By Michael Olesker
Til Strudwick arrived from the standard distance: 40 years, six pennants and three World Series championships ago. Strudwick, 55, is a groundskeeper at Loyola College. He spotted Boog Powell across the packed room at Morgan State University last week and tried to throw his arms around the big guy, but he only made it about halfway. You might as well try hugging the Great Wall of China.
"These," Strudwick said , gesturing toward the big gathering of the 1966 World Champion Baltimore Orioles, "are my Boys of Summer, my Band of Brothers."
"Oh my God," said Powell, throwing his arms around Strudwick.
"I was 15 that year," said Strudwick, looking up at Powell.
"And you probably skipped school to watch us play," said Powell.
Then Rita Hinkel, 52, came over, nudging Strudwick aside to reach up and plant a soft one on Powell's cheek.
"I just want to kiss you again," she said.
"Great," said Powell, "when did we kiss before?"
"At the World Series in '66," she said. "I was in the bleachers and threw you a kiss. Don't you remember?"
Well, of course.
In their ninth consecutive Winter of Discontent, as the Orioles mark the 40th anniversary of their 1966 World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, everybody who was there remembered the warmth of that first kiss of success and everybody wonders -- nine years since the O's last division title, 23 years since their last World Series -- when it might happen again.
Jim Duquette wonders.
The Orioles' vice president for baseball operations was there at Morgan State's Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center last Thursday evening, as the Babe Ruth Museum brought together 18 of the '66 Orioles and about 750 of their old fans. Duquette was five months old when that last fly ball nestled in Paul Blair's glove in the vanished ballpark on 33rd Street and sent a whole town into a case of hysteria.
Blair, Powell and Jim Palmer are also wondering how long until the next World Series title comes to Baltimore. They were all there last week to mark the 1966 championship. Palmer, the color commentator on Orioles' telecasts these days, looks as if he could still go nine. He had just turned 21 when he handed Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers a 6-0 defeat in Game 2 that October. Blair, retired now after coaching Coppin State University baseball, was the guy whose home run beat the Dodgers, 1-0, in Game 3. He looks like he could still race across the outfield.
Frank Cashen wonders how long until the next Orioles' triumph, too.
Remember Cashen? He was executive vice president and chief operating officer of that Orioles' juggernaut that won big in '66 and then '69 through '71. He's down in Florida now. He was there when the Orioles swung the trade that made all the difference: Goodbye Milt Pappas, hello Frank Robinson.
It was all so long ago.
You could see it in the faces of those gathered last week. There was Hank Bauer, who managed the '66 team. The big ex-Marine with the countenance once famously described as "a face like a clenched fist" is now 84 and shrunken. There was Brooks Robinson, surrounded by fans who still see every ground ball that escapes the Orioles' left side and think, "Brooksie woulda ate that up." And there was Tom Phoebus, the Mount St. Joseph kid still remembered for an afternoon no-hitter against the Red Sox in '68.
"The thing you notice," said Mike Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, "is how much these guys still feel for each other."
Part of it was winning, but another was familiarity. Brooks Robinson and Palmer played here across two decades, Powell for 13 years, Blair and the late Dave McNally each, Andy Etchebarren a decade and Dick Hall eight years. Even Frank Robinson, a relative short-timer, was here for six years. In today's free-agent era, when players bounce from team to team, six years seems like a lifetime.
"You know," Powell said, glancing toward some of his old teammates in the crush last week, "I was kind of worried I might not recognize some of these guys. But it's like nothing ever changed. We still want to be each other's friends. We left the hotel and came over here on the bus, and it was like nothing had changed, all that old give and take. Hell, we played together from the time we were infants, you know?
"And the fans, too. Look, when I started, if a kid was 7 years old, he was 20 by the time I left Baltimore. I had that kid's attention for 13 years. That counts for something, doesn't it?"
It's the thing missing from so much of today's sports picture: familiarity. When the Orioles were winning in the '60s and '70s and into the '80s, a whole town felt as if it knew these guys. Many players came up through the vaunted Baltimore farm system and stayed for years. By the twin victorious seasons of the mid-'90s, winning was a kick -- but something was missing.
Who were these guys? We knew Cal Ripken, but he seemed the last of the breed. Too many of the others, obtained as free agents, seemed Rent-A-Champ types. The players were here and then they were gone. But it's the nature of our time. And it's the world in which Duquette tries to bring back a winner.
At the Oriole Park warehouse, Duquette's office is behind big glass doors carved with the most indelible memory of the '66 team: There's Brooksie, leaping from third base all the way into the arms of McNally and Etchebarren.
But, while Duquette sits behind a cluttered desk as the Detroit Tigers of 2006 leap into the World Series, what goes through his mind?
"How quickly things change," Duquette said. Three years ago, the Tigers were pitiful beyond measure. "They had a bunch of good players, but they weren't a team. (Manager Jim) Leyland made them a team. We have a bunch of premium players, too --Maybe not as many as Detroit yet--but we need to make them into a team."
Forty years ago, the Orioles were a good team turned great by the arrival of Frank Robinson.
"You talk to an old executive like Frank Cashen, it's so different today," said Duquette, who started his career with the Mets when Cashen ran the front office there. "The talent's thinned out so much. You have so many more people working in the front office today. We have 70 or 80. Cashen had a quarter of that. Everybody didn't have agents then. The money was so much smaller then.
"In the old days, you could tell by the size of the bar (where you met) if they wanted to make a deal. Today, everybody stocks their hotel rooms with coffee and bottled water. They had cigars and beer and talked strictly baseball. We talk finances and baseball. You get serious about a trade, you're looking into personality profiles, health records, doctors' notes. There's a 'buyers beware' attitude."
In the golden era of Orioles baseball, that two-decade period when the club collected titles and the best winning percentage in major league baseball, they said winning was based on the Oriole Way. It meant sound, fundamental baseball. It meant pitching and defense. It meant intricately stitching a team together from the time they arrived in the minors through all the years they stayed together in the big time.
"Right," Duquette said. "The Oriole Way. The thing is, you've got to have some way, a clear way. What way is our way? Fundamentals, pitching and defense, athleticism and younger. How did everybody get away from that? I don't know."
But Duquette appreciates what has been lost. "The old Orioles knew every year who was on their roster. They got along off the field, and on. Today's ballplayers come to the clubhouse alone and go their separate ways afterwards. You had depth in the minors and didn't have to rush players along. And you were building chemistry and cohesiveness all the way."
Cashen remembers how it was. He was there when the Frank Robinson deal was made.
"It was simple by today's standards," he said. "Used to be, you walked into a room or got on the phone and said, 'I'll give you so-and-so for so-and-so.' And it was done. Now you gotta go through agents and the league and all kinds of guys who run the money.
"Funny thing, when we made the deal for Frank, Hank Bauer wasn't anxious to make it. He said, 'They're asking me to give up my best pitcher.' But it was something else. Frank didn't have a good reputation. There was some stuff…"
He was caught carrying a gun one time. He was a clubhouse lawyer. The Cincinatti people called him an "old 30." Bauer, said Cashen, worried that such a guy "would upset clubhouse chemistry. It was a pretty good clubhouse. Those guys got to know each other. In those days, you had two guys to a room. Some of these guys today, they don't even stay in the same hotel.
"So you're bringing in this guy with a reputation from some place else. I remember we brought Frank over to the Belvedere Hotel. Me and Harry Dalton and Bob Brown. He looked at us suspiciously. He wasn't jumping up and down about being traded, believe me. And I remember telling him, 'We have one set of rules on this club, whether you're Frank or Brooks or Paul Blair.' And that was fine with him.
"Those ballclubs were like a unit. They encouraged each other. Brooks had been around and he'd always take, I don't know, 50 grounders a day. I'm making the number up, but it was a lot every day. The other guys saw that. As he got older, he'd take 75. It set an example for everybody. Anyway, that first day in spring training, he's the guy who went right to Frank's locker. Brooks was quiet. But he went over to Frank right away and made him feel right at home. And he told the guys, 'He's OK.' And it made Frank feel right at home."
Today, everybody seems to arrive from some place else.
"It was like a family back then," Blair said at the reunion. "You were playing baseball, and you were comfortable with the guys around you. You knew them. Today, people don't talk about baseball. They talk about steroids, or they talk about money. We talked about winning, man. They get to the World Series today, what's the big deal to these guys? They're already making millions. Hell, we had to get there to pay our bills."
In '66, Blair's salary was $12,000. His World Series share was nearly identical.
"Yeah, to pay your bills," said Jim Palmer. "So you could move from a house on Loch Raven Boulevard to a nicer place in Timonium."
Palmer knows the street names because he's stuck around. Winning ballclubs were built that way.
"The Orioles and the Colts, too," Palmer said. "I mean, in this town, you had drinks at Bill Pellington's, you went bowling at Unitas', you bought beer at Jim Parker's, you had burgers at Ameche's or Gino's. We used to play golf all the time out at Pine Ridge. Me and Blair and McNally, guys like that. You knew these guys. You played with 'em year after year."
The whole town knew them, too. Forty Octobers later, we remember their names and faces and their glorious winning. And wonder when it will happen again.
Issue 1.27: October 26, 2006