Improve O's future by looking to its past

Earlier this month, as the Ravens continued a lackluster season, the other birds — the Orioles — announced they had hired Houston Astros analytics wunderkind Mike Elias as their new general manager and executive vice president.

This news, presumably meant to offer Baltimore baseball fans some hope on the heels of record-breaking losses (115 for the year), came during the same week, 35 years earlier, that the Orioles held a reunion celebrating the team’s last championship — in 1983.

Yes, the days of Joe Altobelli, John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke, Tippy Martinez and Eddie Murray winning it all were that long ago.

Now that the Orioles occupy the basement, it’s therapeutic to remember when they were seen as one of baseball’s most successful franchises. With front office stability and on-the-field reliability, fans were certain to get their money’s worth when they went to see them play at Memorial Stadium and, intermittently, at Camden Yards. Their success relied on a scouting and management protocol called the “Oriole Way.” It taught players how to play the professional game wisely and sensibly, emphasizing teamwork and unselfishness. It worked terrifically as the team produced home grown Hall of Famers such as Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, along with a great supporting cast.

From 1964 — when the Orioles firmly established themselves as perennial contenders — through 1975, the Os averaged 87 wins a year. What about the Yankees during that same time? Wannabes, every single one of them, in their pinstripe finery. The Red Sox? Average (except for 1967 and 1975, when they went to the World Series — and lost). The O’s made it to four World Series and won two during that period, in 1966 and 1970.

Baltimore was a football town then, a reputation that was well deserved, given our port location, muscular manufacturing sector and a shot-and-a-beer reputation. Still the Orioles were reliable winners, and went to the World Series again in 1979, losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and finished second the next three years before besting the Philadelphia Phillies in 1983 to again become champions.

If the Colts represented the city’s northern temperament, the Orioles reflected the city’s southern roots: slow, friendly, hot, neighborly and a tad paranoid about their identity. They were beloved, even if, at times, attendance did not demonstrate the deep place they held in our hearts. They were led throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s by their fiery manager Earl Weaver, another home grown Hall-of-Famer, who rose through the managerial ranks before getting his shot at the Big Leagues, where he relied on statistics, kept on paper, to tell him who matched up best in the constant struggle between hitter and pitcher.

The Orioles seemed to lose their way when baseball’s free-agency, money era arrived. They were competitive, but the win-at-all-costs mentality that had taken over the sport replaced chemistry in the clubhouse, and their “next man up” approach to the game — one that seemed to permanently supply the team with fresh homegrown talent — to replace injured or retiring veterans, got lost.

So what happened? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps greatness eventually runs head first into the law of averages, and that’s what befell yesteryear’s Orioles: It simply was someone else’s turn to be good. The cynical fan has a pocketful of other reasons, many of them too complicated to explain. But if baseball, unlike every other professional sport, promises a new beginning each spring, perhaps we can find hope in Mike Elias’ arrival and his reliance on analytics.

It seems absurd that an elegant and simple game like baseball can be run successfully by numbers crunchers. But as we saw with Weaver’s on-the-field success, numbers usually don’t lie. If back in the old days it was good enough for Weaver, the best manager in Orioles history, there must be something to it.

Orioles’ greatness once again? Even if Mr. Elias is successful, that’s a long way off. But I’ll take respectability.

Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. I can hardly wait.

Lee McC. Kennedy teaches history at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland. His email is lkennedy@boyslatinmd.com.

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