Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Orioles Magic: The Summer of 1983 Remembered

Thanks for the memories! What a feeling it was tonight to see members of the 1983 Baltimore Orioles march on the field to be recognized for the 25th anniversary of their last championship. It was a joyful time for baseball fans through out the Chesapeake region. The Birds won their third World Championship since 1966 marking their sixth appearance in the World Series in seventeen years. During that time, the Baltimore Orioles were the dominant team in baseball as crusty old Memorial Stadium hosted Orioles Magic, the roar from 34, and the kind of hard fought, fundamentally sound baseball fans long for today. Three future Hall-of-Famers played for that team, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, and Cal Ripken. Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and Ken Singleton were among the game’s elite, but much of the Orioles success consisted of the bare-knuckles, hard-nosed play of gamers and roll players like Rick Dempsey, Rich Dauer, Gary Roenicke, and John Lowenstein. The depth of the Orioles organization was also apparent as Mike Boddicker was called up to fill-in the starting rotation playing a key roll with Mike Flanagan missing the entire mid-season with a knee injury. Boddicker would go on to lead the league with five shutouts heading to a sixteen win season.

Somehow the cliché, team of destiny, seemed to apply to the ’83 Birds. After battling to being tied for first place in the East with one day to go in 1982 losing what amounted to a sudden death playoff against the Milwaukee Brewers, Don Sutton beating Jim Palmer, in Earl Weaver’s last game before what turned out to be a temporary retirement, the memory of the Brewers celebrating victory on Orioles’ home turf was a painful motivator for the season to come. The team also had something to prove after fourteen and a half years of iron-fisted rule by the feisty little man wearing the #4 jersey.

What could be a more outrageous demonstration of a team flaunting some inexplicable mojo than an August 23 extra inning game against the Toronto Blue Jays? Entering the top of the tenth inning, Manager Joe Altobelli had burned out his bench. Gary Roenicke was playing third base and John Lowenstein was fielding second base. If that wasn’t enough to make Toronto hitters’ eyes bulge wide open, utility infielder, Lenn Sakata, was called upon to go behind the plate. Only a miracle would save this game for the Baltimore Orioles. Imagine the pure sense of doom reliever Tippy Martinez must have felt horrified to release a pitch to an inexperience catcher and having two left fielders forming half his infield. Regardless, Tippy was up to the challenge picking three runners off first base to record all three outs!!! True to form, the fearful designated catcher would come up to bat in the bottom of the tenth, fearful of having to take the field to begin another inning, Lenn Sakata hit a walk-off homerun to win the game!!!

Could there ever be a more bizarre and delightful moment in Orioles lore than that unlikely victory? The Orioles would go on to win 98 ball games and finish ahead of the Detroit Tigers by six games. They’d dominate the post season beating the Chicago White Sox, winning three straight after losing the opener. In similar fashion, they dropped the first game against the elderly Philadelphia Phillies with players like Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Mike Schmidt approaching the twilight of their careers. The Orioles then cruised to victory not so much on the backs of their proven stars but more on the efforts of the roll players including Todd Cruz, Rich Dauer, and Rick Dempsey who the media dubbed as the “Three Stooges.” Dempsey would win the World Series MVP award.

As Cal Ripken caught the ball for the last out securing the champion’s trophy for his hometown team, fans never could have anticipated the dark days that would lie ahead for Baltimore sports fans. While the Orioles celebrated, the faceless remains of the Baltimore Colts struggled through a tough season as the town watched in horror and disgust as drunken team owner Bob Irsay was openly shopping the team in pursuit of greener pastures. Still, it was unthinkable when the Colts lost the final game of the season to the Houston Oilers, that would be the last game for the Baltimore Colts. On a snowy night the following March, in the dark of night, the Mayflower vans lined up at the Colts complex in Owings Mills to move the Colts and their history west on I-70 to Indianapolis. The golden age of the Baltimore Orioles ended with that victory in Philadelphia. The Detroit Tigers, “roar of ’84,” began winning 35 of their first forty games beating out the second place, Toronto Blue Jays, by 15 games. The Orioles with an 88 and 77 finish were buried in fifth place nineteen games back. Since 1983, the Orioles have had winning records in only eight seasons seldom in the playoff chase only reaching post-season play in 1996 and 1997 where they’d advance through the first round of the playoffs only to suffer painful losses in the league championship round. The Orioles would not have a winning record since. NFL Football returned to Baltimore in 1996 resurrecting Memorial Stadium for two final years as another Camden Yards wonder would be erected just south of Orioles Park. The Ravens played hard fought championship football with a dominating defense in the 2000 season bringing Baltimore its last major sports championship.

Football training camp opens this week with a new coach and many questions as the Ravens begin the 2008 campaign. Meanwhile, the Orioles have fought hard as a rebuilding team guided by manager Dave Trembly and President of Baseball Operations, Andy McPhail. Rebuilding the Orioles is well underway, but the team’s ability to hover around the .500 mark will be hard to sustain for the rest of the season with a gutted starting rotation weak and inexperienced to begin with but losing two key starters from the opening day roster. Two years ago, the Ravens would embark on a dazzling season favored by many to dominate the playoffs. Last year, the team looked old and fragile limping to 5-11 last place finish riddled with many key injuries and a total breakdown in team discipline. With a new coaching staff and many of the same starters from the 2006 team, could the Ravens surprise? The season that awaits will tell the story. A serious reality check would tell the Baltimore sports fans that both birds’ nests are in rebuilding mode.

Let’s celebrate the glorious memories of the 1983 Orioles’ championship. From Alan Ameche scoring the winning touchdown to win the 1958 NFL Championship in Yankee Stadium to defeat the New York Giants in a stunning overtime win to Cal Ripken’s hauling in the last out of the 1983 World Series, Memorial Stadium was the home field to Baltimore’s golden era of championship sports including the 1970 season where both the Orioles and the Colts were champions. Baltimore is poised with two of the finest playing fields in both sports to blast off again. Hard work remains and many questions need to be answered, but Ozzie Newsome and Andy McPhail are brilliant architects in building winning teams. For now, it’s for the love of the game and a game-by-game love affair as championship dreams await another day, another season. Baltimore still has the makings of a great title town!

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