Right on time

ROCH AROUND THE CLOCK

Shelby's first throw of 1982 kept Orioles in playoff hunt - he just didn't know it

On John Shelby

May 27, 2008|By ROCH KUBATKO

If you've been a fan of the Orioles since the 1980s, you know all about The Throw. It's attached to John Shelby like a second skin. It's referenced in his biography in the team's media guide. People walk up to him, 26 years later, and want to reminisce about it.

But there's more to it than you might know.

Of course, you remember how Shelby lunged forward after releasing the ball, his momentum carrying him onto his stomach on the outfield grass at the old Milwaukee County Stadium. You see catcher Rick Dempsey applying the tag to preserve a one-run lead in the eighth inning, in a game the Orioles had to win because, well, they pretty much had to win them all. The memory is so clear, so vivid, you even remember the runner who was cut down at the plate - the immortal Bob Skube. Close your eyes, let your mind hit the play button and it's Sept. 26, 1982, without the lower gas prices.

Now here's the part about The Throw that might escape you: Shelby says it's the only one he made after being recalled from the minors that month.

Shelby had a bone spur in his elbow that became so painful, he underwent a CT scan in Baltimore and needed surgery after the season. Manager Earl Weaver, aware of Shelby's condition, still used him as a defensive replacement and wrote his name in the lineup. And both parties hoped each night that he wouldn't be tested in the outfield.

The elbow flared up whenever Shelby warmed up his arm, so he stopped doing it. He didn't play long toss, didn't do anything that would bring back the pain. It was a clubhouse secret, kept away from the media, as Shelby recalls, so teams wouldn't run on him at every opportunity.

He had only one throw in that arm each day, and he wasn't going to waste it playing catch. And somehow, Shelby says, he made it through every game that month without having to unleash one.

Until Sept. 26.

The Orioles were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth. They trailed the Brewers by three games with eight to play. Every defeat was another dagger thrust into their playoff hopes. But somehow, the magnitude of what Shelby did that afternoon - catching Cecil Cooper's fly ball for the second out, firing a perfect strike to the plate and completing the dramatic double play - was lost on him.

Running off the field, Shelby couldn't understand why everyone in the dugout had moved up to the top step, waiting to pound him on the shoulders and back. He was a kid dumped in the middle of a pennant race, and he must not have done his math.

With his locker next to Shelby's in the visiting clubhouse, Cal Ripken Jr. turned to him and said, "You don't know what you just did, do you?"

That's when Ripken explained how the Orioles were on the verge of elimination, and how they had to keep beating the Brewers, and the Detroit Tigers, and Milwaukee again when the series shifted to Memorial Stadium the final weekend.

The Orioles caught the Brewers on the next-to-last day of the regular season, but lost the decisive game, 10-2, on a Sunday afternoon. Robin Yount hit solo home runs off Jim Palmer in the first and third innings, and Ben Oglivie made a sliding catch near the left-field line to kill a late rally that he couldn't duplicate if given 100 more chances. Tears rolled down the cheeks of Weaver, who was about to embark on his first retirement. As the ovation continued long after the final out, Howard Cosell gushed about the city of Baltimore and its fans over the ABC airwaves. Shelby remembers someone rushing into the clubhouse and telling the players to put their uniforms back on and return to the field, so the crowd could say goodbye one more time.

Shelby, now the Orioles' first base coach, owns two World Series rings - from 1983 with the Orioles and 1988 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was in the dugout the night Kirk Gibson limped to home plate as a pinch hitter in Game 1 and swatted his dramatic home run.

And yet, when talks turns to The Throw, as it invariably does, Shelby says, "Nothing in my career compares to that final week."

Once again, he's right on target.

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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