The golden age of the ORIOLE WAY

Loss: Missing from Baltimore baseball of the 21st century is the passion that fans felt for the home team in a special relationship that lasted more than a decade.

July 07, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

JON MILLER remembers his first day in Baltimore as the Orioles play-by-play announcer. It was 1983, and he was just up from spring training, attending a workout at Memorial Stadium the day before Opening Day.

"They put us on buses, and we headed down to the Inner Harbor where they wanted me to emcee a pep rally or something," says Miller. He could scarcely believe the sight that greeted him.

"There must have been ... [40,000] or 50,000 people down there. They stretched as far as the eye could see. I was pretty astounded because the team had lost the previous year. They had put on a stirring stretch run but got hammered on the final day. I had just come from Boston where no matter what happened, if you didn't win, you screwed up. It was an astounding thing for me to see an outpouring of affection for this ball club even though they had fallen short the year before. It was the first indication that things were going to be a little different in Baltimore."

When Cal Ripken Jr. retired from the Orioles last year, it was not just the end of the most remarkable career in the history of the franchise, it also marked the loss of the last link with Orioles teams that generated the kind of passion Baltimore can only dream about now.

It was when fans cheered without being prompted by the scoreboard, when they spontaneously rocked Memorial Stadium with chants of "Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die" as Eddie Murray strode to the plate.

All that was needed to arouse a flagging crowd was a few waves of a cowboy hat from a cab driver sitting in the cheap seats. Then Wild Bill Hagy would contort his body into a crude representation of the letters in Orioles and the noise was deafening.

"Even before Camden Yards and Cal Ripken, there was this special relationship in Baltimore," says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. "The Orioles didn't win every year, but they were almost always very good. And they played the game the way it was supposed to be played. People talked about the Orioles' system, the Orioles' way .... The word is overused, but it was a classy organization."

It was an intense love affair between city and team that lasted for well over a decade. Now those days seem like memories of good times in a marriage gone sour. What is not clear is if that relationship can ever be revived or if it has fallen permanent victim to the merciless marketplace that rules in contemporary professional sports.

For some the decline of affection for the Orioles is simply a matter of bad baseball management.

"Baltimore blew it," says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. "They did the worst thing you can do, which is to shell out a lot of money on old players who were not that good anymore, over the hill. When you do that, you lose money, you have to retreat. You end up going through a long period of rebuilding. Throw in the waning effect of Camden Yards and the outcome is what you see."

Miller remembers that after the 1988 season started with 21 straight losses, management tore up the team and started over.

"The remarkable thing was that the fans were all behind it," he says. "I really learned something about Orioles fans at that point. They got young players, the best athletes they could find, and promised the fans one thing: that they will hustle and play with heart. The fans said, `OK, that's what we want.'"

Now doing play-by-play for the San Francisco Giants, Miller says he hears that might be happening again in Baltimore, especially under manager Mike Hargrove, who seems molded in the traditional Orioles style.

But it will be difficult to revive the old relationship. Many can point to the event that alienated their affection for the Orioles. The loss of Miller's well-modulated voice in 1996 is often noted. So are the firing of manager Davey Johnson, the signing of malcontent Albert Belle and the departures of Rafael Palmiero and Mike Mussina.

Ironically, the seeds of such decisions were planted in the same year that the love affair between city and team blossomed -- 1979.

Baltimore had been a Colts town, ignoring the Orioles even as they played some of the best baseball in the major leagues. Then, the erratic acts of Colts owner Bob Irsay alienated that affection, so the city turned to the Orioles. The team responded, winning the 1979 American League pennant and taking the World Series against Pittsburgh to seven games before losing. The romance was on, hot and heavy.

That year Jerold C. Hoffberger, who had been involved with the team since it arrived from St. Louis in 1954, had been pressured by his family to sell. Edward Bennett Williams, a prominent Washington lawyer, was the buyer.

The lawyers had arrived.

And with them came a mentality that killed the vaunted Orioles Way and eventually poisoned the well that quenched the thirst of the growing numbers of fans.

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