Inspired by Taylor Swift re-releasing her own songs as (Taylor’s version), Camden Chat writers will be spending the rest of 2023 re-releasing some Orioles game recaps and giving them better endings. Let’s come up with a more pleasant finale for the 1979 World Series, because how it actually ended was far less enjoyable.
Entering the 1979 World Series, only three teams had ever won it all after being down in a 3-1 series hole. Could the Baltimore Orioles and their stable of aces slow down a hot Pittsburgh offense in Game 7 and prevent the Pirates from becoming the fourth?
Yes, they could and they did, much to the delight of an ecstatic crowd of 53,733 that packed Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on a warm night in October.
All it took were some managerial heroics from the legendary Earl Weaver, who, with his team clinging to a 1-0 lead in the sixth, bucked conventional wisdom and brought in his ace, Game 5 starter Mike Flanagan, to relieve a flagging Scott McGregor. The gambit worked: Flanagan kept the shutout alive for three tense innings, and the Orioles held on to win a nailbiter and secure their third franchise championship.
Over the regular season, Baltimore had dominated other teams with “The Oriole Way,” a formula combining great pitching, defense, and the occasional three-run homer. The roots of the system lay back in the ‘50s, but the 1979 team was made in this same mold. It boasted the AL’s best pitching staff, with league-leading marks in team ERA (3.26), opposing average (.241), shutouts (12) and complete games (52). It featured a five-headed monster of a rotation led by Mike Flanagan (who, with a 23-9 record and 3.08 ERA, would go on to win the Cy Young that year), along with Jim Palmer, Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor and Steve Stone, none of whom had an ERA above 3.77.
On offense, the team was paced by Ken Singleton, having a monster 5.3 WAR season with a .295 BA, .938 OPS and 304 total bases (he’d finish second in the MVP voting), Gary Roenicke, who posted a 141 OPS+ while playing a solid left field, Eddie Murray, with his .295 average, 25 home runs and 99 RBIs, and center fielder Al Bumbry, who led the team with 37 steals.
The 1979 Orioles hadn’t gone wire-to-wire, but they’d come darn close, soaring into the AL East’s top spot on May 18 and protecting it over the final 120 games. With a 102-57 record (the third-best finish in franchise history), they sewed up a comfortable postseason berth, finishing eight games ahead of second-place Milwaukee and eleven-and-a-half beyond the third-place Red Sox.
All this is to say, the Orioles came into the World Series as heavy favorites against Pittsburgh. The 98-64 Pirates, known for their motto “We Are Family,” had a great manager, Chuck Tanner, and lots of depth, but very little starpower. Their lone All-Star was right fielder Dave Parker, and while first baseman Willie Stargell had been good in the regular season, he hadn’t been great (.281 BA, 32 HR, 82 RBI, 2.5 WAR, partly due to poor fielding metrics).
After steamrolling the California Angels in the ALCS and taking three of the first four games of the World Series, the Orioles were suddenly confronted with a trifecta of problems: ice-cold bats, late-innings meltdowns, and Willie Stargell.
The Pirates first baseman was exploding that postseason, with a .361 BA and 1.196 OPS through nine games, including five RBIs in the Series heading into Game 7 (a performance that helped Stargell sew up a, let’s say, controversial NL MVP award). Meanwhile, in Games 5 and 6 the Orioles staff had allowed eleven runs in the sixth inning or later, while the hitters had managed a measly one run, their bats stuck in a deep freeze.
Now it was time for the series finale. With Stargell hot, the O’s bullpen and the hitters not, it would be imperative for Earl Weaver to manage this game tightly. And that’s just what he did.
Lefty Scott McGregor, who earned a complete-game win in Game 3, got the start, and for five innings, he was brilliant, limiting the Pirates’ offense to just three hits.
The Orioles offense, meanwhile, was not matching McGregor’s brilliance, but they had actually managed to score a solo run, thanks to an unlikely deep drive off the bat of second baseman Rich Dauer, who’d homered just nine times during the season. Whatever had gotten into Dauer, he took a crack at Pittsburgh righty Jim Bibby’s first offering, and thwacked it to deep left field to put his team up 1-0.
The lead held until the top of the sixth, when Pirates outfielder Bill Robinson got aboard with a one-out single to bring up—of course—the sizzling hot Willie Stargell. Robinson’s single was just the Pirates’ fourth hit off McGregor, but to the amazement of the crowd, the O’s skipper immediately came trotting out of the dugout to pull his starter.
Did Weaver know something we didn’t? Why was he ducking a potentially advantageous lefty-lefty matchup? Two reasons: one, the southpaw McGregor had reverse lefty-right splits that year—in fact, lefties were hitting him fifty points higher than righties. Two, and more importantly, McGregor had been totally owned by Stargell so far in the Series. In Game 3, the Pittsburgh first baseman went 2-for-4 against McGregor, and in two at-bats today, he already had a single and a double. Wisely, Earl Weaver wanted nothing to do with that “third time through the lineup” matchup.
Instead, he called on his ace southpaw Mike Flanagan, who’d held Stargell to just one hit in two solid Series starts so far. It wasn’t a risk-free move by any means: Flanagan had given his team fifteen innings already, and was pitching on just three days’ rest. Plus, in both of his past two starts, fatigue had been an issue: Flanagan had allowed late runs in each game, including an eighth-inning home run in Game 5 to—gulp—Willie Stargell.
With Robinson on first and one out, Flanagan challenged Stargell to put the ball in play, and the result was a win for Flanagan: a fly ball to right that Ken Singleton reeled in without difficulty. Bill Madlock followed with a weak groundout to third, and now the Orioles were just nine outs away from a World Championship.
This was an especially tough ask for Flanagan, who’d have to carry this team on his back, since the team was simply not scoring any more runs. Their closest chance came in the eighth, when they loaded the bases on walks—Lee May and Al Bumbry took consecutive free passes before Ken Singleton got an intentional IBB with two outs. But the rally ended on an Eddie Murray flyout to Dave Parker in right.
Still, Flanagan stayed focused and mowed down the Pirates in the seventh and eighth innings, with just one single allowed.
Finally, with one last chance to salvage a championship, the Pirates sent up the heart of the order in the ninth, the same dangerous outfit that Flanagan had faced when he entered in the sixth in relief. Bill Robinson flew out to left. Willie Stargell connected on a noisy drive to center-right, and Memorial Stadium let out a collective gasp. But instead of a home run like he’d hit off Flanagan in Game 5, this time the ball ended up in a ranging Al Bumbry’s glove just short of the warning track.
The Pirates were down to their last hitter: second-year catcher Steve Nicosia, 0-for-8 against Flanagan in the Series thus far. Could Nicosia escape fate, with two outs in the ninth? No, happily, he could not. Nicosia’s grounder was scooped up by shortstop Mark Belanger, brought in as a pinch runner in the eighth. Belanger fired off a clean throw to Eddie Murray at first, and Memorial Stadium erupted.
It was a fitting performance for Mike Flanagan, the O’s temperamental lefty who shone so brightly that year. And it was all made possible by Earl Weaver, who’d spotted a matchup he could manipulate to his team’s advantage, even when the offense wasn’t firing. Above all, it was a fitting end for one of the greatest Orioles teams in history, a club so dominant in pitching and defense. I guess it’s the Oriole Way.