When the Baltimore Orioles flew into New York last week, there was no mistaking the pecking order in the American League East. The harmonious Orioles were in first place, the disgruntled Yankees were in third—and the Red Sox were in between. "I have never been on a team with such love and esprit de corps," chirped one Oriole. "I can't stand all the bull that's gone on this year," groused a Yankee. "I'm unhappy even when I'm on the field."
The position of the Orioles and Yankees was reflected in the mischievous grin of Earl Weaver and the sad eyes of Billy Martin. Weaver was surrounded by people wanting to know how he had taken a young team, stripped of free agents Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland, to the top of the division. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was wondering how Martin had let a veteran championship club, bolstered by free agents Jackson and Don Gullett, slip to third. As part of his inquisition, Steinbrenner composed a list of seven commandments that the beleaguered Martin had to follow—or else join the unemployment line.
With a two-game lead over Boston and a three-game lead over New York, Weaver was enjoying his job, not struggling to keep it. "How can I be a better manager than I was before?" he asked, liking the sound of the question. "I've won five divisions, three pennants and World Series. We won more games from 1969 to 1971 than any team in the history of the league. Now we're two games ahead and everybody says I'm a bleeping genius."
A questioner persisted, "But what about the people who say you're the difference?" Weaver laughed. "No, I won't say they're full of it. But the players are the ones doing it, so don't belittle them."
The Orioles were more ignored than ridiculed before the season began. With Brooks Robinson, now a 40-year-old player-coach whose main job seems to be deciding when relievers are ready to pitch, Shortstop Mark Belanger is the only remaining regular from the Orioles' 1974 East Division champions. Boog Powell is pinch-hitting in Los Angeles, Paul Blair is platooning in New York, Grich is an injured Angel, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar are retired.
Ten of the 25 players on Weaver's roster began the season with less than a year's major league experience. When Jackson, Grich and Garland grabbed the mega-bucks of New York, California and Cleveland, Eddie Murray, Billy Smith and Mike Flanagan arrived to replace them. "I knew we had the potential to be here in first place," says Weaver. Maybe so, but this potential was lost on some of his senior players. "Not all of us believed we'd come through this way," Belanger admits. Robinson says, "I didn't know what to expect this year, but certainly not first place." Nor did Pitcher Jim Palmer. "I was really worried because for the first time in my career it looked like I was on a team that didn't have a chance to win. Even now you can't say we have the best talent. It's not like the old Orioles who won just by walking out on the field. We're in first but it hasn't been easy."
It has been exciting, though. More than half of the Oriole games have been decided by one or two runs, and Baltimore has won two-thirds of these. Nothing gets the Orioles down. A week after they lost four straight to the Red Sox in Baltimore, they beat the Sox three straight in Boston to launch a 14-of-16 July streak that lifted them from third place to first.
"These young guys were given a chance and they're taking advantage of it," says Robinson. "The funny thing is, Earl has always been the kind of manager who liked to bring young players along slowly. But he couldn't do that this year. He had to say 'the job is yours' and hope it turned out all right."
The Baltimore farm system traditionally has been a good place to look for help. One of the reasons the Orioles have had the best record in baseball during the last 20 years is that their minor league record has invariably been the best, too. When Catcher Rick Dempsey suffered a broken hand three weeks ago, two rookies, Dave Skaggs and Dave Criscione, took his place. Criscione beat the Brewers last week with an 11th-inning home run, his third major league hit. Two other newcomers, Rich Dauer and Smith, are platooning at second. Dauer was the International League's batting champion at Rochester last year, and Smith was a free-agent discard of the Angels. Murray, the switch-hitting rookie DH, has 16 homers, and Flanagan has won six straight games. They both advanced through the Orioles' system after being selected in the amateur draft. "It usually takes two or three years to build a team," says Belanger. "You've got to credit our front office, because they did it in one."
But as First Baseman Lee May points out, it would be a mistake to ignore the Oriole veterans. That, May says, is what the experts did in the spring. "They forgot about me," he huffs, "and Palmer and Belanger and Ken Singleton."