Remembering the 1983 Orioles

If Opening Day were any indication, the 1983 Orioles were due to be blown away - like the parachutist the club hired to land on the pitcher's mound before the game.

Winds whisked him onto the stadium parking lot instead.


On the field, Joe Altobelli watched the descent in horror.

"I looked up and I saw him going by and I thought, 'Oh, God!' " the Orioles' first-year manager said. "[Broadcaster] Chuck Thompson thought the guy landed on his car."


The rest of the day went just as well.

Shortstop Cal Ripken made a costly error, as did Dan Ford, who dropped a routine fly. The crowd roundly booed the club's new theme song, "That Magic Feeling." And the Kansas City Royals won the game, 7-2.

Afterward, Altobelli heard the tired refrain of who he wasn't.

"Earl [Weaver] would have won this one easy," a reporter said of the manager's predecessor.

Altobelli, who had been trying hard that spring to quit smoking, bit hard on an unlit cigar.

"Yeah, I think I'm going to be hearing that for a long, long time," he said. "But that's OK. I've been compared to worse people."

The gibes vanished quickly. The Orioles won the next game, the American League pennant and the World Series. Without the volcanic Weaver. Altobelli shepherded the club to a championship with what one reporter called "the calm, reassuring tones of a parish priest."

Twenty-five years later, Altobelli - never one to brag - still shrugs off his part in taking the Orioles the distance.


"Someone had to do it," he said.

Now a radio voice of the Triple-A Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, Altobelli hearkened back to April 4, 1983, a warm, sunny afternoon at Memorial Stadium filled with 51,889 buoyant fans - then the second-largest regular-season crowd in club annals.

Leaving his office beneath the ballpark, Altobelli brushed against a good-luck gift - a floral arrangement in the shape of a horseshoe.

On the field, Brooks Robinson threw out the first pitch (from third base) and 3,000 balloons raced skyward. As the team was introduced, one by one, it was Altobelli who received the loudest cheers.

"I left tickets for a lot of Italian people that day," he said.

Nervous? Don't ask.


"I remember the butterflies," he said. "If you don't get them on Opening Day, you never will."

The Orioles were going without Weaver in the dugout for the first time in 15 years. He had retired as the winningest manager in team history.

Not that Altobelli needed reminding.

"A lot of people are frightened of the word 'pressure,' " he said. "But your job's not worth a hill of beans without a little of that.

"Besides, it helped that I knew Earl, and that he put his pants on the same way that I did."

But by 1985, the Baltimore-Altobelli marriage had turned sour. With the team straddling .500 and Weaver sending signals that he wanted to return, Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams - who, behind Altobelli's back, called him "Cement Head" - fired him.


Little changed. In fact, the club played better that season for Cement Head (29-26) than for Weaver (53-52).

For six years, Altobelli lingered in the majors as a coach for the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. In 1991, he returned to Rochester, where, in the 1960s, he had flourished as player, coach and manager for the Orioles' top farm club, en route to the top.

There he has stayed. At 75, Altobelli arrives at the ballpark three hours early, chews the fat with staff and players, and makes the rounds of a man who has held every post from first baseman to general manager.

The only role he hasn't played is that of "Spikes," the Red Wings' ornithologically incorrect mascot who flaps itself silly every night. Routinely, Altobelli's grandchildren have covered that job.

"Joe is 'The Man' in Rochester," said Josh Whetzel, his broadcast partner. "He loves being around the park, and the fans love him ridiculously."

One of two former Red Wings to have his jersey retired, Altobelli's No. 26 is depicted on a 4-foot-high baseball painted on the padded green fence in right-center field. Three years ago, the club doled out caps honoring Rochester's "Mr. Baseball" to the first 3,000 fans.


"I signed every darn one of them, too," Altobelli said.

Entering his 11th season as the team's radio analyst, he brings a historical perspective to the microphone, said Whetzel, 40 years his junior:

"If, say, a pitcher gets hit with a line drive, I turn to Joe. I mean, he was in the [Cleveland] dugout the day Herb Score was struck in the face by Gil McDougald's line drive [in 1957]."

Altobelli calls them "rocking-chair memories." He said he enjoys the patter, and that the work helps him cope with the loss of his wife, Patsy, five years ago after a 51-year marriage.

"I like talking baseball because it's something that I know a little about," he said.

"I'm sure not going to B.S. the fans. Why do that when there's such an honest truth about baseball?"


Altobelli tried to retire this year, but the club, now a Minnesota Twins farm team, would have none of it.

"Last summer, we had a surprise birthday party for him after a game," Whetzel said. "Fans were invited onto Frontier Field for a piece of this huge cake, while they watched a video montage of Joe - everything from him as a little kid to the Orioles' manager arguing with umpires."

A highlight of the Altobelli tribute: footage of the final out of the 1983 World Series in which the Orioles defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, four games to one.

The craggy-faced old-timer basked in the moment, surrounded on the mound by his six children, 20 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

"I felt like a stud horse, like Secretariat, on the field that day," he said.

In June, Altobelli will be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame.


Then it's back to the airwaves. For now.

"This is my 59th year in the pros," Altobelli said. "There's something about going to the ballpark that rejuvenates you."

About the series

Mike Klingaman's revisiting of Joe Altobelli, manager of the 1983 Orioles, is part of The Sun's look back at the players, fans and games that shaped the team's last World Series title, 25 years ago. For a look at the series, go to