Catchy moniker eludes '97 Orioles Great highs and lows perhaps defied themes

September 28, 1997|By Andrew Ratner

Sports teams - and this seems to occur more in the romanticized game of baseball than in the other professional leagues - occasionally adopt nicknames or themes to reflect their seasons.

Sometimes, the themes are dreamed by the players, sometimes by the fans, sometimes by the marketing geniuses in the team's front office.

When the Red Sox battled for a rare pennant in the '60s, Boston fans dubbed it the "impossible dream" summer.

The Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979, led by father figure Willie "Pops" Stargell, borrowed a title from a popular disco song to describe their close-knit club: "We Are Family."

When an overachieving Orioles club thrilled fans in the late '70s and early '80s, the catch phrase was "Orioles magic."

Several summers later, when the Orioles were in contention down to the final weekend, only a year after an abysmal season, the rallying cry that echoed through Baltimore was "Why not?"

This season in Baltimore enjoyed no theme, despite the fact that the Orioles are one of only a half-dozen teams in baseball history to hold first place all season long. The team won the most games in the American League and its first division title in 14 years, and yet no nickname, no rallying cry, no clever motto.

To borrow a phrase, why not?

One theory is that the Orioles' public relations department didn't have to work to concoct a slogan for an organization that nearly sells out every home game.

Another theory is that team slogans are often conceived by flaky, blue-collar players - athletes who at heart would rather be cowboys or coffeehouse poets.

That is not a character-type much in evidence on this businesslike O's team.

One example of a player with this artistic bug in his blood was an animated Mets pitcher of the '70s named Tug McGraw. He coined a team slogan "You Gotta Believe" that was the toast of New York - 20 years before his son, Tim, was writing award-winning country music.

A third theory - and this seems most plausible - is that these Orioles experienced great highs and lows and periods of inconsistency that almost defied their excellent record.

With a veteran lineup studded by past and present All-Stars, they aren't a bunch of gamy journeymen playing as if touched by angels in the outfield. Nor are they a juggernaut, like the old Yankees, or the "Big Red Machine" (another great nickname), or the Orioles of Brooks and Frank Robinson, able to intimidate the opposition just by showing up.

In many ways, heart-rending and wrenching moments defined this Orioles' summer more than the heroics:

Eric Davis' inspiring comeback from cancer surgery; the death of beloved public address announcer Rex Barney; the perfect game that escaped Mike Mussina in the ninth inning; bitterness over The Streak; cancer surgery for former Orioles great and stadium barbecue maven Boog Powell; the breathlessly anticipated handshake between Roberto Alomar and the umpire he spat upon; the games that got interrupted by lights that wouldn't work in Baltimore and a dugout roof that collapsed in Miami.

Not the stuff of slogans.

It's a little late to come up with a nom de guerre now. But the most encouraging character trait of these Orioles - the one most reassuring to fans with birds on their caps and butterflies in the belly - is their capacity to win truly climactic games.

They swept the best pitchers the Atlanta Braves had to offer in a key interleague series in midsummer. They bedeviled the most nightmarish pitcher in hardball, the Ichabod Crane of Seattle, Randy Johnson. And they demoralized George Steinbrenner's Yankees in the Bronx when the division looked up for grabs early this month.

Unfortunately, they also sleep-walked through chunks of the season when the stakes weren't so obvious.

So for a slogan, how about the "just-ready-for-prime-time players"? Or "Crocodile Cal's roller-coaster gang"? Or maybe something embodying the best team Peter Angelos' money could buy: "The Asbest-O's"?

How about just being content with a world championship this year and forgetting the slogan?

Andrew Ratner is director of suburban editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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