The '84 season warms up
WHEN self-appointed experts talk about all the mixed pitches the Orioles threw to win the 1983 World Series, pitching coach Ray Miller laughs quietly up his sleeve.
''We threw 60.9 percent fastballs in that series,'' Miller says as he stands by a fence in the Baltimore training camp here. ''But we didn't throw every fastball with everything we had on it. We teach our pitchers to be smart enough to know that a hitter is expecting a particular pitch, and then to give it to him - but at a different speed.''
It's a small bit of the arcana that make up professional baseball. And in the spring home of the world champion Baltimore Orioles you can see the way these minute gestures and mental rigors are fashioned into the smoothly choreographed motions that make up a game which remains the great American sports institution.
Over at the New York Yankees' spring training camp in nearby Fort Lauderdale, what stands out is something different: the flexing of muscle and the flash of talent.
The sport happens to be baseball. But here the game still has that universal shape of all sports - the honing of skills and the testing of muscles, the trial of eye and mind, and the labor to be even better than you were yesterday.
The difference between these two teams, say many observers here, can be summed up simply. Where the Yankees tend to fill their roster with high-price free agents fresh off the market, the Orioles like to build their ball club from the basement up.
Under the general theory that a fast wallet beats a slow farm system, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner buys expensive stars. The Orioles, in contrast, have grown their own.
It's a distinction in method that, going far beyond the sports world, appears these days in ballet companies, university faculties, corporations, and a host of other organizations. It can be summed up in one simple question: Do you buy talent or do you train it? From the pitcher's mound
The Orioles' answer is nowhere more apparent than on the pitcher's mound.
Over the years, the club has developed a reputation for turning out not flame-throwing wonders but resourceful, dependable pitchers - players who stay in a game long after most smoking hurlers begin to fizzle out and who can think their way through a lineup. And Ray Miller swears it's no accident.
Back in the bullpen, where Mike Boddicker is warming up, all you see is the sheer work of leg up, heave, catch, leg up, heave, catch. Twenty or 30 feet away Ray Miller works his stable of pitchers through some basic fielding exercises, casting an occasional glance in Boddicker's direction.
What Orioles pitching coach Miller and his associates teach their hurlers is a matter of some import to the game of baseball, and it has wider meaning to the world of sports in general.
''A lot of people believe we just have good pitchers and I'm lucky to be here ,'' Miller says as Jim Palmer's fastball whizzes by his head and cracks into a catcher's glove. But he adds that the Orioles have long cherished a strong pitching philosophy, one that they've built their club around.
During an interview earlier in the day, Palmer, a longtime pitching star, points out that the pitching tradition at the Orioles predates the reign of recently retired manager Earl Weaver.
''You can go way back to Paul Richards,'' he says, ''who loved to get good young pitchers. This was always pretty much of a pitching-oriented organization.'' With the advent of the draft, Palmer adds, the Orioles, being a top-ranking club, generally found themselves drawing from the bottom every year. ''By the time you get that far down in the draft, there's nothing left but guys with good arms.''
So, since life gave them lemons, the Orioles made lemonade - a particularly tasty variety. They made it their business to train the pitchers they got and to keep them around for a long time. ''We've never had to go with 6 out of 8 pitchers with only two or three years' experience,'' Palmer points out.
What all of this spells in the minds of most observers is ''depth'' and ''consistency'' - two words that Miller (who is only the third pitching coach in the organization's history) swears the Orioles pitchers have lived by since Earl Weaver began managing the club in 1968.
According to Miller - who looks the way Robert Mitchum would if he spent his spring and summer hustling a flock of pitchers around the field, and his autumns pacing a dugout throughout playoffs and series action - the philosophy starts at the bottom of the draft. There, they scan the pitching talent on hand. Miller says the organization will pass up ''a guy with a jerky motion, a big high-leg kicker with a 92 mile-an-hour fastball'' and go for a kid ''with a smooth and controlled motion'' who clocks in the 80s. In other words, the Orioles are looking for a few good men, not a handful of cranky prima donnas.
This approach dovetails with the club's overall recruiting philosophy - which , over the years, has been based on finding and training athletes who could put team effort over personal glory.
On the laurel-strewn mound, known for its tempermental tenants, the challenge of finding selfless performers can be particularly imposing.
Earl Weaver always dealt with this special challenge, pitching staffers agree , by treating pitchers the same as he treated everybody else: He screamed at them.
''I had to tell Earl I couldn't pitch if he hollered at me,'' recalls Tippy Martinez, the veteran Oriole left-hander who is now the club's outstanding relief pitcher. But Martinez adds that there was more than lung-power behind the Orioles' philosophy for developing good, solid players. ''The coaches have always had an ability to spot talent, to know what is inside a person,'' Martinez says in a gentle, reflective tone. ''They can tell a kid's heart and his sense, if he's got that special drive. They know, when they get a ballplayer , that they intend to stay with him for a good, long time.''
Which tells you the most important ingredient in the Orioles' philosophy: They believe in growing their own, and growing them slowly, in the farm system. Reflections of the legendary Ford
The legendary Yankee hurler, Whitey Ford, seems almost wistful during an interview in the nearby Yankee training camp as he contrasts the Orioles' home-grown philosophy with his own team's high-spending ways.
''Going back to Catfish Hunter,'' he says, ''we've been buying a couple of pitchers a year in the free-agent system, all established pitchers.'' Whitey observes that ''We've won doing that, and we've lost doing that.'' But he acknowledges that the Orioles have ''made themselves some good pitchers.''
''Everybody on the Orioles knows their job,'' he adds. ''They always have four or five guys there who know they are going to be steady pitchers.''
Yankee coaches might well cast a longing eye at a club like the Orioles, with its history of building and holding good athletes. New York fans have watched in horror in recent years as the championship Yankee team of 1978 has been ruthlessly dismantled and sold off in an increasingly desperate search for the high-ticket thoroughbred who would somehow turn the losing tide.
If fans have found the process disheartening, Yankee veterans are all the more dismayed by it. The latest cause of their discontent is the loss of Richard (Goose) Gossage.
Sitting in the dugout before a game, Yankee veteran Lou Piniella laments the loss of Gossage, whose wondrous relief pitching talents had knitted themselves into the fabric of the team. ''A free agent is only good if you surround him with a good team,'' Piniela muses. ''But he won't turn your team around.''
And the Yankees desperately need turning around. The club has limped though this year's preseason, never managing to muster and sustain that mysterious quality that starts enthusiasm and wins games.
''On paper, it would appear that we would be an outstanding team,'' says utility infielder and streak-hitter Roy Smalley, shaking his head in wonder. But , he adds, ''We're just not scoring runs.''
Actually, the problem goes a bit deeper than ''not scoring runs'' - as you can discover from any Yankee who remembers that championship season when, for a fleeting summer or two, the talk of hired guns and prima donnas faded and the New York Yankees played like a team.
''The difference between the ballplayers of that team,'' observes Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry, referring to the 1978 World Chamionship team, ''is that these are even better players.''
''The only thing this team lacks,'' he adds, ''is that we can't seem to play as a unit. In 1977 and 1978 we played together. If we lost badly, we all lost. If we didn't have good pitching, we had lousy hitting.
''Not too many guys around here know what it takes to be a champion. There are a few of us left - Randolph, Piniella, Nettles, me - but it's got to be more than four or five guys. It's got to be 25 guys, all playing together.'' Like an airport terminal
The difference between the Yankees and the Orioles smacks you cold in the face when you come into the Yankee locker room. It has a sense of vacant space, like a bus station or an airport where everyone is thrown together by something as haphazard as travel plans or baseball contracts.
Standing a tall quiet figure in the midst of this lonely crowd, third baseman Graig Nettles laments that ''now we're in the rent-a-player era.'' He recalls the days when ''we had all played together for a few years.'' Then he ticks off the losses since the championship 1978 season. ''We got rid of (Chris) Chambliss , we got rid of (Bucky) Dent, we got rid of (Mickey) Rivers,'' he says. ''I miss that team very much.''
His words seem especially poignant after visiting the Orioles dugout with its sense of tradition and community. And it sounds a note that one seldom hears in the cacophony of big contracts, prima donna tantrums, and the general commercialism of modern sports: There is a bond which grows up between teammates and between teams and fans.
You could hear that note in the cheers Yankee fans gave later in the day to former Yankee Bucky Dent, who was traded away two seasons ago and who was now playing against their team in a Texas Ranger uniform.
And you could hear it in the comments of Roy White, who played outfield in the championship team and who now coaches for the Yankees.
Talking in his deep, quiet baritone, White sips hot soup and recalls that the key ingredient of that championship team was ''self-sacrifice.'' ''Guys who played together for four or five years,'' he recalls, learned one another's ways and learned how to respond to one another.
''If you looked at our lineup that year, (you'd realize that) a couple other teams looked better on paper, but they couldn't do the little things we did so well together. We hit behind our runners. If we got a guy on second, we could move him to third. And once he was at third, we knew we could get him home.''
These little things are like the changing of speeds that Ray Miller teaches Oriole pitchers. Here in the spring training camp, they practice releasing the ball a fraction of a second later - so that seven months from now it will all hopefully blend into a championship blur for all the self-appointed experts to argue over.
But to the players who have worked their way through the training camps of these two teams, the difference is far more profound than a slight change of speed in a fastball.
Yankee catcher Rick Cerone sums up the difference this way. Here in the Yankee camp, he says, ''your life is on the line every day. You're always looking over your shoulder. Under those circumstances, it can be hard to get together.''
And that's what it's got to be, he says: ''Twenty-five guys, united together.''