In Baltimore this spring the natives were knocking themselves out by referring to the Orioles as summer replacements for the Colts, a bit of humorous prophecy that failed to amuse Paul Richards. It was even less funny after the first week of the season, in which the Orioles lost five straight games, descending into eighth place and sending the less faithful off to watch lacrosse or take up needlepoint until the football season began.
But last week, after the Orioles humiliated the Yankees three straight times to sweep into the American League lead by two full games, Johnny Unitas and Ray Berry could have run pass patterns down Charles Street, with Big Daddy Lipscomb furnishing the protection, and not drawn a crowd. Baltimore was on its way to Memorial Stadium, en masse, to scream itself silly over the beloved Birds.
The objects of all this affection had little resemblance to the Orioles of 1959 and almost none to the teams which played for Baltimore in the years before that. There are two groups of Oriole players. One is the residue of all the countless athletes who have filtered across the Oriole roster since Richards took over in 1955: Gene Woodling, Hoyt Wilhelm, Hal Brown, Gus Triandos, Arnold Portocarrero. The other is the large, noisy crowd which assembles each day in the Oriole clubhouse to watch Woodling, Wilhelm, Brown, Triandos and Portocarrero shave. Five years ago, when the Oriole roster was graced—or disgraced—by people with names like Marsh and Leppert and Hale, Diering and Causey and Miranda, Pope and Pyburn and Palica, Richards would insist that "When the kids come up, we'll be tough." Today Whitey Diskin, the Baltimore clubhouse custodian, dispenses more bubble gum than beer—and the Orioles are tough. The Baby Birds have hatched.
Leading the way is a curly-haired, barrel-chested 21-year-old left-hander named Steve Barber, who couldn't win last year in Class D (no control) but who has been knocking the bats out of hitters' hands with a murderous, sinking fast ball and a slider that breaks quick, like that. Barber was signed as a freshman off the University of Maryland campus three years ago for $500 by one of the Oriole bird dogs ("At first," says Barber, "I told him 'no.' But then spring came around, and I said 'what the heck,' and called him up.") Today, Barber has five victories and stands high in the American League earned run averages with 2.43.
Close behind is Ron Hansen, 22, a big, angular shortstop who has been making like a steam shovel in the field, which was expected, and driving in runs in large clusters, which was not expected at all. "I agree with those who say he is a fine shortstop," says Al Lopez of the White Sox, "but I don't agree at all with those who say he can't hit. He looks like a hell of a hitter to me."
"Already," says Hal Brown, "he has more RBIs than the three guys who played out there last year."
Sometimes, instead of Barber and Hansen, Baltimore's heroes are Chuck Estrada, also a rookie, also 22 and also capable of throwing a baseball through a brick wall, and Brooks Robinson, now a veteran of 23 who can make plays at third base that most people wouldn't believe. "Who do you think you are?" began a recent letter to Ron Hansen from "The Willy Miranda Fan Club." "Let's see you go in the hole and make the plays Willy used to do. You never could. If it wasn't for Brooks Robinson at third, you couldn't stay up here a week." Hansen laughed as hard at the letter as did Brooks Robinson, who is his roommate. He also admitted it was partly true. He also accused Robinson of writing the letter.
Dodgers could use him now
There are others. First Baseman Jim Gentile, 26, who hit 200 home runs for half a dozen Dodger farm clubs while waiting for Gil Hodges to wear out, has been hitting home runs for the Orioles as if he thought Baltimore was still in Triple-A. Jackie Brandt, 26, came over from the Giants to plug the old Oriole gap in center field. Marv Breeding, 26, played in the same infield with Hansen and Robinson at Vancouver last year; his hits have been timely and despite a reputation as a clumsy fielder, he wins most of his battles with ground balls. And, finally, there are the other young pitchers: Milt Pappas, 21, Jerry Walker, 21, Jack Fisher, 21. Richards calls them his veterans because they were with the club last year.
The Orioles have surprised no one so much as themselves. "A month ago," says Woodling, "I didn't think we would be as good as last year." Triandos, who holds the club home-run record of 30, had to be put on the disabled list for an operation on an aching thumb. Pappas, co-holder of the club pitching record (15 wins), had a sore elbow. Walker, winning pitcher in the second All-Star Game last summer, hurt a finger in spring training and was slow getting into shape to pitch. Wilhelm, as usual, was having trouble finding someone who could hold his knuckle ball.