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Just a year ago the Baltimore Orioles seemed almost human. They had lost a World Series to the New York Mets and the possibility existed that the defeat would so shatter their confidence that Detroit or Boston or New York would walk all over them, in spikes.
No way. The Orioles became truly inhuman in 1970. They wore the spikes; everybody else fled in sneakers. At least that is the way it must have felt all season long to the other teams in the American League and then to Cincinnati in the Series. The Orioles clinched the divisional championship on Sept. 17, rubbing it in by finishing the year with an 11-game winning streak and leaving New York, the second-place team, 15 games back. Then they removed Minnesota in three straight before humbling the Reds in five games. Now Las Vegas has them favored by 1 to 3 to win their division and start it all over again. Somehow, the odds don't seem terribly short.
A better bet is that Earl Weaver once again will not be named the league's Manager of the Year. An excellent tactician who also happens to be colorful and cooperative and able to keep his pitching in order and his athletes orderly. Weaver obviously has not impressed all those old Yankee fans who think their mothers could manage the Orioles. Well, maybe their mothers could.
On his lineup card Weaver normally lists Boog Powell at first, Dave Johnson at second, Mark Belanger at short and Brooks Robinson at third. The outfield has Don Bu-ford in left, Paul Blair in center and Frank Robinson in right. And behind the fielders is something called a Merv Rettenmund. It hit .322 and 18 homers in 106 games last season and had the other teams swearing in envy and the Baltimore outfield regulars sweating to stay that way.
Since the pitching is hardly so impressive—only Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer were able to win 20 games or more in 1970—the Orioles traded for Pat Dobson and his San Diego teammate Tom Dukes as insurance. Well, maybe the catching is the real problem. Elrod Hendricks, Andy Etchebarren and Clay Dalrymple, who share the receiving, collectively did only a little more on offense than either Thurman Munson of the Yankees, Ray Fosse of the Indians or Bill Freehan of the Tigers. All right, let's face it. The team's one flaw could be the ages of its stars. Frank Robinson is 35, Brooks Robinson and Cuellar soon will reach 34. Feel better, fellows?
The most improved team in the division should be Detroit, which finished 29 games behind the Orioles but has too much talent to finish 29 games behind any team again. As late as July 19 the Tigers were only three games behind Baltimore; then it happened or—to put it more accurately—then it didn't happen. The club won only 27 of its last 72 games. "It was embarrassing to watch them," says Jim Campbell, Detroit general manager. "There were darned few arguments over contracts this winter. They didn't have anything to argue about."
Now Denny McLain is gone, Mayo Smith is gone and new Manager Billy Martin is there to build fires. He may set the first one under Pitcher Mickey Lolich, who lost 19 games in 1970 while pressing to become both himself and McLain. It may require more than Martin's fire to ease the shoulder problems of Les Cain, Detroit's best pitcher last year, who was particularly effective in tough Tiger Stadium. Which is too unfortunate because sore-armed pitchers are what Martin does not need, especially in the early going when Detroit meets Baltimore six times in its first 13 games. Martin is counting on Joe Niekro, who got off quickly in 1970 but decelerated at the finish, and he may have a find in Joe Coleman Jr., the ex-Senator, if he can recover from the fractured skull he suffered in spring training. Ted Williams could not figure Coleman out, although he was sure that the 24-year-old, who had a 43-50 record with bad teams, was a man of vast potential.
Two other escapees from Washington, Aurelio Rodriguez at third and Eddie Brinkman at shortstop, now form the best defensive left side of the infield Tiger fans have seen in generations, Rodriguez led the American League in assists, total chances and double plays in 1970 and also batted in 83 runs. Brinkman led the shortstops in putouts, assists, chances and double plays and Martin intends to bat him eighth in the order, hoping he can move the ball around and produce some runs from the bottom of the card. "I learned from Williams that if I could just make contact with the ball and stop trying to hit home runs I could become a better player," says Brinkman. In 1966 he struck out 105 times; last year the number dropped to 41.
Detroit's outfield, with Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Al Kaline, is excellent and versatile. Northrup, who led the Tigers in RBIs with 80 and homers with 24 and hit the eighth grand-slam home run of his career, says, "We're going to beat Baltimore. We had so many injuries you couldn't believe it. Willie Horton was going great [.305, 17 homers and 69 RBIs] when he was injured, Bill Freehan had to have his back operated on and I was out for a month. We're different this season. We won't sit around and wait for the homer. Billy Martin will have us doing things to score."