Red Wings of '76 flew to heights

Many left Triple-A Rochester for future success in majors

September 11, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

As the 1976 baseball season began, it was not entirely apparent where the Orioles were headed as a franchise.

Few remnants remained from their 1969-1971 juggernaut. Frank Robinson, Boog Powell and Dave McNally had departed. Mike Cuellar no longer had his best stuff. Brooks Robinson was on his last legs.

Only Jim Palmer still chugged along. The Orioles had reloaded enough to remain a winner, but they stood a tier below the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics - a threat for sure but no longer the odds-on favorite.

Little did many Baltimore fans know that the roots of another champion were growing 360 miles to the north. The '76 Rochester Red Wings went 88-50 and ran away with their Triple-A divisional race. They won an incredible 30 of 31 games in one stretch. But that was almost besides the point. The core of that team - first baseman Eddie Murray, second baseman Rich Dauer and starting pitchers Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor - would also be the core of Orioles outfits that went to the World Series in 1979 and won it in 1983. Rochester manager Joe Altobelli would manage the 1983 champions.

The Red Wings - largely homegrown, pitching rich and led by underappreciated talents - embodied everything the Orioles organization was and everything it hopes to be again.

"Obviously, it was very special," said Flanagan, who has spent most of his professional life in the Orioles organization. "There was a culture of winning at every level. I just remember going to the park every day and feeling like we were going to win every game."

It has been 30 years, and the franchise hasn't seen such a collection of young talent since.

"To have that many guys off of one team go on to the majors, it was unbelievable," McGregor said. "It was everything I had always wanted to be a part of. The whole system was just a winning system. It was the right place to be."

`Just playing'

The members of the team look back and marvel, knowing that players coming up in the free-agency era are unlikely to replicate their experience.

"Back then, we were just playing," Dauer said. "Now, I look back and say, `That stuff's never going to happen again.'"

Said Martinez: "We developed as a group of players. And that's the way it's supposed to be. I believe that has been proved for a long time."

The strength of that team's ties to the franchise remains apparent today. Flanagan is the club's executive vice president, McGregor its Double-A pitching coach, Martinez an Orioles scout. Murray was the first base coach under Mike Hargrove and a managerial candidate in 2003. Terry Crowley, who appeared for a cameo in Rochester, is the Orioles' hitting coach.

"I want to be a part of the Orioles' structure and give back what I got," Martinez said. "I want to make it work the way it's supposed to work."

The 1976 team might not have seemed all that special to Rochester fans, spoiled by more than a decade of Orioles farm excellence. The 1971 team, with Don Baylor, Bobby Grich (the second baseman hit .336 with 32 home runs that year) and Crowley, was perhaps even more dominant.

At the helm for the whole run was Altobelli, a modest man who has become a fixture in Rochester, where he announces Red Wings games.

"He would always say, `I'm just an old pitcher like anybody else,'" McGregor recalled. "He was such an easy guy to deal with, comfortable just helping players get to the big leagues."

Said Flanagan: "He was the right guy in the right place. He had a real understanding of the big leagues and what it took for players to get there."

Many of the players on the '76 team had already played together. They knew they were good but perhaps didn't see the ceiling of their abilities.

"We got up to Triple-A and we just took off," Dauer said. "If you have great pitching like that, you're going to win 60 percent of your games."

Surprisingly, Dauer, not Murray, was considered the most promising Red Wing. Sure-handed second basemen who could lead the league in hitting were never in long supply. And Dauer had played for Southern California, the best college program in the country.

He hit .336 with 11 homers and 78 RBIs for Rochester.

"There were no stars," Dauer said. "I led the league in hitting, and I didn't think I was better than anybody else."

Flanagan started the season in Baltimore as a long reliever, and McGregor was still Yankees property. So that left ace status to Martinez, a skinny pitcher signed out of Nicaragua. Martinez had already pitched well throughout three years in the lower minor leagues and at 21, he led the International League in wins, ERA and strikeouts.

"I don't know of too many pitchers who have four pitches from the time they're in [Single-A]," Flanagan said of his former rotation mate.

Flanagan had already proved himself with a 13-4 mark at Rochester in 1975, and when he returned, he went 6-1 with a 2.12 ERA. But that was only after he lost his first start, ending a 16-game Rochester winning streak.

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