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Standards high in Orioles' past
It was the year Doug DeCinces walked from the shadow of Brooks Robinson. The year Mike Flanagan won a Cy Young Award. The year a team from Baltimore, in the words of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer "just flat-out came together."
"There was a maturation," he said. "We had come close other times, and things just kind of fell into place."
And the New York Yankees, winners of the two previous World Series, tumbled back to earth.
The 1979 Orioles were kings of the American League, though they wouldn't be crowned world champions. And they developed a love affair with the city that remains today.
DeCinces can take much of the credit for that. It was his two-run homer in the ninth inning off Dave Tobik in a June 22 game against the Detroit Tigers that gave his club an improbable victory and gave berth to the phrase Oriole Magic. The next day, Eddie Murray homered in the ninth to end the first game of a doubleheader, and Terry Crowley delivered a tiebreaking single off Tobik in the nightcap to complete the sweep.
"That kind of set the tone for the whole year," Palmer said.
Miraculous comebacks were the norm. Fans cheered the two-headed left fielder, Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein, and demanded curtain calls from the hero du jour. A beer-bellied cab driver named Wild Bill Hagy climbed atop the dugout to spell out the team's name. Rick Dempsey climbed backstops.
Roenicke saved most of his homers for the Kansas City Royals. Ken Singleton saved his for games Flanagan pitched. DeCinces started a triple play. Pat Kelly preached the Gospel between hits. Benny Ayala became a household name. Tim Stoddard became known for a sport other than basketball. Manager Earl Weaver became a cigarette company's dream while suffering through another torturous outing from closer Don Stanhouse.
And Memorial Stadium finally rocked for something other than a football team.
"The Colts were playing poorly, and [owner Bob] Irsay was making a lot of threats about moving," Palmer said, "and baseball became No. 1 in Baltimore for the first time."
This also was the season Palmer failed to win at least 20 games for only the second time in a span of 10 years, because of an elbow injury. It was a rare glitch in a season when everything seemed to go right. Manager Davey Johnson, having lost outfielder Eric Davis and catcher Chris Hoiles, should be so lucky.
"The difference between this year's club and that one was we didn't have any major injuries," said Palmer, an analyst on Orioles telecasts. "We didn't lose an integral player like Hoiles."
Johnson has something else, a bullpen that Palmer considers "better than any in Oriole history."
"There's no doubt about that," Palmer said. "It's a very deep bullpen, and Davey can sequence his way through any lineup."
Perhaps Johnson will get his chance to steer the Orioles through a World Series, as Weaver did four times during his Hall of Fame career. Palmer's clashes with Weaver were legendary, and when asked about the Orioles squandering a 3-1 lead in games to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1979 Series, he still breaks out a needle that never dulls.
"If Earl had bunted in Game 2, we would have won in four games, Kiko Garcia would have been the Most Valuable Player and I'd have four World Series rings instead of three," Palmer said. "Runners on first and second, nobody out, bottom of the eighth inning, with a chance to go up two games to nothing. Most everyone in the world would have had Lowenstein bunting. He lined into a double play, and the Pirates won, 3-2. And I would have gotten the win.
"Whenever we played the Pirates, whether it was '71 or '79, we stopped scoring. You don't beat good teams when you stop scoring."
That's something today's Orioles have learned.