CHICAGO -- It's an attitude, not a strategy. The Orioles hit the ground running this year, and they have sprinted to one of the best starts in club history.
There are obvious examples. Mark McLemore steaming home from second base on a sacrifice fly in Tuesday night's victory over the Texas Rangers. Brady Anderson stealing 12 bases in his first 14 attempts. But truly to appreciate the team's dramatic turnaround, you have to read between the base lines. The subtle things are what make it apparent that the Orioles have undergone a serious attitude adjustment.
The idea came with manager Johnny Oates. The attitude came with new base-running coach Davey Lopes.
"There is a reason I wanted Davey," Oates said. "Most of the guys who coach base running, especially the guys who were great base stealers, are concerned with stealing bases. But, when I was in Chicago, I heard Davey making a presentation to Jody Davis, who I could outrun. He made the point that, just because you don't run well, doesn't mean you have to be a bad base runner."
Case in point: McLemore streaks from first to third on a single by Sam Horn during the Orioles' four-run comeback against the Minnesota Twins last week. Big play. But what happened off camera also had a decided impact on the outcome of the game. Horn, perhaps the slowest runner on the club, took second on the throw to third and -- though he was replaced by a pinch runner at that point -- accounted for the winning run.
In his prime, Lopes was one of the premier base runners in the National League. He could be forgiven for spending a lot of time trying to mold Anderson and Mike Devereaux in his image. But he has carried his expertise to every corner of the Orioles roster, changing the mind-set of a team that stumbled through the past two seasons one base at a time.
"The goal was to help Brady and Devereaux, but, more importantly, the slower runners," Oates said. "Brady is going to steal his bases. Davey is going to help, because we certainly have more below-average runners than above-average runners."
The basic philosophy is simple: Be aggressive and think one base ahead. The results -- though difficult to quantify -- are reflected in the club's impressive run-production statistics. The Orioles lead both leagues with 166 runs in 33 games.
"When I talk to guys, I tell them, if you're going into third base, don't assume you're going to stop there," Lopes said. "If you run hard, Senior [third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr.] has the option of sending you. If you don't, he can't."
The big run McLemore scored on Devereaux's warning-track fly ball is a perfect example, but it isn't as simple as that. McLemore could have run hard and still not been in a position to go all the way home. He had to be thinking about scoring on the play when he left the base. That's the attitude.
The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but McLemore might not have scored if he had run straight for the bag. He had to be in a two-base frame of mind. He left second base on a circular route and picked up speed as he rounded third. Ripken never stopped waving him home.
"He had made the decision to go home before he got to third," Oates said. "If he had run in a straight line, he might have ended up in the dugout trying to make that turn."
That's what Lopes has been drilling into his pupils from the first day of workouts. Base running, he says, is a much neglected art.
"If the last World Series taught us anything, it taught us how important base running is," Lopes said. "There were so many base-running screw-ups in the World Series, it was unbelievable."
The image of Lonnie Smith and the most talked-about play of the year danced in his head. One misjudgment on the base paths just may have cost the Atlanta Braves the world championship.
Lopes won't say that it can't happen here, but he hopes to make the principles of good base running second nature to the Orioles. You can't teach instinct, but you can help it along a little.
"The little things add up," Lopes said. "If you run hard and break up a double play, you keep the inning alive and maybe score a run. But even if you don't, you make the opposing pitcher face another hitter. You make him throw maybe six more pitches. You break up two double plays, and that's 12 pitches. That could have a major impact.
"We're the kind of team that has to take advantage of everything. On a long fly ball, if they are going to give us an extra base, we're going to take it. We're going to make some mistakes. That's going to happen. But we've done a good job so far."
It's not just a matter of taking advantage of an unsuspecting opponent. Word travels around the league too fast for that. It's as much a matter of applying pressure and forcing mistakes.
"The only way you force mistakes is to make them rush," Lopes said. "That's when a guy is going to boot the ball or pick his head up too soon. You want to be known as an aggressive base-running team."
Lopes lived the attitude during his playing career. He still exudes it. That's another reason Oates wanted to add him to the Orioles' 1992 equation. He is a hard-nosed competitor who expects nothing less from the players who work with him.
"When I see a guy jog to first base on a fly ball and never get there, that's embarrassing to me," Lopes said. "Tom Lasorda used to say to me, 'If you can't run hard for me four times a day, then you're in the wrong business.' "