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O YOU BEAUTIFUL BIRDS
Steve Wulf
June 19, 1989
A year after setting a record for futility, the Orioles are sitting pretty in the AL East
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June 19, 1989

O You Beautiful Birds

A year after setting a record for futility, the Orioles are sitting pretty in the AL East

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Memo to the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers: If you want to escape the cellar, you should 1) trade a Hall of Fame-caliber player for two borderline pitchers and a minor league shortstop; 2) trade the ace of your staff for two un proven players; 3) change your uniforms; 4) make the new ace a lefthander with a degree in geophysics and a lifetime record of 10-20; 5) sign a switch-hitter from the state of Oklahoma named Mickey; 6) draft a kid out of college who has had only 24? innings of minor league experience and make him your bullpen stopper; 7) pay no attention to Al Campanis; 8) employ everybody named Ripken you can find; 9) have at least two former Big Eight quarterbacks: and 10) never, ever give up hope.

Who knows? Next year you might be the best teams in your divisions. After all, just look at the Baltimore Orioles.

It's only June, as everyone connected with the Birds is quick to point out, but there they perch, atop the American League East by four games as of Sunday. The shocking, sensational and unbelievable success of a team that lost 107 games last year is attributable in part to the fact that this season the American League Least is, well, the reason birdcages are lined with newspapers. Baltimore went 2-4 last week and lost only one game to its pursuers. However, the O's would be in the hunt in every other division, too. And even if they weren't in first place, they would still be the most pleasantly surprising story in baseball.

The plan behind the Oriole turnaround may not be a blueprint for other teams to follow, but it does show what a little pluck, luck and intelligence can do. Don't be afraid of hiring other teams' rejects, for one thing. So what if vice-president and general manager Roland Hemond was dumped by the White Sox? So what if manager Frank Robinson was canned by the Cleveland Indians and the San Francisco Giants? Give the ball to a pitcher, Jeff Ballard, whose previous major league statistics gave no hint he would stand 9-2 at week's end with a 2.51 ERA. Let the Oakland Athletics slip you a Mickey—namely, American League home run leader Tettleton (16), who was released in '88 by the A's. Don't let it bother you that both the Phillies and Seattle Mariners wanted to get rid of outfielder Phil Bradley; their track records speak for themselves.

This ability to see what others haven't seen is particularly impressive to Dave Ballard, who was in New York and Baltimore last week to watch his younger brother Jeff's team play. The Ballards are sort of the Ripkens of the oil-exploration business. Bill, the father, is president of the Balcron Oil Company in Billings. Mont.; Dave, the geophysicist, decides where to drill; Jeff, who majored in geophysics at Stanford, helps out in the off-season. "If you hit on one of nine wells," says Dave, "you're doing O.K. When you find oil, it's called a discovery, just like in baseball. You go over the seismic data—our scouting reports—looking for an 'anomaly,' something that tells you there may be oil. The big companies like Exxon have gone over the same data we have, so we have to find something they've missed—just as the Orioles did with Tettleton and with Jeff. By the way, our company is having a pretty good year, too. We've hit oil on two of six drillings."

Emblematic of Baltimore's gusher this year was last Friday night's 7-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Memorial Stadium, a victory that combined good pitching and outstanding defense with the medicinal powers of the longtime team physician, Dr. Longball. Tettleton, whose surge has been attributed to the benefits of a breakfast cereal, hit two home runs—a three-run opposite-field shot in the first inning and a solo blast in the sixth. Some of the 31,000 fans on this rainy night showered the field with Froot Loops, those tiny orange, yellow and pink rings—O's for O's—that have become the rage in Baltimore. Tettleton dedicated his homers, numbers 15 and 16, to his parents, who live in Oklahoma City and were watching him play in Baltimore for the first time.

Robinson, who has done a masterly job all season of finessing an ordinary staff, showed a sixth sense by lifting starter Brian Holton in the fifth, though Holton had a shutout going. Mark Williamson came in and pitched 3? strong innings for the win before Kevin Hickey finished up. Hickey, a 33-year-old former White Sox reliever, is a perfect representative of these O's. He had spent the past five seasons in the minors, and nobody expected him to do much this year. Short of money last season, he lived in the clubhouse of the Triple A Rochester Red Wings. "It wasn't bad," he says. "There was cable TV, a weight room, a washer and dryer, 24-hour security and a very big lawn in the back."

The most impressive aspect of Baltimore's performance on Friday night was its fielding. The Orioles have what broadcaster and eight-time 20-game winner Jim Palmer calls the best defense in club, history, which is a heady compliment, considering that Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich and Paul Blair played together behind Palmer. If you checked the weekly stats in your sports pages on Sunday, you saw that the O's were 11th in the league in batting and fifth in pitching. They were, however, first in team fielding, a statistic that does not appear in your newspaper.

In the fifth inning rightfielder Steve Finley came sloshing in on a line drive, hoping to make a shoestring catch. When the ball bounced in front of him, he made a sensational grab to keep it from skipping by for extra bases. Two batters later, first baseman Jim Traber, who hadn't made an error all season through Sunday (nor had his platoon partner, Randy Milligan), dove to his right for a ball and deflected it to second baseman Bill Ripken. Traber, a former Oklahoma State quarterback, jumped back up and got back to first in time to get Ripken's throw and the runner, the speedy Paul Molitor. In the ninth, Ripken made a wonderful diving stab for a catch going to his left.

Friday night's win was the Orioles' 32nd of the season, a plateau they didn't reach until July 28 in '88. "It's only June," says Robinson. "Yes, I'm proud of the way we've played, but we still have two-thirds of the season to go."

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