CLEVELAND -- The Orioles faced an arduous task last night in trying to stay alive in the American League Championship Series. Not only did they have to beat the Cleveland Indians, they also had to overcome the ghosts of 1969.
"It does look an awful lot like 1969," Curt Motton, a member of the '69 Orioles and a special-assignment scout for the team, said yesterday.
"Yes," said Mark Belanger, the Orioles' shortstop that year. "There's some head-shaking going on."
Belanger was in New York, shaking his head from a distance. Motton was able to do it in person; he scouted the Indians on their way to this series.
The Orioles, who had the league's best record during the season, were supposed to win the series and move on to their first World Series since 1983. But the way they lost three of the first four games prompted memories of the team's appearance in the 1969 World Series.
There is a definite link between this league series and that World Series, and it is not difficult to discern. Davey Johnson is the manager of these Orioles, and he was the second baseman for those Orioles (he made the last out in that World Series). Did someone say albatross?
Those Orioles won 109 games during the season, the first for divisional play, but they won only one in the World Series while the Mets were winning four. The outcome was unexpected and stunning.
"A lot of unusual plays have happened in this series," Belanger said.
"There was only one unusual play in '69, the play at first base where the runner was running inside the baseline but they didn't call it. That was the key. It went against us. Other than that one, they just made some great plays. And they were all made by the Mets. They just beat us."
Belanger referred to the play that decided the fourth game, which the Mets won, 2-1. With Rod Gaspar running for Jerry Grote following a leadoff double in the 10th inning, J.C. Martin bunted. Pete Richert, the pitcher, fielded the ball, then hit Martin with his throw. Gaspar was able to score on the error.
The Orioles argued that Martin ran inside the line and should have been declared out for interfering with Richert's throw, but they lost the debate.
They've lost arguments in this series, too. When the Indians tried a suicide squeeze in the 12th inning of Game 3 and Marquis Grissom scored the winning run when the ball flicked off the glove of catcher Lenny Webster, the Orioles argued that the ball nicked Omar Vizquel's bat, but the umpires said it did not.
When the Indians scored two runs on the same wild pitch in the fifth inning of Game 4, the Orioles argued that David Justice, the first to score, interfered by not letting Arthur Rhodes get up and chase the ball that had caromed off Justice. The umpires said he did not.
Those two plays were instrumental in the 3-1 advantage the Indians held in the series heading into the fifth game.
The 1969 Orioles went into Game 5 down by 3-1, too. Besides the Martin play, the Mets had stunned the Orioles with terrific catches in the outfield. In Game 3, center fielder Tommie Agee made two such catches for third outs with a total of five runners on base.
The next day, right fielder Ron Swoboda made a diving catch that prevented the Mets from losing in nine innings.
The Mets also got some unexpected offensive performances. For example, Al Weis, an unheralded second baseman, hit .455 and Swoboda hit .400.
The Orioles, meanwhile, did not hit, finishing the series with a .146 average. Johnson had one hit in 16 at-bats, Brooks Robinson one in 19, Paul Blair and Don Buford each two in 20.
"I went into the series feeling we definitely had the best ball club," Motton said. "Not having seen the Mets at all that year, I had no appreciation of their pitching.
"I also had no idea that they had the balanced club they did. They platooned at three positions, and at all times they had a club that matched up well against our starting pitcher."
As a result of scouting the Indians, Motton said, he expected a tough series. "I feel we have the best club, but I never felt we were vastly superior to their ball club," he said.
"I felt we had to pitch well and we had to take advantage of some of their defensive shortcomings.
"I think Cleveland's strengths match up with our strengths. They have a good offensive club. We have good pitching. I felt if we pitched well and got the ball where we wanted to, we'd have a good chance of winning."
But it was the Indians who were winning, just as the Mets did in 1969.
"I felt great about our club in '69, and I feel very good about our club now," Motton said. "But I don't want to think too much about '69." He laughed, then said, "I guess in the end you might look at it if things don't work out for us."
Pub Date: 10/14/97