This year's run spurs memories of Orioles' greatest comeback

THE SPIRIT OF '74

September 17, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Some are merely coincidental, but there are too many similarities to completely ignore. The Orioles' late push in an attempt to overtake the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees in the American League East is reminiscent of a startling drive that took place 19 years ago.

On Aug. 29, 1974 the Orioles were mired in fourth place, eight games off the lead, trailing the Boston Red Sox, Yankees and Cleveland Indians. After losing two straight games in Texas, the Orioles went into their game with the Rangers that day saddled with a 63-65 record.

But then a remarkable transformation took place. Starting Aug. 29, the Orioles put together a 10-game winning streak and went 28-6, an incredible .824 pace, the rest of the way. In the process they blew past the Red Sox and Indians and overtook the Yankees on the next-to-last day of the season. That remains the biggest comeback in club history -- one not even this year's team could surpass.

However, it could be argued that the degree of difficulty for the 1993 Orioles is even greater.

On Aug. 29 of this year, again after two straight losses in Texas, the Orioles were in fifth place. Their 68-62 record had them 5 1/2 games out of first, behind Toronto, New York, Boston and the Detroit Tigers.

The obstacle of having four teams ahead of them appeared insurmountable. Then came the turnaround.

On Aug. 29 in Texas, the Orioles began an eight-game winning streak and have won 12 of their past 16 (.750). That isn't as strong as the pace 19 years ago, but it is good enough to leave this team in an almost identical situation.

By Sept. 17, the 1974 club had moved into second place, 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees. This year's spurt has enabled the Orioles to jump two positions in the standings, leaving them in third place, three games behind the front-running Blue Jays.

Maybe because of the 19-year interval, or perhaps because the Orioles lost to the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series, principals involved with the 1974 team recall only a few particulars of that season. But there are a couple that nobody forgets.

"I remember [Mike] Cuellar and [Ross] Grimsley both pitched 1-0 shutouts in a doubleheader against the Red Sox," said Brooks Robinson. "And I remember clinching a tie in an afternoon game in Detroit [on the season's next-to-last day] and going back to the hotel to listen to the Yankees-Brewers game."

A single up the middle by Milwaukee's George Scott beat the Yankees and enabled the Orioles to win the division title -- and end a six-week period of anxiety. The Orioles' brass had %J assembled in Detroit for the weekend, and it was during one of the many celebration parties that manager Earl Weaver let out some of the frustration that had built up during the hectic race.

"Does this mean I can get a new contract now?" Weaver asked general manager Frank Cashen and owner Jerry Hoffberger. Even though the Orioles had won four division titles, three American League pennants and a World Series in the previous five years, Weaver did not feel his job was secure because of some earlier speculation that he'd be in trouble if the team didn't win.

Today, Weaver admits he doesn't have a lot of memories about that year, only the finish and the great pitching that carried the Orioles through the stretch. "When you can keep all of your starters healthy in September like we did, and stay close, you've got a chance," he said.

In those days the Orioles were operating with a four-man rotation -- Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Cuellar and Grimsley. Although he finished with a 7-12 record (3.27 ERA) and injuries limited him to 26 starts, Palmer was a factor down the stretch.

The 1-0 victories by Cuellar and Grimsley on Labor Day (Sept. 2) began an incredible streak of five straight shutouts by the Orioles. Cuellar had two, McNally and Palmer one each, and Grimsley came within an inning of his second, which would have extended the streak to six.

"What took us through the division race that year was our pitching," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, the only player from that team still playing a uniformed role with the Orioles. "This team has more power than we had that year. We got by more on speed. We had to do the little things."

Hendricks laughs when he recalls how the team took matters into its own hands that year, because Weaver still clung to a managerial philosophy that emphasized power over a more piecemeal offensive approach.

"We had a meeting at somebody's house, I don't remember whose," Hendricks said. "We decided we didn't have the type of ballclub that we had in '70 or '71. We weren't going to be able to wait around for the three-run homer. We were going to have to do the little things.

"We would bunt in the first inning without a sign. I remember looking over at him after we had done that two games in a row. He just looked at me and laughed. He knew what was going on, but we were winning, so he just laughed."

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