not, but as the cold winds moved up Chesapeake Bay, a warning of Halloween just around the corner, there were those in Baltimore who swore they could feel the swooping presence of some great hobgoblin in an orange and black uniform with the number 5 on its back moving about the countryside. It had a very high forehead and a smile on its face and it was beating the bejeezus out of everything in sight with a 33-ounce bat. And what escaped, it caught with its glove.

Well, maybe not everyone in Baltimore had this vision, but that is almost surely the way the Cincinnati Reds are going to see the whole horrible thing in their nightmare this winter. A fine baseball team that had the misfortune to run into the Orioles—and Brooks Robinson—in this Series, the Reds will swear they were the victims of witches and warlocks. And maybe they were. Somebody stopped the rain. Against this kind of magic, even a group of such superlative hitters as the Reds could only hope to survive; they were a part of as fine a five-game Series as baseball could have hoped for—but they never seemed to be in any danger of winning it. When the torture was over, Johnny Bench said, "I hope we can come back and play the Orioles next year. I also hope Brooks Robinson has retired by then."

Sixteen times the Reds smashed hard line drives into the infield or deep into the outfield only to see an Oriole, usually Robinson, make an impossible play and stuff a sure hit into his glove. If somehow they had become disoriented enough to believe that this was last year and that they were the Orioles playing the New York Mets in 1969, they could have been forgiven. For the Reds, bad luck never seemed to take a holiday.

There were all sorts of cases in point, but take what happened in the second game, which Baltimore won 6-5. It ended when Oriole Centerfielder Paul Blair raced to the wall in deep center to catch what looked like at least a triple off the bat of pinch hitter Jimmy Stewart. In game No. 3 Baltimore made the lesson stick. The Reds got their first two runners on, and then Tony Perez hit a screamer into a double play—started by Robinson. Bench followed with a brutal liner—at Robinson. The great revival died. Final score: 9-3.

If the defeats depressed the Reds, they exhilarated the Orioles, who needed some sort of vindication after the flop against the Mets. They also showed why the Orioles are considered the liveliest team in the major leagues today. Granted, the American League is not as strong as the National, nor does it have the depth of competition or the caliber and quantity of start. Still, as can be seen by merely watching them play, the Orioles are an exception, a 1970 team undiluted by expansion. They have managed to retain their excellent pitching, especially in the persons of 20-game winners Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer, and four Golden Glove winners at critical defensive positions, Robinson at third, Mark Belanger at shortstop, Dave Johnson at second and Blair in center. And then of course there are Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and Don Buford, who bring the bats.

Millions of people undoubtedly wonder why it is that the Mets could beat the Orioles so soundly last year, then finish third to Pittsburgh, a team that was in turn so easily mashed by the Reds in the playoffs. The chief difference between the 1969 and 1970 Mets is pitching. Met pitching a year ago held the Orioles to the lowest five-game Series hit total ever, 23. This time Blair and Brooks Robinson, who together batted .077 against New York, batted .450. Their hits against Cincinnati (18) were only five short of the team aggregate in 1969.

Cincinnati, unfortunately, was forced to use 18 pitchers in the five games. Not all of them were entirely healthy, and one of the best, Wayne Simpson (14-3), was too sore even to try. Aside from the injuries, the Reds are basically a very young team that usually makes up for its mistakes with muscle. But it takes experience and exceptional technique, as well, to beat a team like Baltimore. One example of a department where the Reds did come up woefully short was in throwing the ball from the outfield. Black magic had nothing to do with the occasional offending throw that just missed its mark. Next spring the Reds will have to work on marksmanship if they intend to be Series material again.

Baltimore plays with a natural flair. As Brooks Robinson said last Thursday evening, "We just seem to do things automatically at times. I believe we do it that way because our guys are good enough that they don't need too many lessons to pick things up. Sure, we work in spring training on hitting the cutoff man and backing up the plays. If you make a mistake on things like those a whole big inning will open up against you."

Robinson was signed by the Orioles on the basis of a letter sent to Paul Richards, then the manager-general manager of the team, by a former teammate, Lindsay Deal. The letter was dated Feb. 13, 1955.

"Dear Paul," it began, "I am writing you in regard to a kid named Brooks Robinson. I think he measures up to having a chance in major league baseball. I think he is a natural third baseman although he has been playing both second and third.

"He will be 18 years old May 18 and graduates from Little Rock Senior High School on May 27. He is 6 feet 1 inch in height and weighs 175. His physique is outstanding for a boy this age. He bats right and throws right. . . .

"Brooks has a lot of power, baseball savvy and is always cool when the chips are down. This boy is the best prospect I've seen since Billy Goodman came to Atlanta to play when I was playing there. That is the reason I am contacting you.

"I thought you might be interested in him and able to make as good an offer as anyone else. Otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered you with it."

Richards passed the letter on to the team's farm department, and Robinson, seven months later, became the first prospect to make the team since its move from St. Louis, where, in kindlier moments, people called it the Browns.

How good are the Orioles? "We like to think," says Earl Weaver, the man who manages them, "that we do not have too many holes." Over the last seven seasons Baltimore has won more games (672) than any other team. The club closest to them in that period is Minnesota with 635. Next are San Francisco (633), Detroit (625) and St. Louis (617). When the Tigers, world champions in 1968, tried to repeat in 1969 not even their 103 victories of the previous year would have won for them. Since they managed to win only 90 they finished 19 games behind Baltimore.

"Certain people believe that we have had the finest team in baseball for the past two years," said Weaver last week. "It must be pretty good because it has played in two World Series and it has won one more game in the last two World Series than the New York Mets ever did."

The quote is more than a statement. It is an exposition of the Earl Weaver baseball personality. A brilliant tactical manager known in the trade to "never box himself," Weaver, now 40, took over the Orioles in midseason of 1968, and since then the team has won 265 games and lost only 141. He is a man who believes in keeping every possible statistic, then studying his lists carefully before reaching a decision, and he usually has about six reasons for everything he does.

When Cincinnati did bounce back in the fourth game of the Series, there was hope on the team that it could rally and take the Orioles back to the mod sod in Cincinnati and beat them. The Reds had stopped a 17-game Baltimore winning streak, and they felt that maybe the old idea that every winning streak is usually followed by a losing streak would hold true. Not only was the thinking fallacious; Baltimore quickly reminded the Reds that here was no ordinary team, especially where losing streaks were concerned. This season its longest bad spell lasted three games. A year ago the worst was five.

Much was made of the fact that during the year the Reds, with their preponderance of right-handed hitting power, chewed left-handed pitching up and spit it into the Ohio River. Little was made of Baltimore's record of the last two seasons against right-handed pitching. Yet the Orioles were 77 games over .500 during that period and they maintained their lifetime record against the American League's best pitchers: Denny McLain (11-13), Jim Perry (14-14), Mel Stottlemyre (7-9), Dean Chance (11-16), Joe Horlen (9-10) and Luis Tiant (2-10).

Cincinnati's record against lefthanders (33-12) and the fact that the Orioles felt somewhat apprehensive about pitching McNally and Cuellar against the Big Red Machine (after the Series some of the players called it the Big Red Edsel) and its right-handed power brought a fine reaction from Frank Robinson. Presiding as judge in the kangaroo court at the Oriole victory party several hours after the last game, Robinson fined superscout Jim Russo for even suggesting that the Reds might be able to rough up McNally and Cuellar. (Frank also fined Brooks Robinson for "showboating it during the entire Series.") Before the Series began Russo suggested to Weaver that the 40-year-old right-handed Reliever Dick Hall start one of the games against the Reds' righties. After thinking the matter over, Weaver decided against the plan, because if Hall started he could not be used in relief more than once and Weaver did not want to eliminate his option of using Hall more often. Hall did come into the second game, where he faced seven batters and got all of them out.

Given all of his statistics, Weaver might have known another fact. This has not been a very good year for lefthanded pitching in the National League, which could explain why the Reds were death on them. The Reds' own Jim Merritt was the winningest lefthander with a 20-12 record, but his ERA was 4.08. Luke Walker of the Pirates (15-6) had only five complete games; Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals lost 19 times; and Jerry Koosman of the New York Mets had only one shutout. The San Francisco Giant staff worked 50 complete games, but only three of those were by lefties.

"There can be little doubt," said Clay Carroll, the one Cincinnati pitcher who was effective in the Series, "that we came in with a crippled staff and that the Orioles crippled what was left of it." He was not talking about the personal shelling that they took, but he might well have been. The Orioles drove five balls back at or through Cincinnati pitchers in the last game alone. Two ricocheted off bodies while the other three flew by so quickly that the pitchers, dodging, couldn't field them.

The Orioles clinched their second world championship almost exactly one year to the day after they had lost to the Mets. Then they were totally dejected, but 5,000 people showed up at the Baltimore airport to greet them , and when 5,000 people show up in Baltimore for anything it is usually free or a Colt workout. "Our players got a tremendous lift out of that," said Harry Dalton, the man who is most responsible for assembling the Oriole club. "Some of our players had tears in their eyes and their wives were crying. There are those who would have you believe that a rah-rah spirit in professional sports doesn't mean anything, but it does. Just as the fans had helped the Mets, the fact that ours still thought so much of us made our players dedicate themselves to returning and getting another chance to win the Series.

"Even though we beat the Dodgers in four straight games in 1966," Dalton continued, "beating Cincinnati is more rewarding because the Reds are such an excellent team. Pitching through the heart of their batting order was like walking through a shooting gallery."

For all their obvious strength, it is doubtful that the Orioles will stand pat during the off season. Their pitching needs some additions because, as Dalton says, "Any department that has 10 men in it can be improved upon." Weaver, too, feels that the Orioles will change, but not much. "We are not going to open up any holes just for the sake of change," he said.

All along they have had the problem of whom to play. Merv Rettenmund, for instance, did not get a chance to start in the Series until the fifth game. Playing in only 106 games during the regular season, he batted .322, hit 18 homers and batted in 58 runs. He is a superior fielder. He responded to his one Series chance by driving in two runs, one with a single and the other with a homer hit to the opposite field. Right behind Rettenmund are six other players ready to challenge the regulars. Their averages with Triple A Rochester of the International League this season ranged from .304 to .384.

The two men who probably will be challenged the least are Powell and Brooks Robinson. Powell, still only 29-years old, has hit 34 homers or more in three of the last five seasons and driven in an average of 97 runs. And Brooks? He is 33, but like some things—say, the replica of the flag that was still there that waved in center field during the Series—he will stay around Baltimore as long as people appreciate third basemen who can snub out bombs bursting in air. Or run the National League all the way back to Cincinnati with only a bat and a glove.

And a little magic, of course.


 

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