Any discussion about the 1970 Orioles inevitably ends with Brooks Robinson’s magnificent MVP performance in the World Series win against the Cincinnati Reds.
But it also brings the startling reminder that it’s been a half-century since pitching coach George Bamberger started the year with a bold prediction and a young rookie had a similar experience to one Cal Ripken Jr. would have 13 years later. Where have you gone, Bobby Grich?
Having had one 20-game winner (Dave McNally) in 1968, two in 1969 (Mike Cuellar and McNally) and with Jim Palmer healthy after a 16-win season, Bamberger went on record at the end of spring training and predicted the Orioles would boast three 20-gamers in 1970. Not only did that trio make Bamberger a prophet, they also anchored the smallest and most successful pitching staff in the major leagues.
During that runaway season (when they won 22 of 30 games to start and the last 11 to finish), the Orioles used a total of 12 pitchers. Remember, this is before the designated hitter came into play.
It’s like comparing apples to watermelons, given the new age era of “openers,” but the World Series champion Washington Nationals used 10 pitchers last year — as starters. It’s hardly worth mentioning that O’s manager Brandon Hyde had 18 different pitchers start a game last year.
Earl Weaver’s 1970 staff, of course, used the four-man rotation that stayed in vogue through the early 1980s. In addition to McNally (40), Cuellar (40) and Palmer (39), Jim Hardin (21) and Tom Phoebus (19) split the final spot in the rotation that started 159 of the team’s 162 games. Marcelino Lopez started the other three — one in a doubleheader, the other two in late September while Weaver set up his rotation for the postseason (when only McNally, Cuellar and Palmer were used as starters).
The three 20-game winners accounted for 54 of the team’s 60 complete games that year. Palmer, in what was actually his first completely healthy season, piled up 305 innings pitched. Cuellar (297) and McNally (296) were right behind, while Hardin (145) and Phoebus (135) combined for 280. Hardin’s 3.53 was the highest earned run average among the starters on a team that compiled a team ERA of 3.15.
As astounding as the pitching performance was in 1970, however, an offseason trade of Phoebus for Pat Dobson only served to encourage Bamberger to up the ante and predict four 20-game winners for the next year. Which he did. And which Palmer, Cuellar, McNally and Dobson did.
But we’re talking 1970, an unlikely year for Grich to make his big-league debut. He was halfway through what would have been a career minor-league year when he got an unexpected call from his manager at Rochester.
“It was June 28 and Cal Ripken Sr. called me into his office and said, ‘Bobby, I’ve got something to tell you,'” Grich said, “and I knew right away I was going to the big leagues.”
What he couldn’t have imagined at the time was that he wouldn’t return to Rochester until the following season, when he actually did have his career minor-league year.
“Clay Dalrymple had broken his ankle, and I knew that Earl liked to have three catchers, which is probably why he didn’t give me the warmest of greetings,” Grich recalled. “I think it was probably [general manager] Harry Dalton who wanted me to come up.”
The real reason Grich was summoned, however, was because infielder Bobby Floyd had been traded for Moe Drabowsky when the Orioles decided to bolster what proved to be a seldom-used corps of relief pitchers. He played the night after his meeting with Cal Sr. but only sparingly the rest of the year, and not at all in the postseason.
But the memories remain fresh.
“It was such a thrill for a young player,” Grich said. “The best team in baseball — you were surrounded by Hall of Famers. I was only three years out of high school, 21 years old, and I had [bubble gum] cards of guys I was playing with.”
“One thing that stands out was how good that team was on defense,” he added. “Everybody knew about Brooks, [Mark] Belanger and [Dave] Johnson. Boog [Powell] was kind of overshadowed but he was a big target and caught everything. And I always thought [Paul] Blair was underrated, even though he had those [six] Gold Gloves.”
But what Grich remembers most about 1970 is the ringside seat he had for the Brooks Robinson show during the World Series.
“We were in the third base dugout in both cities, so he made all those plays right in front of me. … He was amazing,” Grich said. “The play he made on Lee May, coming across the foul line, four or five steps into foul territory and then making the one-hop throw — I still think that’s the best play I’ve ever seen.”
Grich would play in the postseason five times, twice with the Orioles and three times with the Angels.
“But the World Series is special,” he said. “I can remember just going out between innings to warm up the pitcher in Cincinnati, looking around and letting it soak in.”
Like Cal Ripken Jr., Grich got a World Series ring very early in his career, with the expectations of more to come. And like Cal, he never got back. Yet another reminder that there are no guarantees.
The consolation is the ring and the memory.
“They treated me good,” Grich said. “I was only there half the season and they gave me two-thirds of a share, which was more than my salary the rest of the year.”
Hanging in his office at his home in California is a framed picture of that 1970 team celebrating the World Series championship.
“I look at it every day,” he said.
Probably makes him feel like a rookie again.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles