Once or twice a decade an ordinary team has an extraordinary season and surprises everyone by winning a pennant. While nobody is equating the 1979 Orioles with the 1967 Red Sox or 1969 Mets, some observers consider the defending American League champions a miraculous team. After all, the Orioles came from behind to win 47 times and won 32 of 52 one-run and 11 of 16 extra-inning games. Second Baseman Rich Dauer, a lifetime .251 hitter, batted in 14 game-winning runs, and Reliever Don Stanhouse had 21 saves. Now that Stanhouse has moved to Los Angeles and other Orioles will surely return to earth, critics say Baltimore will be hard-pressed to repeat.
The Oriole offense, to be sure, is occasionally a liability. Eleventh in the league in batting, first in strikeouts in the regular season, Baltimore hitters fared even worse in the Series, when they were held to five runs over the last three games. Several players were seemingly undone by playoff and Series mistakes: Centerfielder Al Bumbry, whose dropped fly cost the third playoff game; Third Baseman Doug DeCinces, who had two errors in the Series opener; and First Baseman Eddie Murray, whose inopportune cutoff was decisive in the second Series game. All three apparently reacted to their individual embarrassments by hitting a collective. 104. An Oriole who didn't even start in the Series—Designated Hitter Lee May—seems pivotal in 1980. Only Johnny Bench and Tony Perez drove in more runs than May's 936 in the 1970s, but hand and calf problems reduced his output to one homer and eight RBIs during last August and September. May is now healthy, but he's also 37.
Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons to make the Orioles favorites. Aside from Rightfielder Ken Singleton (.295, 35 homers, 111 RBIs), no Oriole hitter had a banner year. The club had several key injuries, most notably one to DeCinces' back. Hampered all season, he slipped more at the plate (.286 to .230) than anyone else in the league. Now that he can bend without pain, DeCinces could recoup those 56 points and double his 1979 home-run production of 16. Bumbry, coming off a severe injury in 1978, batted .285 and stole 37 bases. He's done better. Murray (.295, 25, 99) is only 24. Leftfielder Gary Roenicke (25 homers in 376 at bats), he of the face mask, will see more action. And Dauer, an International League batting champion, has yet to reach his peak. There could be a problem if Kiko Garcia's back ailment recurs and the shortstop job reverts to .167-hitting Mark Belanger. But even that wouldn't be all bad, because Belanger, 35, is still the league's best at fielding the position. The reserves—John Lowenstein, Pat Kelly, Dave Skaggs, Benny Ayala, Terry Crowley—are excellent.
And the pitching is peerless. Baltimore's 3.26 earned run average was more than half a run better than second-best New York's. The ace, Mike Flanagan (23-9, 3.08 ERA), won the Cy Young Award, which used to be teammate Jim Palmer's personal possession. The pain in Palmer's 34-year-old right arm has subsided, and he could easily double his 10 wins of 1979; after all, he won more games (186) than any other pitcher during the last decade. Scott McGregor (13-6, 3.34) came on strong in the fall, and Steve Stone (11-7, 3.77) is a fifth starter any club would be happy to have. There's concern about Dennis Martinez: Will he be the pitcher who won 10 of his first 12 decisions? Or the one who lost eight of his last nine? The Orioles felt he pitched himself out by playing winter ball and then throwing more innings (292) than any other pitcher in the American League. This off-season he rested. In the bullpen young righthanders Dave Ford (2-1, 2.10), Tim Stoddard (3-1, 1.71) and Sammy Stewart (8-5, 3.51) are counted on to replace Stanhouse. Catcher Rick Dempsey thew out almost half the runners who tried to steal and shut down the Pirates.
If the Orioles slip, Milwaukee, New York, Boston or even Detroit could catch them. Although the Brewers' best player, Larry Hisle, was lost after 24 games because of an injury to his right shoulder, Milwaukee won 95 games and was shut out just once. Hisle still can't throw, but he can DH. With him in the lineup, the Brewers are likely to lead the league in batting, as they did in 1978.
And what of the Milwaukee brain trust? Manager George Bamberger suffered a heart attack, his second, during spring training. Officially, he's out for two months; unofficially, he may never manage again. "I'll do nothing different from George," said his replacement, 41-year-old Buck Rodgers, a former major league catcher and pitching coach and minor league manager. Bamberger liked to rest his troops—only First Baseman Cecil Cooper (.308, 24, 106) and Centerfielder Gorman Thomas, who led the league with 45 homers, played as many as 150 games. Sixto Lezcano (.321, 28, 101) and Ben Oglivie (.282, 29, 81) will be spelled in left and right by Dick Davis. The infield is even deeper: Player-Coach Sal Bando, Don Money, Robin Yount, Jim Gantner and Paul Molitor (.322) can all play two or more positions. Two solid performers, Buck Martinez (.270) and Charlie Moore (.300), share the catching.
Bamberger's five-man rotation—Mike Caldwell (16-6), Jim Slaton (15-9), Lary Sorensen (15-14), Billy Travers (14-8) and Moose Haas (11-11)—returns intact. The only shortcoming may be the bullpen, where the top guns, Jerry Augustine, Reggie Cleveland and Bill Castro, had only 15 saves among them. Rodgers looked at a passel of other relievers this spring, one of whom, Dan Boitano, seems certain to stick.
Once again the Yankees have made more good deals than anyone else. To fill a void in center, they traded for Ruppert Jones (.267, 21 homers, 78 RBIs, 85 walks, 33 stolen bases at Seattle), whom Reggie Jackson calls "Reggie Jr." There are similarities: they bat alike—lefthanded—and talk alike—"I need to work on my sensitivity," said Jones recently. More to the point, the 25-year-old Jones can hit almost as well as Jackson (.297, 29, 89) and field better. For lefthanded relief, the Yankees acquired free agent Rudy May (10-3, 2.30 at Montreal). They also got a starter in lefty Tommy Underwood, whose 9-16 record at Toronto obscures a 9-7 finish. Needing righthanded hitters, New York traded for Third Baseman Eric Soderholm (.261 with the White Sox and Rangers) and signed free agent Bob Watson (.303 with Houston and Boston), who will share first base and DH with Jim Spencer (.288, 23 homers). The Underwood deal also included Catcher Rick Cerone, who will replace Thurman Munson. Assuming Reliever Rich Gossage doesn't miss three months again, the Yanks will improve dramatically on their fourth-place finish of '79.
But New York is not without weaknesses. Lefty starters Ron Guidry (18-8, 2.78) and Tommy John (21-9, 2.96) were one-two in the league ERA race, but righthanders Luis Tiant (13-8, 3.91) and Ed Figueroa (4-6, 4.13) are among the pacesetters in age and injury. Tiant will be 40 this season and Figueroa is coming off elbow surgery. It's no wonder the Yankees wanted—but didn't get—Dodger righthander Don Sutton. And the Yankees might be getting old. Among the top regulars, only Jones, Cerone, Second Baseman Willie Randolph and Shortstop Bucky Dent are in their 20s. Most significant, New York will miss Munson's leadership. "Do John, Tiant, Watson, Spencer and Bobby Murcer need to be led?" snaps Jackson. Rebuts the Orioles' DeCinces, "They're just another team without Munson. He could beat you in so many ways." True enough. New Manager Dick Howser faces a big challenge.
With Watson gone, many Boston fans have relegated the Red Sox to third, fourth, even fifth place. That judgment seems pessimistic. In fact, Boston improved itself by signing two free agents, Pitcher Skip Lockwood (2-5, 1.50, nine saves for the Mets) and First Baseman-DH Tony Perez (.270, 13, 73 at Montreal). His once-sore arm fully mended, Lockwood could turn a subpar bullpen—a mere 29 saves—into a good one. Though 37, Perez will fit right into the Sox lineup. That's saying something, because Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Butch Hobson and batting champion Fred Lynn (.333) hit .294 as a group and averaged 30 homers and 98 RBIs per man.