SI Vault
Ron Reid
October 02, 1972
The smell of singeing feathers was everywhere as the once-mighty Orioles fought disaster with their steadiest hitter, young Bobby Grich
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October 02, 1972

Tender Bird In A Hot Skillet

The smell of singeing feathers was everywhere as the once-mighty Orioles fought disaster with their steadiest hitter, young Bobby Grich

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Undoubtedly it was mere coincidence, but the weather seemed perversely tailored to the mood and situation of the Baltimore Orioles last week—entirely in keeping with that old, unwritten law that says dynasties topple only when the sun is buried in a bank of black rain clouds and a damp chill penetrates to the bone marrow. After all, when the old order is changing and hungry usurpers plan to kick you out into the cold, who needs Coppertone?

In a road trip that grew progressively more drear and cold with each new tragedy, the Orioles cheerlessly suffered rain, a demeaning doubleheader defeat by Boston, two fretful days off, more rain and yet another loss. Ah, but then the sun came out Sunday in Milwaukee and so did the Oriole bats for a 4-3 victory; the sense of imminent doom that had gripped those who cheer Earl Weaver's flock receded ever so slightly. "We're still quivering," said Boog Powell stoutly. But within some of the immediate Oriole families, nonquivering had reached a level of wry acceptance.

Example: Dave McNally's 9-year-old son Jeff went out to retrieve the Baltimore Sun one recent morning and immediately saw the cartoon Oriole that serves as a graphic front-page report of the club's most recent game. A smiling bird, logically enough, means an Oriole victory, a frowning one defeat. Observing the bird's unsmiling beak, Jeff came in and said, "Hey, Daddy, you must have pitched last night, huh?"

It is ironic that in this, of all dynasties, the heaviest pressure in the dark hours seems to sit on the shoulders of someone not named Powell or Rettenmund or Blair. The burden is being borne by 23-year-old Bobby Grich, whose game-winning hit Sunday in Milwaukee ended the Orioles' three-game losing skid. So complete has been the now-storied collapse of the Baltimore offense that young Grich has emerged as the O's most consistent hitter.

Grich had been invited up from the minors for two other season finales with Weaver's troupe, and both had ended in pennant-clinching blowouts whose hilarity spilled champagne on his head. In 1970 there had been an added party, the delirium of a World Series victory. This year he joined the varsity, and could rightfully have expected the parties to continue as he warmed the bench. Instead, as the team's troubles mounted, he won a starting job (at any infield position Weaver may select, but mostly at second or shortstop), has hit for the best average of any regular and met the pressure mounting on the Orioles with a cool disdain. Indeed, such has been his year-long sangfroid that rumors have designated him as heir apparent to Brooks Robinson's post at third base and Frank Robinson's former role as Baltimore's team leader.

To Grich, however, such talk is premature. "Although you feel you might have had a good year statistically," he said after the Orioles had been beaten twice in Fenway Park last Wednesday night, "if you don't do well in the pennant stretch it's all for nothing. Where you finish indicates what kind of year you had. It's not a good year unless you win the pennant. That's what it's really all about."

As for leadership, Weaver says wait awhile. "It's way too early to put a burden like that on a youngster," he says. "Bobby has been a very valuable man to the ball club, but we don't expect him to lead. He's still making some mistakes through inexperience, but an unbelievably small number. Someday he will be the leader, but right now it's tough enough. It's a tribute to him just to have made the ball club. I really didn't expect him to become a regular so soon. I think he's going to be great. He's going to hit with power. Right now he's just feeling his way. He'll get to know the pitchers, and then he'll know who he can go downtown on."

Unfortunately for the Orioles last week, neither Marty Pattin nor Luis Tiant yet qualifies for such status in the Grich book of pitchers. Limiting the Orioles to a single run in the doubleheader, they proceeded to blank Bobby on seven appearances at the plate before Tiant walked him, to no damage, in the eighth inning of the second loss.

"We came here on Monday and won," Grich said, "and it looked like we were finally getting it together. On Tuesday it rained. I was ready to play ball. There was a big psychological let down when the game was called. Then we blow both games Wednesday. That's how it's been for us all season. We just start to get going, and then we blow it. I hit the ball decently twice, and that was about it."

It was 58� in Fenway for the key Boston doubleheader, but a dour wind sent the chill factor plummeting to some point near the level of liquid nitrogen as 28,777 persons simultaneously shivered and cheered through Pattin's 9-1 victory and Tiant's 4-0 shutout, his sixth of the season.

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