With the baseball playoffs just ended, a guy who has covere every American League Championship Series game that the Baltimore Orioles have played couldn't help but jog the memory a bit to see what came out.
I recall going into that first one in 1969 against the Minnesota Twins with doubts about the whole system. Somehow, it didn't seem quite fair that a team could prove itself best over a 162-game schedule, then miss a chance to compete in the World Series because it came up cold, or ran into a hot opponent in a best-of-five series.
Looking back on it, I don't think it ever happened that way to the Orioles in their seven tries. When they had the better team, they won. When they lost, it was because the other team probably was better.
In fact, when the Orioles had those powerhouses in the late 1960s and early '70s, they swept their first three American League playoff series, the first two against the Twins, the third against the Oakland A's. When they lost to Oakland in 1973 and '74, the Athletics were in the midst of winning three consecutive World Series. They were outstanding.
Probably because it was the first, that 1969 series against Billy Martin's Twins comes back especially clear now. Even though a sweep makes it sound easy, the first two games were far from it. They were classics.
With the Orioles down, 3-2, in the bottom of the ninth of the opener, Boog Powell hit a home run off Jim Perry to tie it, and the Orioles won in the 12th in a way such games aren't often decided. With two out and Mark Belanger on third, Paul Blair dropped a perfect bunt down the third-base line and beat it out easily as Belanger scored. The bunt surprised everybody but Blair. Belanger didn't even know it was coming.
In the second game, Dave McNally and Baltimorean Dave Boswell, now in the Maryland Hall of Fame, hooked up in as fine a pitching duel as I've ever seen. They went into the 11th scoreless, and when the Orioles got Powell to second, Martin brought in his top reliever, Ron Perranoski. Earl Weaver countered with pinch hitter Curt Motton, who lined a game-winning single.
The finale in Minnesota was an 11-2 romp, with Jim Palmer going the route, Blair getting five hits and Don Buford four.
When the same teams met the next year, the Orioles won all three games by wide margins. Mike Cuellar hit a grand slam in the fourth of the opener, a windblown high fly that landed just beyond the right-field foul pole as the Orioles scored seven runs. It must have gone to Cuellar's head, because he ran into trouble in the fifth, and Dick Hall came in to shut out the Twins from there in a 10-6 victory.
The next day, the Orioles scored seven in the ninth to win, 11-3, and back in Baltimore they opened a quick five-run lead, which Palmer protected to close out the series, 6-1.
The next year, the Orioles swept Oakland. McNally and Eddie Watt beat Cy Young and MVP winner Vida Blue in the opener; and Cuellar beat Catfish Hunter in Game 2 on two home runs by Powell, one by Brooks Robinson and one by Elrod Hendricks. Palmer finished it up by beating Diego Segui, despite giving up two Reggie Jackson homers. Now, Segui's son, David, plays for the Orioles. Small world.
At that point, the A's were just maturing into a great team. They won the World Series the next three years, beating the Orioles in the AL playoffs in five games in 1973 and four games in '74 to qualify.
But they are the only playoffs the Orioles lost in their seven tries. They beat the California Angels in four games in 1979, the Chicago White Sox in four in '83.
Two things stick out now about the '83 series. One was Mike Boddicker striking out 14 in Game 2. The other was an act of respect and sportsmanship, as the Orioles closed it out in Game 4. Britt Burns had pitched a tremendous game against Storm Davis and Tippy Martinez, and the game was scoreless in the 10th when Tito Landrum hit a home run to break the tie.
Burns was then relieved, and as he walked slowly toward the Chicago dugout, a number of Orioles players stood on the top step of the dugout and applauded. You don't see that often, but it was deserved.
My most vivid memories of the 1971 playoffs involve not the games, but things that happened on the plane ride home.
As I boarded the plane, I intended to head for the rear, because first class was for the manager, coaches, officials, etc. However, already ensconced in the first seat was Powell. He said, "Sit down, you little ----." When I protested that the press didn't sit in first class, he said, "You do this time. Sit down." Not about to argue with a 6-foot-5, 270-pounder, I sat.
Since the Orioles had a few days' wait before they would know their World Series opponent, an announcement was made that the bar was open, but to use discretion. Boog got up and returned with those two big mitts filled with miniatures. He gave me a generous supply, kept the rest and said, "Here, it doesn't take you little guys as much as it does us big ones."
On the same flight, I came upon Motton, just surveying the whole scene with a big grin. He said: "What a gang. I know my place on the team. I'm a part-time outfielder and pinch hitter. But, whenever I'm called on, these guys make me feel like I'm the best man on this club for that spot, and I know they're all pulling for me. It's a great feeling."
Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like the best teams have the best guys, and there were a lot of good ones in that era.