If you were born any time after October 16, 1983, there has not been an Orioles World Series championship, or even the Orioles playing in a World Series, in your lifetime. Anyone who was younger than five years old or so probably doesn’t have much memory of the local baseball team winning it all that year. That’s a whole lot of people, including me, for whom the Orioles winning a title is something they can only imagine what it must have been like.
In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano says of his role in the family business, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” It’s a line I’ve thought about a lot as an Orioles fan, although there was, at least, the nice stretch from 2012-16. The best was before I was ever born.
This year marks 50 years since the 1970 Orioles won it all. In the same way that a radio broadcast of a baseball game might play an old game as rain delay alternate programming, Camden Chat is going to be celebrating this O’s championship as our coronavirus alternate programming with a series of retro recaps of some of the best games won by that team over the course of their title season.
For those like me in the “weren’t alive yet” group when these legendary Orioles teams did their thing, it’s tough to even have an idea what a team as good as the 1970 Orioles must have been like to watch. The 1997 Orioles, who went wire-to-wire in the AL East, were pretty dang good, and they still won 10 fewer games than the 1970 squad. The 2014 team, the best of my adult lifetime, came up 12 wins shy of the Birds of ‘70.
Another way to think about how good the 1970 Orioles were is to think for a minute about how bad the 2019 Orioles were. It was a tough thing for Orioles fans to do to watch, or even think about, that outclassed team getting their butts kicked night in and night out. They lost 108 times, or two-thirds of the games that they played. This is exactly how many games that the 1970 Orioles won.
When you look at who was on the team and how they did that year, it’s no surprise. This is pretty much every old Oriole your dad ever talked about. There were great seasons from the three future Hall of Famers, Brooks and Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer, and managing the squad was Earl Weaver in his only win.
Of course, it wasn’t only the Hall of Famers who made sure the O’s won it all that year. Boog Powell brought the AL MVP to Baltimore with a season where he batted .297/.412/.549, hitting 35 home runs and driving in 114 runs. I can’t even imagine an Oriole having a .400+ on-base percentage. Powell was one of two that year: Outfielder Don Buford, who walked 109 times, posted a .406 OBP.
Powell and Buford weren’t exactly outliers. The whole team was good at getting on base. They led the AL in OBP and runs scored.
Joining Palmer in the rotation were Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, each of whom ended up hitting a grand slam during the course of the 1970 postseason. Oh yes, it was so long ago that there was no designated hitter yet. Cuellar and McNally combined to rack up 37 complete games and five shutouts just by themselves. Their performance plus Palmer’s is a big reason why the O’s had the best ERA in the AL.
Most games, the catcher was Elrod Hendricks, who to me was only ever just a coach. Hendricks threw out 48% of the runners who tried to steal on him that year. It’s mind-blowing. Up the middle in the infield were Davey Johnson - yes, the same one who managed the O’s in the mid-90s - and Mark “The Blade” Belanger, who really was as good at fielding as he was bad at hitting. Manning center field was Paul Blair, on the way to winning the fourth of his eight Gold Gloves.
Even the bench was stocked with names you’ve heard again and again. Bobby Grich, who should probably be in the Hall of Fame, was just a rookie who played in 30 games. Future manager Johnny Oates was there for five games. Terry Crowley - the future hitting coach who you may have wanted to be fired for years before he was - platooned against righties. Don Baylor, Andy Etchebarren - they were all there and they all brought something to the table.
Incredibly, this wasn’t even the best Orioles team ever. They won 109 games the previous year before falling to the “Miracle” Mets in the World Series. That’s something I can’t imagine, either - the disappointment of such a great O’s team losing in the end, but you didn’t have to be that disappointed since they won it all in 1966. Since this was before the free agency days, they could bring pretty much the whole team back with no problem, and that’s what they did.
The result was another phenomenal performance from a dynasty. The Orioles had a winning record in every month of the regular season. They had a winning record against every team they played except for the Twins, who they ended up sweeping in the ALCS. They led the AL East for good from their 16th game of the season. They had 14 walkoff wins and they never lost more than three games in a row.
I’ve been getting lost in amazing 1970 Orioles tidbits all weekend and I don’t want to give them all away at once before the retro recaps of great games start, so I’ll close with this one. The 1970 Orioles finished the regular season with an 11-game winning streak that began after they’d already clinched the AL East title. The 2014 team never won more than six in a row; in 1997, they topped out at seven straight wins. Eleven in a row! It’s unfathomable.
Check back every weekday from now until Orioles baseball returns to us for a little retro look back on a greater Orioles team than has ever been seen in my lifetime. I’ll get things started tomorrow morning with the O’s Opening Day win, where they got right back on the road towards what was denied them by the Miracle Mets.