O, the passion
A boy's love for baseball blossoms during the season
World Series MVP Rick Dempsey hugs pitcher Scott McGregor after the Orioles' title-clinching Game 5 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983. (Sun photo / October 17, 1983)
"The Magic of the 1983 Orioles," it reads, with a big picture of Rick Dempsey bearhugging Scott McGregor underneath. I look at the picture and back I drift to that day, the final soft liner settling into Cal Ripken Jr.'s glove and the firecrackers popping across my downtown neighborhood seconds later.
The associated memories come quickly - marching with the victory parade in my school-issued blue pants, white button-down and clip-on tie, sitting on my dad's shoulders as we greeted the team plane after the Orioles won the league championship in Chicago, yelling, "Tito, Tito," at the unlikely hero who hit the decisive home run. There was the night at Memorial Stadium when I watched Mike Boddicker beguile the 99-win White Sox with curveballs and changeups. And so many others when the place throbbed as we chanted, "Eddie, Eddie," to summon another clutch hit.
Twenty-five years later, I work for the newspaper that put together this commemorative book, but it feels set apart from that, a link to a mystical, perfect time.
You see, I had the rare privilege of learning baseball from the 1983 Orioles. I became aware of the team the season before. I even made my mother drive me by Memorial Stadium on the September Saturday when the O's pulled even with the Milwaukee Brewers in an improbable lunge for the division title. I guess I just wanted to be close to this big happening. But at age 6, I didn't quite get it.
Somehow, that changed in the offseason. The players became more distinct.
Eddie Murray's open, left-handed stance, impassive face and cool, puffy sideburns. Cal's slingshot throws, which always beat the runner by a step. John Lowenstein's big glasses. Little Al Bumbry's gift for fouling off pitch after pitch. McGregor's easy motion with barely any leg kick. These images encoded in my brain, nudging aside dinosaurs and toy dump trucks.
That team consistently delighted a boy falling in love with baseball. It wasn't just Murray hitting balls to unimaginable places or Ripken winning accolades as the best young player in the game. Every man on the roster of 25 had a role, exactly as Earl Weaver had dreamed it up, even though gentle-eyed Joe Altobelli had replaced him at the helm.
Taken separately, Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke weren't imposing sluggers, but fuse them into a righty-lefty platoon and they became one of the American League's best left fielders. When injuries cut off Mike Flanagan's 6-0 start, Boddicker arrived from Triple-A Rochester and pitched better than anyone in the rotation. When third base hopeful Leo Hernandez stopped hitting, Todd Cruz arrived and drove in six in his first game.
I learned that as baseball threw out its inevitable questions, a well-designed team had the answers.
We didn't have cable television, so I didn't see most of the games. But I often fell asleep with the radio on. The "Oriole Magic" jingle became my own Baltimore lullaby.
Upon waking, I rumbled down three flights of stairs to grab the paper. The Sun used to print a cartoon on the bottom corner of the front section, showing the Orioles bird either trouncing the opponent's mascot or being trampled by the foreign offender. I ritually gleaned the previous night's result from this sketch.
With those O's, it was usually a happy way to start the day.
We lived only a few blocks from where Camden Yards now stands. But that was just an old industrial yard. A trip to see the Orioles started up Calvert Street. As soon as we made the right onto 33rd, there were the residents of Waverly, selling peanuts or sipping beer on their porches, orange-and-black pennants hanging over their heads. As we crept forward, flanked by hundreds of fans walking to the game, I would get my first glimpse of the brilliant stadium lights, peaking above the rooftops to the left.
Gradually, the stadium's full façade revealed itself - "Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds." Such a majestic sight, plopped in the heart of a city neighborhood much like mine.
For some games, we had box seats from my mother's bank or one of my parents' lawyer friends. On those occasions, I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz.
The green of the grass and the orange on the uniforms gleamed brighter than any crayon in my Crayola box. The field appeared more lush than any park I had tromped through. Murray and Ripken stood yards away, flicking the ball all the way across the diamond as easily as I pulled on my shirt in the morning.
Other times, we just walked up and bought upper-deck tickets. That was the realm made famous by Wild Bill Hagy and his crew, working-class guys who loved their Budweiser and their ball team. I liked it better up there, frankly. The denizens roared when I got out in the aisle and danced at the hint of an Orioles rally. They also let me into their attendance pools. I won $58 once, a fortune to a 7-year-old with few needs beyond Star Wars figures.
I remember as clear as yesterday watching a late-season game on television and hearing Chuck Thompson announce the lottery for playoff tickets.
I said I wished we could go in the same way a little kid wishes water fountains could spew chocolate milk.
"I submitted a request for tickets today," my father said.
Well, that was probably one of the five greatest moments in my life to that point. When the tickets showed up, I thought they were the prettiest things imaginable, all glossy, with the team colors pulsing off the surface. I keep one in my wallet to this day.
I went to school the morning of Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, but my dad arrived during lunchtime to drive me off to the afternoon contest. I luxuriated in the jealous stares of my classmates as I exited the cafeteria, O's cap in hand.
We discovered that our playoff seats were semi-obscured by a concrete pylon (score one for Camden Yards), but I didn't mind. My father nobly took the worst seat and allowed me to lean out to get a good look.
White Sox sluggers Ron Kittle and Greg Luzinski seemed terribly imposing during batting practice. They didn't exactly rough up McGregor. But the Orioles got even less going against Cy Young Award favorite LaMarr Hoyt and his mystifying beard, losing, 2-1.
I realized as we left the park that two more losses could end the whole joyous ride. You don't think too much about dark portents as a 7-year-old, but that game left me deflated.
Little did I know I was about to have the best baseball experience of my life.
I had fallen in love with Boddicker that season. He looked so young, but every time he pitched, he seemed a step ahead of the older, stronger men who wanted to pound his looping tosses. He was set to face Kittle, Luzinski and the burly Sox in Game 2.
I've since watched greater pitchers throwing at their best. But I'm not sure I've ever witnessed a better performance. Everything Boddicker threw, the White Sox seemed to miss. It was like he kept upping the ante and you knew he would crash disastrously, but he never did. The crowd's bellowing mushroomed a little more with every errant swing.
When Roenicke sent a ball soaring into the left-field stands, we danced, knowing Boddicker would need nothing more in a 4-0 win.
After nine shutout innings and 14 strikeouts from my favorite Iowan, the series was tied, and any doubt that the season would end happily left my head.
I was elated but not shocked when little-used Tito Landrum sent the O's to the World Series with an upper-deck blast at old Comiskey Park in Game 4. Things like that were supposed to happen, I had learned from this team.
I didn't fret when the Philadelphia Phillies won a poorly played World Series opener, 2-1, on a chilly, drizzly night in Baltimore. It seemed like manifest destiny to me that Boddicker, Flanagan, bright-faced Storm Davis and wily McGregor would lock down Mike Schmidt and his teammates the rest of the way.
Of course, Murray emerged from a mini-slump to blast two mammoth homers in Game 5. Of course, Ripken caught the last out. Of course, I got to march in the parade that united more than 100,000 Baltimoreans.
The only thing I didn't realize is that such moments would come few and far between in the years that followed. My love for the game expanded and deepened, but I often had to look to other players in other cities for the most magical moments. Still, I could not have asked for a better team to spark my devotion.