Joe Altobelli, who is too the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, paused long enough in the course of his pregame rounds last Thursday to have his picture taken by a news photographer near the third-base box seats at Fenway Park. Altobelli is an unflaggingly cheerful man, but his granite features are about as easily deployed in a smile as are those of any of the visages on Mount Rushmore. The photographer's futile efforts to elicit a response so amused the jesters in seats nearby that one of them finally called out to Altobelli, "Aw, c'mon Joe, smile like a champion." Suddenly, encouraging fissures appeared in the great stone face. Altobelli was grinning like, well, like a champion.
As of Sunday he and his Orioles had not yet been enthroned as the American League East winners, but they seemingly had converted what once had been a thrilling five-team race in baseball's toughest division into a cake-walk. Early last week they won three of four games from the hapless Bosox in Boston, then wheeled on the staggering Milwaukee Brewers in Baltimore and won another three, effectively eliminating them.
As recently as Aug. 12 five teams were huddled together at the top of the division. Detroit and Milwaukee were tied for first that day, the Yankees were half a game back, the Orioles one game out and Toronto 2� games behind. Then Baltimore made its move. From Aug. 12 through last Sunday the Birds won 29 and lost only seven and moved to a seven-game lead over second-place Detroit. Altobelli, who has a keen sense of baseball history, winces—or at least seems to—when someone mentions "playoffs" in his presence, but the Orioles are prohibitive favorites now. So don't ask why that man is smiling.
It's Altobelli, the big guy with the five o'clock shadow, not the retired Earl Weaver, who is now making all the moves in Baltimore, and they're as numerous, if somewhat more predictable, than his sainted predecessor's. Weaver has visited the Birds' clubhouse only once this season—on his way to being inducted into the Orioles' Hall of Fame—and at dinner that evening he and Altobelli had their only serious conversation. "Earl gave me good advice," says Altobelli, "He told me, 'Joe, I could tell you about this ball club, and I could tell you about managing, but I'm not going to. You'll just have to do it your way.' He was right."
Altobelli, who's a mean singer of popular songs, has indeed "done it my way," which has involved some of the most extensive platooning this side of the NFL. The players protest, however, that it doesn't make any difference who's managing them because they're going to do it their way, which is the Oriole way, the winning way. Some of the veterans on this excellent team have long bristled over the widespread notion that they were mere pawns in the hands of chess master Earl. With Weaver retired, they have seized the opportunity to establish once and for all that they're the ones who have been winning all those games.
"What we've done this year is testament that we've had a few good ballplayers on this club," says Designated Hitter Ken Singleton, an Oriole since 1975. "The first question all of us were asked after Earl left was, 'Will you miss Earl?' How do you think that made us feel? One writer even picked us to finish next-to-last without him. Well, we became just a little more determined this spring. It's a matter of pride. I actually believe we're a better team this season." Singleton laughs. "I think the only real change is that the decibel level has gone down a little. I was sitting next to Scott McGregor on the bench one night not long ago when we were losing by something like 10-0. Scotty turned to me and said, 'Isn't it good to know you stink and not hear about it every two seconds?' "
The Orioles have long stressed the organization above the individual, the sacrificing of personal goals for team wins. "Our success lies within the system," says Outfielder John Lowenstein. "We retain our talent much longer than other organizations. We quietly weed out the unwanted, the unnecessary and the unproductive. We fit diverse personalities into the system." It's appropriate that this paean to conformity should be delivered by Baltimore's most outspoken and independent individual. Lowenstein is, in fact, a sort of symbol of Oriole-ism. A caller on Larry King's nationwide radio talk show recently referred to Baltimore as "a team of John Lowensteins."
Altobelli would happily platoon everyone, but he has contented himself with using lefty-righty combinations in leftfield and centerfield all the time, third base most of the time and rightfield and catcher much of the time. It matters not what the score or the inning: If the other team brings in a pitcher who throws with a different arm, Altobelli will bring in batters who swing from the other side. Everybody gets into the act, which is great for total team involvement.
The system works almost all the time, which makes it far easier to get the players to accept it. That, too, is the Oriole way. Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in tandem are the equal of any single left-fielder in the American League, with the exception of Jim Rice. Both are excellent fielders and their averages at week's end, .280 for Lowenstein and .272 for Roenicke, were nearly identical, as were their times at bat, 279 for Lowenstein, 294 for Roenicke, and hits, 78 for Lowenstein, 80 for Roenicke. Together they had hit 31 homers and driven in 113 runs. Roenicke says, "Earl went by stats or hunches, so I'd hit against some righthanders. Joe goes strictly by the percentages. I've hit 18 of my 19 homers off lefthanders."
Rick Dempsey, certainly one of the headiest catchers in the game, is equally well adjusted to sharing time behind the plate with Joe Nolan. "I'd be a fool to say I should play every day when we've got Joe Nolan around," he says. "Not one of us on this team is indispensable." He thinks a little about that last statement. "Not any of us, that is, except our three offensive guns—Singleton, [Eddie] Murray and [Cal] Ripken."