To all intents and purposes the American League East pennant race began at 10 o'clock last Saturday night in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. That's when Earl Weaver threw a bag of sunflower seeds against the dugout wall and proceeded to engage the umpires in jaw-to-jaw combat. He had already been thrown out of the game, although he didn't realize it, and when Second Base Umpire Rich Garcia took the trouble to remind him, Weaver came out of the dugout, ran up and down three umps, paraded to second base and stood on top of the bag. Then he followed Umpire Steve Palermo home, and, with a malicious grin, kicked dirt between Palermo's legs and all over the plate while he was bent over trying to clean it. It was this bravura performance that signaled the onset of bona fide pennant hostilities. "I'd give Earl a 9.5," said Yankee Manager Dick Howser. "He didn't use his hat as well as he could have."
That there is a divisional battle at all this year is a pleasant surprise, considering that on July 14 the Orioles were in fourth place, 11 games behind the Yankees. But since then they have won 24 of 33 games, including 10 in a row in one stretch and five of seven with the Yankees over the last two weekends, reducing New York's margin to 3� games. Of course, anything can happen in the six weeks remaining in the regular season—the Yankees still haven't reactivated Burleigh Grimes and Twinkletoes Selkirk, for instance—but, for now, the race is on.
About time, say Baltimore followers, who had been wondering whatever became of the team that had the best record in baseball last year while winning the AL East by eight games and romping through the Championship Series against California. The Orioles' slow start this season has been attributed to several factors. "We've had a lot of little injuries," says Shortstop Mark Belanger. "Not like California, but they've hurt us." Says Catcher Rick Dempsey, "We didn't lose any games because of outfield play last year, and very few in the infield, but this season the defense has cost us a few." The Orioles' pitching has been about the same, given the superb year Steve Stone is having. But the heart of the team is the switch-hitting Ken Singleton-Eddie Murray combination; the Orioles didn't begin to come around until those two started hitting. Rightfielder Singleton has batted .338 over his last 59 games to raise his average from .236 to .289. Before he went on his tear, he had been only 4 for 56 with men in scoring position, but since June 11 he has been batting .438 in those situations. Since the All-Star Game, First Baseman Murray has batted .350 to raise his average to .294. There is no way to pitch around the pair: Singleton bats .286 from the left side and .293 from the right, while Murray is hitting .292 from the left and .298 from the right.
With the Orioles' early-season problems behind them, not to mention five East Division teams, Memorial Stadium was packed to the gills with fans and media for the rare five-game, Thursday-to-Monday series with the Yankees.
Although it is only August, the playoff atmosphere was pervasive. "It's like a mini-World Series," said Tippy Martinez, the Baltimore reliever. The weekend before, the Orioles had humiliated New York by pulling off three come-from-be-hind victories, rising to within 2� games. The Yankees got one of those back by taking two of three from the White Sox while Baltimore was losing two of three to Kansas City. On Wednesday came news that New York had acquired Luis Tiant's boyhood idol, Gaylord Perry, from Texas for what is commonly referred to as the "stretch drive." At times like these, only clich�s will do.
Meanwhile, Bawlamer Mayor William D. Schaefer declared "Oriole Magic Week," and gave city employees early leave to attend Monday's 5 p.m. game. Weaver would have none of this fuss. "It's just one more game," he said. "Unless one team sweeps, this series won't mean much at the end of September. We've still got 50 games to go." Everyone was trying to be so casual about the series that Umpire Al Clark had to warn the players against fraternization before the opener. It was also Weaver's 50th birthday, although old friends maintain he's 53. It would be just like Weaver to try to get an edge on time.
On a steam cabinet of an evening, the Orioles opened with Steve Stone and the Yankees with Tom Underwood. From the time the 49,952 fans yelled "O's" at just the right moment during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner ("O's say does that..."), the Orioles were in charge. They jumped off to a quick 2-0 lead. Reggie Jackson, Mr. August, halved it with his 32nd homer of the year in the second inning, but the Yankees would get only one more hit off Stone all night. Stone, who upped his record to 19-4, has been doing a Jim Palmer imitation all season, and unless somebody pinches him, he'll give the Orioles their sixth Cy Young Award in the last 12 years.
The Oriole hitters had been rude to Underwood, Gary Roenicke putting him away with a two-run homer in the sixth. In the seventh Rich Dauer and Singleton homered on successive pitches from Ron Davis. The Orioles' three homers in the 6-1 win were unusual for two reasons: 1) they went out in the exact same spot, next to the Tippy's Tweeters banner (for Pitcher Martinez) in leftfield, and 2) the Orioles haven't been hitting many homers. "I've never seen as many singles as I have this season," says Belanger. And that's not good for a team that depends heavily on what Weaver calls "Dr. Longball."
The Yankees were understandably glum after their seventh loss in the last 11 games. The next day Tommy John said, "I was going to jump out the window this morning, but I was only on the first floor."
When Bob Watson walked into the visitors' clubhouse Friday afternoon, he wrote the following message on the blackboard: MEETING AT 5:50. NO STAFF. "I've been wanting to call a meeting for two weeks," Watson said later. "We're pressing. When the pressure builds up, it's like being stuck on a bus in a mud-hole. The harder you press on the pedal, the further you sink in the mud. It's not until everyone gets off and helps push that you get started again." In the meeting such veterans as Watson, Jackson, Bucky Dent, Rich Gossage and Lou Piniella spoke their minds. "Who do you think spoke the most?" asked Jackson, without waiting for the obvious answer. Something right must have been said because Willie Randolph hit Mike Flanagan's first pitch of the game over the right centerfield fence. Although Al Bumbry likewise led off with a homer for the Orioles, the tone of the evening had already been set. Jackson punched a two-run shot to the opposite field in the fourth for a 3-1 lead, and Rick Cerone singled in another run in the fifth, chasing Flanagan.