Oh, for the O's of yore

Baseball: A century ago, Baltimore's National League team showed fans of the national pastime the way the game should be played -- the Oriole Way.

May 09, 1999|By BURT SOLOMON

AFTER SO MANY botched games and mindless acts at Camden Yards since this painful baseball season started, it was a delight to witness such smart and snappy playing the other evening. Patience at the plate, quickness on the base paths, courageous defense, crafty pitching, true teamwork -- it was the legendary Oriole Way, resurrected.

Only it wasn't the Orioles who were playing that way, but the Cuban all-star team, which was everything the Orioles used to be. The Cubans did all the little things right. They hit the ball to the opposite field, advanced the runner, sprinted for triples, thrived on the fundamentals and cared enough to win. The Cubans struck 18 hits to the Orioles' six, and committed a single error to the Orioles' three. They won 12-6 and earned a nation's pride, instead of humiliation.

For the Orioles, it was a sad performance indeed. It featured their pitcher Scott Kamieniecki and catcher Charles Johnson stumbling around a dribbling grounder, leaving the ball unattended inside the first-base line. Three errors were charged to the O's new, nervous first-baseman Calvin Pickering. Albert Belle, acquired for $13 million a year to serve as the soul of intensity, jogged to first base on a grounder and got tagged out though the Cuban infielder's throw went wide. The Orioles played like bored, contented millionaires with no pride of performance, much as they've played in so many of the games that have counted in the official 1999 standings.

Oh, Lord, what has happened to the Oriole Way? That was the hallmark of the Orioles in their Earl Weaver-dominated heyday, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, when they won more games than any other major league ballclub.

Lately, though, their tradition of excellence seems to be buried beneath the orange "7" in the third-base coaching box at Camden Yards, which was painted in the grass as a memorial to Cal Ripken Sr.

The leathery ex-coach and manager, who passed on to his "field of dreams" this spring, embodied the Orioles' classic, disciplined approach to getting all the little things right.

Cal Jr., who is on the disabled list for the first time in his career, is just as much a throwback in his Iron Man habits. Father or son would have felt at home on any of the earlier, hungrier Oriole teams -- including the original Baltimore Orioles, the famed 1890s ballclub that was the progenitor of smart, scrappy baseball.

The Orioles of a century ago transformed the accepted way to play what was already regarded as the national game. Through the 1880s, baseball had been a game of sluggers and thick-bodied men. The old Orioles changed that, mainly out of necessity. As little men in a big man's world, they had to rely on speed and strategy and surprise to find their advantage.

Their brainy manager, Ned Hanlon, led a team of joyous innocents and hard men. "Wee Willie" Keeler, who claimed to be 5 feet 4 inches but would never consent to be measured, choked up on his bat and learned to "hit' em where they ain't," someplace between fielders. Five-foot-seven John McGraw, preaching that "aggressiveness is the main thing in baseball," sharpened his spikes and provoked his teammates to a higher level of play.

Sadie McMahon, who had once been accused (and acquitted) of killing a fruit and peanut peddler at the circus grounds in Wilmington, Del., was willing to pitch every game if the team needed him.

Hughie Jennings, the most daring shortstop in the land, was a cheerful fellow who was hit by a pitch 49 times in 1896, a record that lasted 75 years for taking one for the team.

On the diamond, the Orioles seized every advantage and considered every possibility. They once spent an evening wondering if a runner on third base would always be safe at home plate if he left on the pitcher's first motion and the batter succeeded in laying down a bunt. Yes, they learned on the field the next morning -- and thus was born the suicide squeeze. The Orioles also invented the Baltimore chop, the cutoff play and batting right-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers (and the reverse), and they perfected the hit-and-run and the art of the bunt.

'Scientific baseball'

"Inside baseball," their style was called, or "scientific baseball." This was the Age of Edison, after all. They were nine men who played as one, as a team. They tried their damnedest and never let up. If anyone made a mistake, his teammates roasted him, or praised him to the skies for good work. These sly, unpampered Orioles won three straight pennants (1894-96) and finished second the following two years -- the grandest team the national game had ever seen.

That was the true beginning of the Oriole Way, a term that was applied to Earl Weaver's Orioles, who proved to be worthy descendants, not in their style of play so much -- the original Orioles would have scoffed at the three-run homer -- but in the intensity of their attention to detail.

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