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Unforgettable win by '83 O's remembered

BaseballBaltimore OriolesTheftCal Ripken, Jr.

The box score remains confounding 25 years later.

Some parts - the game-tying homer by Cal Ripken Jr., Tippy Martinez entering at a tense juncture - fit.

Others - utility infielder Lenn Sakata playing catcher, left fielder John Lowenstein at second base, the other left fielder, Gary Roenicke, at third - look like puzzle pieces jammed into the wrong slots by a hasty child.

Yet somehow, this mishmash produced the signature game of the Orioles' 1983 regular season. That team wasn't a super-talented juggernaut. But it had useful role players up and down the roster. Every one of them helped the Orioles win a game at some point in the year.

The magic just felt especially potent that Aug.24.

"I would call it the oddest game I ever played in," said Martinez, who now serves as pitching coach for the independent York Revolution.

For about 8 1/2 innings, it seemed a normal enough contest between the second-place Orioles and the up-and-coming Toronto Blue Jays.

The teams traded runs in the third inning, but the Blue Jays moved ahead in the fifth when outfielder Lloyd Moseby scored on an error and extended their lead to 3-1 when Barry Bonnell scored on a sacrifice fly in the eighth.

By that point, Orioles manager Joe Altobelli had used John Shelby as a pinch runner, Jim Dwyer and Joe Nolan as pinch hitters, and Sakata as a defensive replacement. Such moves wouldn't have seemed unusual to Orioles fans accustomed to the aggressive substitution patterns of Altobelli's predecessor, Earl Weaver. But they set up the drama ahead.

Faced with a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth, Altobelli emptied the rest of his cupboard in an attempt to rally. After Shelby bunted a single and Sakata walked, he pinch hit Benny Ayala, who thrived against left-handers, for Nolan. Ayala delivered a single to cut the margin to one. Al Bumbry followed with another single to tie the score.

Dan Ford then struck out with runners at second and third to send the game into extra innings. It would get far more interesting.

Fans, broadcasters and the players themselves could hardly believe what they saw when the Orioles took the field for the 10th. Ayala was in left, pushing Lowenstein to second base, where he hadn't played in eight years. Roenicke, who had pinch hit for Rich Dauer, stood at third, where he had never played. Most concerning of all, Altobelli had pinch hit for both of his catchers. So Sakata, who hadn't donned the mask and mitt since Little League, crouched behind the plate.

The quiet Hawaiian had always been an able utility player for the Orioles. He had wished for a chance to replace Dauer at second but never made a stink about his role. Still, catcher?

WFBR broadcasters Tom Marr and Jon Miller looked at each other and laughed. They had never seen such an alignment.

"I think Lenn was probably the strongest guy on the team, but I'm not sure he could have even thrown the ball to second without bouncing it," Marr recalled.

Said Roenicke: "I was just hoping they'd hit it to short for Cal or first for Eddie [Murray]."

Towering Tim Stoddard, almost a foot taller than his new catcher, relieved Scott McGregor. He promptly allowed Toronto to reclaim the lead on a titanic home run by Cliff Johnson. Bonnell followed with a single, and that was it for Stoddard. In came closer Martinez to bail the Orioles out as he had so many times.

But this was a tighter spot than most. Martinez didn't want the ball in play because Lowenstein and Roenicke couldn't be trusted to field grounders. "They both had the range of a dime, so not much coverage there," Martinez said with a laugh.

Then there was Sakata. He and Martinez could only stare at each other, taking in the absurdity of the situation. "I don't know what I'm doing," Sakata told his pitcher.

"Well, can you catch a curveball?" Martinez asked, wondering whether he could use his chief weapon.

"No," Sakata admitted.

Base runners were also a problem because they seemed likely to run at will on Sakata's unseasoned arm. Somehow, that weakness became a strength.

"Their eyes got as big as silver dollars," Marr said of the Blue Jays' runners. "It was like they were going to commit a bank robbery with no one in town and the vault already open."

Martinez had never been known for having an exceptional pickoff move, but he quickly spied Bonnell's eager lead and tossed to Murray to catch him in a rundown. One out.

Martinez put himself right back in trouble, however, with a walk to speedy Dave Collins. Again, a Blue Jay took a big lead in anticipation of stealing. Again, Martinez picked him off. The crowd roared as loudly as Marr had ever heard it.

Next up was Willie Upshaw. He slapped a grounder that squirted past Lowenstein's glove. Had the crazy shifts finally caught up to the Orioles? Upshaw leaned off first, perhaps thinking he could never be caught the same way his teammates had.

He was wrong.

Martinez flicked a throw to Murray, who tagged the lunging Upshaw to end the inning. Bedlam ensued among the 25,882 fans as Marr shouted, "Martinez to Murray once, Martinez to Murray twice, Martinez to Murray three times!"

But the Orioles still trailed. Could they lose such a game? "Shoot, I really don't want to go back out there," Martinez recalled thinking.

Ripken fortified his Most Valuable Player case with a home run to tie the score. Murray walked, and after a groundout, Shelby was walked intentionally. But Roenicke struck out. So with two down, up came … Sakata.

In real life, the guy who played wildly out of position and watched as his pitcher got him out of the jam in the most improbable way would never come up in the next half inning and hit a game-winning home run. But something other than reality had taken over Memorial Stadium on Aug.24, because Sakata did just that.

"You couldn't have written a story any better," Martinez said.

Viewed all these years later in the cold, black print of history, it still seems unbelievable.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballBaltimore OriolesTheftCal Ripken, Jr.
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