When he got the call, Bill Swaggerty was oblivious to most of the particulars. The only thing that mattered to him was that a childhood dream was about to come true. Everything else was immaterial.
Well, almost immaterial.
The date was Aug. 13, 1983, and the Baltimore Orioles were in the midst of their second losing funk of the season. They had lost seven games in a row, matching an earlier losing streak, and had dropped from first to fourth place in the American League’s tight Eastern Division race. The Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays were threatening to make the Orioles irrelevant.
“I knew about the losing streak, but not how many games,” Swaggerty recalled ahead of the 35th anniversary reunion of the last Baltimore team to win the World Series. “And I certainly didn’t realize they had dropped from first to fourth. … All I knew was that I was going to realize my dream and ‘toe the rubber’ in the big leagues.”
Though they would end up winning the AL East by a comfortable six games, it wasn’t a walk in the park 35 years ago as the Orioles won the sixth pennant in club history. They had been swept in Cleveland and lost the first two games of a series in Chicago, and there was at least a hint of panic. Swaggerty became the eighth Orioles pitcher to start a game in 1983, a rarity for a team still relying for the most part on a four-man rotation.
Mike Flanagan had missed the first couple of months, and Jim Palmer also had injury issues during what would prove to be the last full season of a Hall of Fame career. Mike Boddicker had earlier been summoned from the minors and became a stalwart alongside Scott McGregor in a rotation that also included Dennis Martinez and Storm Davis.
Swaggerty had a 9-6 record when the Orioles made him the third starter to be called up from their Triple-A Rochester club, following Boddicker and Allan Ramirez. It was highly unusual for the Orioles to dig that deep into their minor league system, but it would prove to be a pivotal game at a crucial time.
“I actually came up the night before and kept the chart for Mike Flanagan’s game [a 2-1 loss], but I had no guarantees and no idea how long I would stay up,” Swaggerty said. “There were no promises and I had no expectations. … They told me I was coming up to make a spot start and that would be it.
“I remember [pitching coach] Ray Miller pulling me aside and telling me, ‘The reason we brought you up is because we think you are the right guy to win this game.’ I’m sure Ray was trying to puff me up a bit but it made me feel good when he said that.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Swaggerty pitched six solid if not spectacular innings, holding the White Sox to two runs — but was not the pitcher of record.
“Cal [Ripken Jr.] hit a two-run homer, Sammy [Stewart, who pitched two innings] got the win and Tippy [Martinez] closed it out,” said Swaggerty, who stayed around for 10 more days before being optioned back to Rochester.
The “shuttle” between the major leagues and Triple-A wasn’t as popular then as it is today, but the guy teammates call “Swags” returned Sept. 1 and earned his first win exactly one month after his MLB debut, a 7-1 win in Boston Sept. 13.
“And that was the first time I had pitched in a month,” Swaggerty said. “I didn’t pitch at all after going back to Rochester, so that was my next game.
“That one was in relief. I came in for Ramirez, who got hurt in the second inning, so there wasn’t time to get nervous. Ellie [Hendricks, the bullpen coach] said to me, ‘You’re up,’ so I headed for the warm-up mound and he said, ‘No, not there, you’re in the game.'”
After five-plus innings of relief, Swaggerty had his first win, which quite naturally has always been overshadowed by the best no-decision of his career.
In a perfect world the game in Chicago, in addition to being remembered as the “turnaround” game for a team that went on to win the World Series, would be noted as the one that jump-started a long and productive career. But the baseball world is routinely far from perfect and Swaggerty’s career lasted a total of one year and 43 days — spread across four seasons, all with the Orioles.
“I look at it like being in the right place at the right time,” he said, “and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. If you could give me three more years in the big leagues, I don’t think I could give up my World Series ring.
“To be part of that game, with that team, to be part of winning a pennant and a World Series with those guys is special. That group is the best we ever had,” said Swaggerty, who has continued to make his home in the Baltimore area.
“That season ended up being the end of a long run — but we didn’t know it at the time. We thought there was more to come, but then the Tigers got off to that [35-5] start the next year and things seemed to change in a hurry.”
Swaggerty spent parts of the next three seasons with the Orioles, but there was nothing to compare with his debut.
The first time he “toed the rubber” in the big leagues would prove to be the highlight of his career. But while he may be best remembered for one pivotal game during the Orioles’ most recent championship run, “Swags” is more content to let his career be defined by the ring he so proudly owns. •
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Issue 249: November 2018