Former pitcher Cuellar dead at 72

'a magician out there'

Crafty cog of Orioles' famed rotation with four 20-game winners is remembered for major role on three AL championship teams

  • Mike Cuellar (left) celebrates with Brooks Robinson after finishing off the Cincinnati Reds, 9-3, in the deciding fifth game of the 1970 World Series at Memorial Stadium.
Mike Cuellar (left) celebrates with Brooks Robinson after… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
April 03, 2010|By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

The photo tells all. Arms raised in triumph, body flush with joy, Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar leaps off the mound at Memorial Stadium, having stuffed the Cincinnati Reds, 9-3, in the deciding fifth game of the 1970 World Series.

"I can still see the look on Mike's face," third baseman Brooks Robinson recalled Friday. "His mouth was wide open, and he had a big, big smile."

Miguel Angel Cuellar died Friday of stomach cancer at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Florida. He was 72.

Of his 185 major league victories, none meant more than that World Series win to Cuellar, the Cuban-born left-hander who revived his flagging career in Baltimore - as well as the Orioles' fortunes.

He was a 32-year-old junkball pitcher thought to be past his prime when obtained in a trade from the Houston Astros for outfielder Curt Blefary in 1968. Instead, Cuellar blossomed into a workhorse who helped anchor a storied rotation that carried the Orioles to one World Series title, three American League pennants and five playoff appearances.

Four times he won 20 or more games. Seven times he pitched at least 248 innings. His first year in Baltimore, Cuellar went 23-11, pitched five shutouts and became the first Oriole (and Latin American) to win the American League Cy Young Award, sharing it with Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers.

"When Mike came, he solidified the whole pitching staff," center fielder Paul Blair said. "We had complete confidence in him, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer when they walked out on the mound.

"We knew that if we scored two or three runs - four at the most - we'd win the game. That's a great feeling for a team."

In Cuellar's first three seasons in Baltimore, the club won 318 games, reaching the World Series each year. In 1969, the Orioles lost to the New York Mets in five games, with Cuellar recording the only victory.

"Mike was a monstrous part of the great teams we had from 1969 to 1971," said Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager of those teams. "He was an artist on the mound and a player [whose acquisition] put us over the top.

"Several times down the stretch, he pitched with two days' rest when we needed it."

Cuellar's best year was 1970, when he went 24-8 and led the league in victories and complete games (21).

"He should have won the Cy that year, but not doing so never affected his performance," Palmer said. "Mike was, arguably, the best left-hander in the game from 1969 to 1974, but he never got his due.

"Like [Hall of Fame outfielder] Frank Robinson, he came here, embraced the Oriole Way and changed the destiny of our franchise."

The man best known for his screwball had his share of quirks. A notoriously slow starter, he pitched best as games, and the pennant race, heated up.

"I belong to hot weather," Cuellar liked to say. "Cold weather no good for baseball or me."

Teammates called him "Crazy Horse" for all his superstitions. He always sat in the same spot on the bench. On days he pitched, Cuellar refused to give autographs and wouldn't budge from the dugout until his catcher donned his shinguards every inning.

"Mike never stepped on a foul line," first baseman Boog Powell said. "If his stride was off and he got too close, he used a little 'chicken hop' to step over it."

Weaver said Cuellar had a lucky cap, which he once forgot to take on a road trip to Milwaukee.

"We had to call the clubhouse man back in Baltimore to airmail that [bleeping] hat to us," Weaver said.

The Orioles took Cuellar's eccentricities in stride.

"Mike had a lot of things that he had to do," Blair said. "But whatever he did, it worked."

Cuellar's record with the Orioles: 143 victories and 88 losses. He ranks second on the team all time in complete games (133) and third in shutouts (30).

His last victory for Baltimore, in 1976, was a three-hit, 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Cuellar was 39 at the time.

Players marveled at his screwball, the slow, sweeping curve and the crafty way Cuellar set them up.

"To watch him pitch was amazing," Orioles reliever Dick Hall said. "It seemed like every time hitters took a pitch, it was right at the knees for a strike, and if they swung, it wasn't."

Cuellar's savvy frustrated the Orioles' opponents.

"His fastball couldn't black my eye, but he owns my hitters' minds," Detroit manager Billy Martin once said.

Said Powell: "Miguel was a magician out there. He made hitters look comical, like they could have swung three times before the ball got there. A couple of times, I almost had to call timeout because I was laughing my head off.

"I adored the way he pitched and loved playing behind him. It was fun, like when you were a kid. You felt like yelling, 'Hey, batta, batta, batta ... ' "

Cuellar's death means that of the four Orioles pitchers to win 20 or more games in 1971, only Palmer survives. McNally died in 2002 and Pat Dobson in 2006.

Only one other team in history - the 1920 Chicago White Sox - has produced four 20-game winners in one season.

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