Shepherd with a staff, Bamberger was O's ace

Orioles: Tuning minds as well as arms, the late pitching coach brings a flood of fond memories.

April 07, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

To appreciate how easily former Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger could motivate his starters, and their willingness to rally around him, examine one of his baseball caps from 1971. Notice the small white lines scrawled on the black fabric, with a slash across each group of four. They supposedly meant something to Bamberger, which was enough to make them important to the men he tutored.

Asked about the marks one day, Bamberger explained that a unique clause in his contract allowed for a substantial bonus if his pitchers accumulated 70 or more complete games during the season. Those lines were his way of keeping count.

"We ended up right around there, and then we found out he really didn't have a complete-game clause," said Jim Palmer, who won three Cy Young Awards under Bamberger. "He just knew we were better than the bullpen. He made us believe he was getting money, and we're all out there pitching our [butts] off because we cared about him."

That was the quintessential Bamberger - beloved coach, master psychologist, shepherd to one of the greatest staffs in major league history.

The Orioles held a moment of silence for Bamberger, who died Sunday from colon cancer, before yesterday's 4-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox. He was remembered for the 18 20-game winners he produced from 1968 to 1977, and his lofty placement in franchise history.

Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson each won at least 20 games in 1971, tying the record set by the 1920 Chicago White Sox. It likely won't happen again, not in this era of five-man rotations, seven-inning pitchers, bullpen specialists, fragile arms and psyches. The Orioles were unique, even for that time period. And so was their mentor.

The organization hasn't boasted a 20-game winner since Mike Boddicker in 1984 - seven years after Bamberger left to manage the Milwaukee Brewers, and later the New York Mets. The Orioles were a pitching factory, and he pulled the levers.

Positive thinking

"What I remember most about Bamby was he was very positive," said Mike Torrez, whose only 20-win season came with the Orioles in 1975. "Some days I'd be throwing in the bullpen and I didn't have [anything], and he would tell me, `Great stuff, great stuff.' I'm thinking to myself, `What the hell is he looking at?' But with his positive thinking, it had me feeling good going into the games. It stayed with you."

Torrez, who lives in Naperville, Ill., and owns a promotional business outside White Plains, N.Y., said he wants to return to baseball and put Bamberger's lessons to use.

"He was the best pitching coach I ever had - his mentality, his easiness, the positive thinking," Torrez said. "And I loved him as a person."

Word began to spread among his former pitchers this year that Bamberger wasn't in good health. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2002 and underwent chemotherapy treatments that weakened his legs. But he remained upbeat a month before his death.

"I'm still a very active guy," he said during a phone interview from his North Redington Beach, Fla., home. "I'm doing something around the house all the time. When you retire, you have to have some kind of hobby. If you're going to sit in a chair, you may as well go to work."

The Orioles tried to hire Bamberger as a minor league instructor in 1961, but he wanted to continue pitching. He didn't mind the Pacific Coast League, where he spent most of his professional career. The money was good, and his ego didn't need the majors.

Bamberger contacted general manager Harry Dalton the following year to make sure the job was open, and the rest is a glorious piece of Orioles history.

"Bamby to me is the greatest pitching coach who ever lived," said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver. "If there was a Hall of Fame for pitching coaches, he should be there without a doubt."

Only the team's Hall of Fame has made room for Bamberger, his induction coming in 1995 in his only visit to Camden Yards, where other franchise legends remain visible.

"It's a shame," Palmer said, "because he was one of our most important guys."

The anti-Earl

That importance was defined in many ways. Bamberger could detect the slightest glitch in any delivery. He had a knack for knowing when to stay on a guy and when to back off. And he redirected the heat that came from the volatile Weaver, a task made somewhat easier because Bamberger was deaf in his right ear.

It was no coincidence that he always sat to Weaver's left in the dugout, in close range of all the screaming and profanity. Once asked how he could endure such noise after all those years together - they joined the Orioles during the same season - Bamberger inadvertently provided the answer when he replied, "Huh?"

"He couldn't hear out of the ear that faced Earl," Palmer said. "It was like the perfect marriage."

Bamberger purchased a hearing aid one year and bragged to former pitcher Mike Flanagan about its clarity. He could understand everything Weaver said, for better or worse.

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