He's just a `Love Machine,' and a big Orioles fan, too

February 06, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

THIS IS HOW you know you live in one of the great American sports cities, where home-team loyalties run deeper - and far wider - than the Inner Harbor:

In the flood of e-mails decrying my overzealous whacking of Sammy Sosa last week, one writer took particular exception to my use of the lyrics from the hit song, "Love Machine," especially the part where I suggested Sosa is a "Love Machine" and he won't work for nobody but ... Peter Angelos, the Orioles and, especially, Orioles fans.

"Come on, Laura. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I say let's greet Sammy with an open mind," wrote Billy Griffin from Studio City, Calif.

This was a solid explanation why Orioles fans should be eager to see Sosa energize Camden Yards. But the real kicker of the e-mail?

Griffin is the co-writer and lead singer of the smash hit, "Love Machine." He penned it in 1973, when he took over for Smokey Robinson as lead singer of the Miracles.

And, as if that weren't reason enough to heed Griffin's advice, there's this:

Griffin, 54, was born and raised in West Baltimore. He lived on Mount Holly Street. He attended Garrison Junior High and Forrest Park High School.

In 1971, he and three friends had a group called The Last Dynasty, which appeared on an NBC talent show.

"It was like a pre-American Idol thing. My group won. We sang `Friendship Train' by Gladys Knight and the Pips," Griffin said this week from Los Angeles.

The Last Dynasty got a record deal from RCA out of their win, but they never took it. The next week, Griffin was in Detroit, auditioning for Berry Gordy and the Motown executives. He was the 60th guy they brought in to audition to replace Smokey Robinson - and Griffin got the job.

"Love Machine," to which Griffin and co-writer Pete Moore were smart enough to retain publishing rights, is the most-used song in Motown history and has generated more than $15 million in revenues.

"I'm still eating off that song," Griffin said with a laugh.

But that's not all Griffin lives on. What also sustains him are the old Baltimore sports teams. He doesn't wear Dodgers blue or Angels red. He does not care that the Orioles have not won a World Series since 1983.

His loyalties continue to stretch across 2,500 miles - even though he has not lived in Baltimore since 1972.

"I'm a sports nut. I follow them 365 days a year," Griffin said.

"I have friends who are Red Sox fans and for a long time I was one-up on them in the World Series department. But you can't be a fan, not a real fan, if you root for the team to win the World Series. You root for them because they are like your brothers. You root for the uniform, the history, because they are the Orioles," he said.

Photographs on his Web site, www.BillyGriffin.ws, often show the singer in Orioles garb, prompting fans to ask if he has part ownership of the team.

"Half my clothes is Orioles stuff. And Chuck Thompson was my guy. I used to sell Baltimore Colts yearbooks as a boy scout. We used to go into bars, selling them," he said.

From his perspective, Griffin sees similarities between Sosa and Frank Robinson - a player who made the African-American community in Baltimore go wild with excitement when he was traded to the Orioles.

"Frank was having trouble in Cincinnati, I think with some of the right-wing conservatives, and he was in a scuffle and pulled a gun. People here were saying, `Do we want this guy here?' People in the African-American community were just praying everyone would cool out," Griffin said.

"Well, the first day Frank's at Memorial Stadium, knocking balls over the wall during batting practice, everybody forgot about all that. Everybody loved him."

Before Frank's arrival, Griffin cheered for Brooks Robinson.

"He was my first idol. Brooks and Raymond Berry," he said.

Griffin was clearly enjoying this trip down memory lane. The old days on 33rd Street and the coming season at Camden Yards are as engaging as his work on his forthcoming CD, due out in April. That's why he reacted so passionately when he saw his hometown newspaper using "Love Machine" to take jabs at Sosa.

Griffin said he called co-writer Pete Moore and the two musicians laughed.

"That song's an icon," Moore told Griffin.

Music is his world, but sports are Griffin's passion - his connection to Baltimore, to home.

"My father died exactly the same time I got into the Miracles. One time I asked myself, `Why do I love these teams so much?' I realized it's because they were his teams," he said.

"He and his friends used to go to the games. He wouldn't let me come when I was young, because his friends would drink and cuss. But we followed them and later he brought me to games, too.

"So the Orioles are my father. They are a substitute," he said.

No wonder why, then, that Billy Griffin, like a lot of Orioles loyalists, believes in them, defends them.

No wonder he says Sosa should be welcomed to the family.

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