Recognizing good, young talent was story behind 'Oriole Way'

July 12, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Once it was proclaimed, with an aura of contented swagger, as the "Oriole Way," a manner of training and preparing young players down on the farm, in such divergent places as Bluefield, Pensacola, Charlotte and Elmira. It provided the organization an almost boastful attitude -- as if this was the only major-league team going about its business with such precise detail.

If only producing championship clubs could be so easy. Forget about that. The Orioles had some exceptional students who made the system look good -- such as Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Dave McNally, Andy Etchebarren, Bobby Grich, Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken -- and what seemed an otherwise nonstop assembly line that was producing talent to fit specific needs.

And when they had a surplus in a position, or were disenchanted with a player, they dealt him in trades, as witness Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson or Curt Blefary for Mike Cuellar. The perfect solution: moves that gave the Orioles what they didn't have.

The "Oriole Way," admittedly, allowed the franchise, its leaders and followers to feel good about themselves. But its most important feature, a luxury in itself, was that the team had players endowed with exceptional ability.

Teaching them out of a training manual gave uniformity, a preferred sameness, to how the fundamentals were introduced and applied. The skills of an exceptional run of prospects was to make the bottom-line difference in Baltimore. There is, indeed, no substitute for natural talent. Was the "Oriole Way" more myth than substance, kind of a catch phrase that attracted attention and little else?

Observations solicited from three former Orioles general managers, all successful in the development of World Series champions in Baltimore, provides definitive insight. The team, with or without the "Oriole Way," became a dominant factor for almost two decades in the American League standings.

Frank Cashen, later to have similar success with the New York Mets, agrees that nothing in the "Oriole Way" concept was revolutionary. After all, the Orioles weren't inventing a new method for playing baseball. Historically, they managed to do just that more than 100 years ago when a genius named Ned Hanlon created much of the modern strategy, such as the hit-and-run, platoon system, squeeze play, delayed steal and other still applicable on-field maneuvers.

Cashen likens the "Oriole Way" and the working book of the same name, used by coaches and managers, to something in a %% totally different ideology. He refers to the Baltimore Catechism, a text issued here in 1885, without any help from Hanlon or Earl Weaver, to educate Catholics in America about the precepts of the creed and doctrines pertinent to their faith.

"I can remember watching the teaching of double plays, pitchers covering first base and outfielders learning to handle balls bounding off the fences at a little park in Asheville, N.C., called McCormick Field," said Cashen. "The man explaining and demonstrating was Cal Ripken Sr., but there wasn't anything covert about the Orioles' approach. It meant when players got to the Orioles, they already knew an established method in how they handled game situations."

Cashen stops far short of saying the "Oriole Way" was the reason the club won pennants. In fact, one of his friendly successors in the general manager's chair, Hank Peters, points out that teaching manuals were hardly the exclusive right of the Orioles.

"I remember when I was with the St. Louis Browns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we had something similar," Peters said. "Jim McLaughlin, the farm director, put much of it together, the same as I believe he later did for the Orioles. I can't imagine Branch Rickey, when he ran the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving anything to chance because of all the farm clubs [34 at one juncture] and players he had coming and going. I can't see Rickey ever winging it. He was too well organized and had highly competent men assisting him."

Harry Dalton, who worked for McLaughlin before assuming command of all Orioles personnel, remembers Weaver, Billy Hunter, Ripken Sr., Ray Scarborough and others putting on paper what had to be done on the practice field. McLaughlin and Dalton worked the information into textbook form that became the "Oriole Way."

"The intention was to stabilize teaching procedures with every farm club as to cutoff plays, throwing to bases and all the other things players do," Dalton said. "We didn't want our teams doing things differently in Dublin, Ga., or Stockton, Calif., or any of the other places we were operating."

When Dalton moved on to the California Angels and then the Milwaukee Brewers, he had a similar book for teaching the game. "We weren't trying to reinvent baseball, but rather to clarify procedures. I'm almost certain the Cardinals and Dodgers were ahead of the Orioles in having a manual."

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