When I was young, Baltimore meant baseball. It meant baseball in a universal way that’s hard to recapture now, a way that perhaps we have lost through the progress of free agency and expansion and so many choices.
My father came to America in the mid-1960s, determined to be an American, with all the Fourth of July fireworks and Thanksgiving turkey and weekend barbecues and neighborly hospitality that word entailed, and part of this meant learning baseball. He had played soccer semi-professionally in Poland, and baseball was entirely foreign to him -- he found his interest naturally pulled by pro football and the NBA and boxing. But he was an American. And he needed to not only understand the rules of baseball but its rhythms, its inner workings, its secrets. I suspect long before he became our Little League coach, he had been studying to become one.
And so he followed the Baltimore Orioles. He loved the Indians because we lived in Cleveland, and my father understands duty. But he followed the Orioles because they played baseball in the way that spoke to him. They turned double plays. They hit the cutoff man. They pitched the corners. They hit the two- and three-run homers that manager Earl Weaver so deeply loved, and they made those home runs stand up. There is a wonderful little statistic -- one my father certainly did not follow, but one that quietly tells a tale -- that from 1968 to 1986, the Baltimore Orioles ALWAYS drew more walks than they gave up. Always. Every single year. It's a small thing, or so the baseball people tell us, but they also tell us how important those small things are.
My father’s favorite player was Brooks Robinson. By the time I gained baseball consciousness, Brooks Robinson was old in the baseball sense of the word, feeble as a hitter, unable to play every day. But he was, through my father’s eyes, young and spry and still diving hard to his right, backhanding the ball, leaping to his feet, throwing across the diamond in time to get the runner by a half step.
“Get to your feet faster!” my dad would shout after he rolled me a grounder and I dived after it.
“Remember, to get set before you throw,” he would say.
“Brooks Robinson!” he would yell, as if it was more than a name, as if it was a way of life, which in a way it was. That was Baltimore baseball. From 1966, when the Orioles, behind Frank Robinson’s Triple Crown season, broke through and won the World Series, through 1983, when a young Cal Ripken Jr. led the charge, the Orioles were the essence of what people meant when they said “baseball the right way.” They won six pennants and three World Series over that time, and they won 90-plus games 14 times, but it was the way they did it that mattered, the thing that writer Richard Ben Cramer called “The Oriole Way” that marked them.
The Orioles did not have George Steinbrenner’s money. They did not have Boston or Los Angeles' fan base -- the Orioles were always middle of the pack in attendance and several times during the glory stretch did not even draw a million people. They played ball in a neighborhood park where people charged you a few bucks to park in the front yard … and not always their front yard. Everything about Baltimore baseball felt small, confined, gritty, personal, that is until you got inside and there was Jim Palmer cupping the ball behind his back and throwing high fastballs, and there were Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger making the hole between short and third smaller than it had ever been in baseball history, and there was Paul Blair in center field seemingly chasing down every fly ball that did not have the carry to leave the yard, and there was Boog Powell bashing long home runs (the two- and three-run jobs that Weaver wanted), and Eddie Murray in his familiar crouch on either side of the plate, and Ken Singleton looking calm and in control in the batter's box. And Baltimore didn't feel small any longer.
Above all, there was Earl Weaver, the grumpy manager who worked every angle, who made every umpire's life miserable, who changed and moved and shifted his lineup constantly -- lefties against righties, defense when ahead and offense when behind -- and, it's funny, it's like managers have STILL not caught up to him decades later.
That was Baltimore Orioles baseball in my childhood. They weren't the best team every year, but they were regularly good, and they were often great, and they always represented something. I'm not sure that any other team -- even the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers or 1980s Edmonton Oilers or 1990s Chicago Bulls or 2000s New England Patriots -- quite demonstrated that kind of craft.
The Oriole Way died out sometime in the mid-1980s. Things changed in Baltimore, some for the better, some not. The team needed a new ballpark, and Camden Yards was built; in many ways, I say it's the best baseball stadium built in a hundred years because of how it changed the way ballparks look and feel. Walking into Camden Yards in the mid-1990s, with a full crowd on a sunny day -- for four straight years the Orioles led the American League in attendance -- you could not help but feel that THIS is how baseball was supposed to be in the modern era. (And then a couple dozen Camden Yard knock-offs were built, some even better than Camden Yards, but always with its spirit.)
Ripken played in 2,632 straight games, which for a while there was just about the only good thing anybody could find in baseball. The Orioles had some good teams in the 1990s -- an agitated Orioles fan might tell you that they would have won a World Series in 1996 if not for a kid named Jeffrey Maier reaching over a fence and turning an out into a home run. And, for the last 15 years or so, the Orioles have been lousy, bloated and aimless, and this was true for numerous other teams too, but it was striking because this was happening in Baltimore.
And now? Well, now the Orioles are in a real live pennant race for the first time in 15 years, having just finished their most meaningful series against the Yankees since Jeffrey Maier … and how are they doing it?
How are they doing it, you ask?
Well … uh, how the heck ARE they doing it?
* * *
Keith Law is one of my favorite people, because he’s extremely smart and extremely opinionated and he knows where to find good food. These three things thrown together always lead to a good time. Law is a senior writer at ESPN, where he concentrates on scouting, and he worked for the Toronto Blue Jays for a while before that. He created a bit of an Internet stir when he said in an ESPN podcast that the Orioles are not a good team. Well, in classic Keith Law style, what he actually said was: “There’s literally nothing that the Orioles can do to convince me that they are a good team. They’re like the eighth-best team in the American League.” How can you not like that guy?
Of course, what Keith was NOT saying was that the Orioles will not make the playoffs, or that Baltimore fans should just give up hope and prepare for the collapse that is inevitable. He was saying that the Orioles have been playing way over their heads. And he was saying that sort of thing happens in baseball more often than you think.
“They've been absurdly good in one-run games, which historically has been more about randomness than skill,” Keith says when I ask him how the Orioles have managed to win so often despite being outscored over the season. Of course, he's right: One-run games are exactly where you start.
It’s not as if the Orioles have been merely GOOD in games decided by one run. They have won 25 of 32 one-run games. It is the best one-run record in the history of baseball.
Best one-run records since 1920 (by winning percentage):
1. Baltimore, 2012, 25-7 (.781)
2. Baltimore, 1981, 21-7 (.750)
3. Baltimore, 1970, 40-15 (.727)
4. Cleveland, 1954, 32-13 (.711)
5. Washington, 1925, 27-11 (.711)
Hmm, looking at those top three teams, there seems to be a trend there. Well, the Oriole Way always did focus on those close games. From 1969 through 1983, the Orioles’ record in one-run games was 429-313, by far the best in baseball. Only twice during that stretch did they have a losing record in one-run games.
And we were told repeatedly that it was the Oriole Way -- great pitching and great defense, predominantly -- that made those one-run records happen. The theory that pitching and defense make the difference in close games was already well in place before those Orioles, but those teams turned that theory into gospel, and ever since then we have heard countless managers and general managers and announcers and so many others grumble that you can’t win the close ones without doing those little defensive and pitching things.
This Orioles team, however, does not appear to be particularly good at either pitching or defense. The team ERA is 4.04 -- middle of the pack -- and they have had 11 different pitchers make at least one start, which tells you that it hasn’t been easy to even get to that 4.04 ERA. As for defense, well, the statistic WAR suggests that their defense is actually abominable, five wins worse than it would be if they had a team of replacement players out there. According to John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saved” -- which is a detailed effort to determine how many runs a defense saves compared to the league average -- the Orioles’ defense has cost them 27 runs over the season, third worst in the league.
So, how to explain it? Keith?
“I subscribe to the general belief that one-run records are too fluky to tell us anything meaningful,” he says. “There may be meaning in there, but it's buried under so much noise that we can't tease it out. A great bullpen or a sharp manager MIGHT make you more successful in tight games, but tight games can turn on minor events -- lucky or unlucky -- and drown that out.
“[Baltimore] has had very good late-game relief work in leveraged situations from Jim Johnson, a good reliever coming into the year but hardly elite, and Pedro Strop, an oft-injured arm-strength guy they got in the Mike Gonzalez trade, one step above throw-in status. The bullpen as a whole doesn't walk anybody, which is one of the more 'real' aspects of their success.”
Yes, the Orioles bullpen has been pretty great. While the starters have a 4.58 ERA and just one complete game all year, the bullpen’s ERA is 3.07 and their 24-10 combined record, while not especially meaningful (reliever won-loss records never are meaningful because of the outdated rules regarding pitcher wins) is very close to their record in one-run games. Law mentions their lack of walks, but even more striking perhaps is how few home runs the bullpen gives up. Camden Yards is a slugger’s park, and starters Tommy Hunter (32 homers) and Wei-Yin Chen (25) are in the Top 10 in home runs allowed.
But the bullpen, in 462 innings, has allowed just 42 home runs -- almost half the home run rate of the starters. The aforementioned Strop has given up only two homers all year, Johnson only three, and this has played some role in the Orioles’ remarkable one-run record.
Baltimore is also hitting much better in high-leverage situations -- that is to say, in those situations where a key hit is most likely to lead to a victory -- than the rest of the time. We can argue for the next 20 years about whether the ability to hit better in the big moments is actually AN ABILITY -- people have been arguing about it for the last 20 years -- but whether it’s luck or momentum or the fluctuating fates or guts, the 2012 Orioles’ rather anemic offense that hits just .245/.306/.412 the rest of the time bulks up to a much better .257/.331/.445 when the opportunity to win is at hand. Adam Jones, who is having a good year anyway, is hitting a much better .309 and slugging almost .600 in those high-leverage situations. Matt Wieters is slugging almost 100 points higher, Mark Reynolds is hitting 60 points higher, Chris Davis is hitting .324 and slugging .588 in those turning-point moments.
Keith Law believes -- and I concur -- that such outsized performances in the clutch are probably anomalies, and will eventually even out. But Keith also believes -- and I concur -- that eventually doesn’t necessarily mean this year. The Orioles have been playing over their heads for so long, and they are playing with a lot of confidence, and they are playing meaningful games when many other teams are not. Sometimes the clock strikes midnight on such teams (the 2003 Royals, the 2010 Padres) but sometimes it doesn’t (the 2006 Cardinals, the 2007 Rockies).
The Orioles caught a break on Saturday when a bad call was made against the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira on a play at first base, and while it's true that they followed it up by getting blasted by the Yankees on Sunday, there are only three weeks left in the season, and it only takes a few more breaks to get the Orioles into the playoffs. And from there it would only take a few more breaks to make the season into a full-fledged miracle.
I don’t know if that will happen and neither does Keith. But it’s possible. For the first time in a long time in Baltimore, it’s possible.
* * *
All that, though, is trying to get at the technical side of this Orioles team. What interests me even more is the personal side. Some of the best baseball towns of the 1970s and early 1980s -- Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Kansas City -- were some of the worst of the 2000s. The easy explanation for this, the one you heard all the time, was that baseball in those days 30 and 40 years ago wasn’t as much about money as it is now. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it would have been impossible for the Reds to keep together a team with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, George Foster and the rest. Maybe Willie Stargell would have signed as a free agent with the Yankees or Angels or Rangers in the late 1960s and had all his great years for them instead of Pittsburgh. Could you even imagine what George Brett would have demanded on the open market after almost hitting .400 in 1980?
Then again, there was something that had little to do with money. It seemed as if those teams had a sense of purpose then. An identity. A kind of character. It’s like one bit in the classic (and NSFW) Red Letter Media savagery of "Star Wars Episode 1: What The Heck's A Sith?" (or whatever that movie's called). To prove the point about how bad the characters were in Episode 1, the guy asked a bunch of his friends to describe Han Solo (without saying anything about how he looked, what he wore or what his job was). The friends reeled off a bunch of descriptions, which I'm sure came to your mind immediately: Han Solo was a rogue, he had a brutal streak, he was arrogant, he was suave or at least he thought he was, he had a heart of gold, on and on and on.
The guy then asked his friends to do the same thing for Qui-Gon Jinn, who, you might or might not know, was the Liam Neeson character in Episode One. And … nothing whatsoever came to mind. Nothing. Just blankness. No adjectives at all. That character was, just, you know, present, like a hedge or a garage door.
Now, think about words to describe the Baltimore Orioles of the 1970s and 1980s. It's easy. So many descriptions come to mind about the way they hit the cutoff man, they way they turned the double play, the way they platooned, the way they pitched, the way they hit. And the Orioles of the last 15 or 20 years? Uh … present. They had a few good players, a few not-so-good ones, but they didn't mean anything. They were kind of famous for being overpaid for a while, so that was something. They were notable for Camden Yards for a while. And then, like bad teams do, they just became part of the scenery, another generic opponent for the teams that mattered.
"Hey, who the Sox got tonight?"
"Oh. So what else is happening?"
This is why it's great that the Orioles are winning. It may or may not last. Everyone knows, especially Baltimore's biggest fans, that the Orioles are going to have to find some more stable starting pitching in order to be part of the conversation for the next few years. They’re going to have to find some top-of-the-lineup hitting too.
But that's long-term stuff. In the short term, Buck Showalter's team is winning all the close ones, they’re locking down the last three innings, they’re getting hits when those hits can win games. And because of this, Baltimore baseball is back, in the pennant chase. It's been way too long.
I want all those great baseball towns of my childhood to come back again. Pittsburgh keeps trying and fading. Kansas City can't quite get all those talented kids to peak at the same time. But Cincinnati is winning big, and Baltimore is fighting with the Yankees for the division title, just like old times. I can hear my father yelling, "Brooks Robinson!" It's like being young again.