The oddsmakers see the Orioles as even-money favorites to win a fifth East championship in six seasons, and no wonder. By averaging 99 victories a year since 1969 Baltimore has established at least a mini-dynasty. Drawing upon abundant reserves, Manager Earl Weaver wisely made the Birds a running club in '73 instead of waiting for the team's supposed batting power to assert itself. The Orioles obligingly led the league with 146 stolen bases, picked up 52 base hits on bunts and set an alltime collective base-stealing record as eight players had 10 or more each. While running merrily themselves, the Orioles could enjoy the run-suppressing abilities of a pitching staff led by Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer (22-9), who is 57 games on the plus side of .500 over five seasons and has a career won-lost percentage of .682.
Now lefthander Ross Grimsley, 24, has come over from Cincinnati to join Palmer, veterans Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar and young Doyle Alexander, who had spells of tendinitis but finished the season in good order. The bad news for Oriole fans is that McNally was not throwing well in early exhibition games and that Cuellar broke a toe, an injury that can be particularly rough on a pitcher. Grimsley, 37-25 with the Reds, at least puts the Orioles in tune with the current fascination with the occult. "In Cincinnati I won a few games and hit a bad streak," he says. "I was introduced to a witch who gave me a charm—a stone wrapped in wire. I won three in a row, then lost the stone and went bad. She sent me another one and the same thing happened all over again."
Should Palmer & Co. fail to bewitch the opposition consistently, the lefty-righty bullpen combination of Grant Jackson and Bob Reynolds has a little magic of its own. They won 15 games and saved 18 others, losing but five last year.
Catcher Earl Williams is feeling optimistic after a troubled but not disastrous 1973. He led the club in homers with 22 and finished second in RBIs—83 to Designated Hitter Tommy Davis' 89—although batting only .237. "My catching has improved to the point where I'm no longer embarrassed to go behind the plate," says Williams. "Now I have the confidence of my teammates."
Baltimore's four-man outfield of Paul Blair, Don Baylor, Rich Coggins and Al Bumbry is swift and good. Bumbry, batting .337, was the league's Rookie of the Year, and Coggins (.319) batted .352 after the All-Star break. The infield is superior at second ( Bobby Grich), shortstop ( Mark Belanger) and third ( Brooks Robinson), and Boog Powell is hitting long drives after a season of shoulder problems.
If the oddsmakers like the Orioles, the nation's van lines love the Red Sox. Rarely have so many pitchers moved to one team in such numbers. It took $100,000 to get Juan Marichal, a certain Hall of Famer, into a Red Sox uniform, and two spectacular trades with St. Louis delivered Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland and Diego Segui (plus outfielder Bernie Carbo) to the new Boston manager, Darrell Johnson. In yet another maneuver Dick Drago, a 41-game winner in his last three seasons at Kansas City, became a Soxer. If this abundance of talent converts the Red Sox into a genuine threat it will not be surprising to the Orioles, who have had more than trouble enough with Sox pitching in the past.
But Boston has question marks as tall as that green wall in left field. Is Shortstop Luis Aparicio over the hill at 39? Could Carlton Fisk be overrated by both himself and the Boston press? Will a spring back injury to Second Baseman Doug Griffin again curtail his effectiveness? Wasn't Rico Petrocelli out for almost the final third of the season with a bad elbow? Who stole Yaz' home-run stroke, and how do you replace a Reggie Smith? At least one thing is clear: Boston now is going for pitching, speed and defense instead of trying to hit everything over its wall.
The Red Sox' most pressing problem will be the left side of the infield. At his best, Petrocelli is only acceptable as a third baseman, and ground balls have been scooting by Aparicio for the last three years. Rick Burleson is a young shortstop of whom much is expected.
It is temptingly easy to dismiss the Detroit Tigers from serious consideration as contenders because of age. And the Tigers are old: Al Kaline and Norm Cash are 39, Gates Brown, Woodie Fryman and Jim Northrup are 34, Mickey Lolich 33, Bill Freehan and Ed Brinkman 32.
This season is especially important to Kaline, because his .255 last year dropped his lifetime average to .299. Two decades ago he arrived in Detroit for his first full season and banged out 139 hits. This could well be his last year, and 139 more hits would make him the 12th man in history to reach 3,000. New Manager Ralph Houk has programmed Kaline into the DH spot, where the Tigers were expected to be strong in '73 but somehow missed.