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The Orioles -- and Baltimore -- reawaken

It thoroughly confounds the pundits that the Baltimore Orioles, separated by 15 years from their last winning season, and with a roster dominated by the young and unknown, would host the New York Yankees in a September series with first place on the line. But anyone who knows history and baseball understands that, in certain times — when the stars align in favor of those determined to extract every shred of excellence from themselves; when the parts of a group undergo the chemical bonding that produces the sum of a team; and when accountability breeds the confidence to do great things — the improbable can become the possible. In fact, it happened very much like that 52 years ago.

The summer of 1960 was a time filled with promise and possibility. The Eisenhower administration was coming to an end, and a new leader would be taking charge as America advanced into the Space Age and confronted the challenges of the Cold War and the state of its race relations. Change, with its juxtaposed uncertainty and excitement, was palpably in the air. Fear of nuclear destruction walked side-by-side with optimism for the seemingly limitless opportunities offered by the time that was upon us. The reality of Jim Crow cried out to be exorcised from the egalitarian nation that had defeated the ugliness of fascism and assumed leadership of the free world. It was no time for the timid. The hour would be seized by the confident, the determined and the visionary.

The improbable, indeed, had the potential to be possible. And, as baseball is ripe with metaphors for American life, improbable it was that the vaunted Yankees would come to Baltimore for a September series locked in a battle for first place with the upstart Orioles. These were, after all, the mighty Yankees, fully expected to occupy a place at the top of the standings and entirely accustomed to regular appearances in the post-season.

The Baltimore franchise, on the other hand, had not even had a winning season in 15 years — not since it played in St. Louis as the Browns, when the diluted talent pool caused by World War II had given the team a brief flirtation with success, including a 1944 World Series appearance. They had lost 100 games in 1954, their first season in Baltimore, and had not finished higher than fifth place during the ensuing five years. Yet here they were, challenging a Yankee team stocked with talent and featuring four future Hall of Famers.

When the 1960 season began, Manager Paul Richards' Orioles were primarily a mystery. The youthful starting rotation, part of the group dubbed "the Kiddie Korps," included 22-year-old rookies Chuck Estrada and Steve Barber, and 20-year-old Jack Fisher, who had a grand total of one major league win among them, along with 21-year-old Milt Pappas. The infield consisted of three rookies — first baseman Jim Gentile, second baseman Marv Breeding, and shortstop Ron Hanson — along with a 23-year-old third baseman named Brooks Robinson, who had been bouncing back and forth to the minor leagues since his arrival out of high school in 1955. Stalwart catcher Gus Triandos and veteran outfielder Gene Woodling, along with pitchers Skinny Brown and Hoyt Wilhem, supplied the team's small helping of experience.

They started the season losing five of their first six games, including a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium, but reached .500 by the end of April and, by Memorial Day, unexpectedly found themselves atop the standings. A rough stretch in July sent them falling into fourth place, but they rallied in the summer heat, winning 13 of 14 and putting themselves back in contention by mid-August. A four-game winning streak left them just one game behind the first place Yankees as the confident visitors arrived in town for a Labor Day weekend showdown.

An electric crowd of more than 44,500 filled Memorial Stadium on Friday night for the most meaningful major league game played in Baltimore since the turn of the century. In a match-up against Yankee ace Whitey Ford, Milt Pappas thoroughly dominated in a complete game, three-hit shutout, striking out nine and walking none. Sparingly used Walt Dropo, playing in place of Jim Gentile against Whitey Ford's bedeviling left-handed curve, homered in the 5-0 win. On Saturday afternoon, Jack Fisher authored another complete game shutout, while Brooks Robinson supplied the game's only two runs with an RBI single and his 12th home run of the year.

Sunday morning found the city abuzz, as church services routinely included references to the divine events occurring daily on 33rd Street. That afternoon, Chuck Estrada took a shutout and a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning. Two Yankee singles put runners on the corners with no outs. A sacrifice fly brought home the Yankees' first run, followed by a strikeout, which left a runner on first and two outs for Mickey Mantle. Pitching cautiously to baseball's most recognized slugger, Mr. Estrada issued a walk. Yogi Berra followed with an RBI single that sent Mantle to third. With the soon-to-be American League Most Valuable Player Roger Maris due up, Manager Richards summoned Hoyt Wilhelm from the bullpen. The stadium convulsed with tense unease, but the knuckleballer induced a groundout to Jim Gentile at first to end the inning with the one-run lead intact. The Orioles responded with a three-run bottom of the eighth to seal a remarkable series sweep and a two-game lead in the standings. It had all been entirely improbable, yet somehow completely in keeping with the ever-surprising times.

That lead lasted less than a week, and a mid-September four-game sweep by the Yankees in New York ended Baltimore's first pennant hopes in more than 60 years. But that 1960 team represented a turning point for the franchise and the city. Their second-place finish that year would begin a remarkable run of 24 winning seasons out of 26, during which they finished first or second an astonishing 16 times, finished lower than third only four times, and won six American League titles and three World Series.

And our town would come to embrace the regimen of the Oriole Way — stellar pitching and defense, timely hitting, professional excellence on the field, self-effacing humility off it. Their workmanlike performance on the stage of national sports gave life to our time-honored values and represented the community in a way that inspired pride and hope.

This September, the Orioles, again without a winning season for 15 years, but inexplicably just one game behind the Yankees, welcomed the New Yorkers to town for another improbable showdown. The two teams fought to a draw, splitting the four games, but it was abundantly clear that the spark and vitality of a packed Camden Yards had returned from a long absence. No matter what the remainder of the season holds, these resurgent Orioles have rekindled a flame that burns for those with dreams of what can be accomplished through dedication to hard work, painstaking preparation, and teamwork. Let us hope that, like their 1960 forebears, their performance will be a turning point through which we reclaim something that was once part of our birthright — to be inspired by the excellence of our baseball team, and to know the buoyancy of believing in possibility.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke@ober.com.

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