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ANALYSIS : What a Difference a Year Makes for the Orioles

The Baltimore Evening Sun

At a cookout on July 4, Steve Gardner, a Baltimore financier, was talking about the Orioles. A lot of people were talking about the Baltimore Orioles at cookouts that day.

The night before, Gardner, along with some 35,000 others, had attended the final game of the O’s last home stand, an 11-4 win over the Detroit Tigers.

“I really enjoyed that game,” said Gardner. He said it with such conviction that further comment seemed called for.

“What did you like most about it?” he was asked.

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The Harvard-educated Gardner gave the question some thought.

“That it was not like last year,” he said. “Basically, it’s a lot of fun going out there now.”

That little anecdote sums up much of how the first half of the ’89 season has gone for Baltimore and its Orioles.

The upstart O’s, picked last this year by every expert, have reached the All-Star break with a 5 1/2-game lead in the American League East, the biggest lead in the majors.

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Attendance at Memorial Stadium, where the club will appear only seven times the rest of the month, is going at a record clip.

The O’s should break the old club mark of 2,132,387. With the right set of circumstances, they could do 2.3 or 2.4 million.

All of this -- the winning, the huge crowds, the fun the fans are having -- adds up to the most amazing thing I’ve seen in the years I’ve covered sports.

It makes no sense, this Orioles team being 48-37 at the break. It defies logic and intelligence.

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Some of the supposedly wisest prognosticators were roughest on the Orioles going into this season.

One, Thomas Boswell ridiculed the O’s in the Washington Post on March 26.

He called them “a team for whom every day is Friday 13.” He said they could “with enough ill luck break every record for futility.” That they have only one player in the organization (Cal Ripken) “who’s definitely a major-leaguer.” Boswell said 1989 “could be even more amazingly bad than 1988,” when the team lost 107 games.

Boswell even assured us that the club’s woes would not end this season.

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“No matter how well the Orioles rebuild,” he wrote, “even if their fondest hopes are realized for their young players, this team will lose, and lose badly, for the next two to three years.”

None of his pontification seemed laughable in March. Today it all does.

Nobody can really explain how the Orioles have done this.

“The chemistry on this ballclub is outstanding,” said Manager Frank Robinson. “Our young ballplayers are trying to establish themselves as major-leaguers.”

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In the same vein, thousands of fans have said that these O’s, with the lowest payroll in the majors, are hustling, that Robinson has them playing good, fundamental baseball, and that the day of the overpaid, underachieving free-agent superstar has, thank goodness, ended in Baltimore.

Can attitude overcome all the shortcomings of this Orioles club?

Can hustle and good fundamentals compensate for a roster that includes, as the Washingtonian wrote, only one major-league player?

Apparently so, if the standings are to be believed.

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As Steve Gardner said, the Orioles are different this year. They are different because they are winning, and because they are winning, they are fun.

To me the biggest difference is the defense. I never realized how much good defense can improve everything.

Late Friday night, I turned the Oriole-Milwaukee Brewer game on the radio. The first Brewers batter hit a line drive to first that Jim Traber leaped in the air and speared. The next batter hit a ball to the outfield that was caught by a diving Steve Finley.

Against the old Orioles defense, Milwaukee scores a run on those two batters alone. Against these 1989 Orioles, it’s just two outs. It’s been that way all season, beginning with Day 1, when Finley ran into a fence face-first to catch a flyball against Boston.

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When the Orioles’ infield, led by Cal and Billy Ripken, can turn three double plays in a single game, it does wonders for a pitcher’s ERA.

“Every time I see the highlights of an Oriole game on TV,” said Milwaukee General Manager Harry Dalton, “one of their outfielders is making a diving catch.”

Defense has never before been so much fun to watch -- Bill Ripken’s sensational play at second, Traber’s glove work at first, the sliding, diving catches in the outfield.

Hustle? Brady Anderson is having trouble keeping his batting average over .200, but watching him run to first base and get thrown out gives me a bigger kick than watching a superior hitter amble to first with a base hit.

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Hey, God bless these kids. They’ve done it for half a season and we’re loving it. Now we can only root for them to keep it up until October.

In the press box the other evening, I asked a respected out-of-town reporter where he thought the Orioles would be at the end of the year.

“They’ll be around .500,” he said with a shrug.

In this division, that could win it. At the break, the Orioles are the only team in the division with a winning record.

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