When Scott McGregor sees the Baltimore Orioles in a jam this year, he has a funny feeling: calm.
“I watch the game every night, and I think, ‘They’re gonna win,’” he said. “I don’t care what the score is — they’re gonna win.”
The 69-year-old knows what he’s talking about. For 13 seasons, the left-hander was a stalwart of the Orioles starting rotation. And he remembers the last time he was on a team that could inspire the same feeling: 1983.
That was the last year the Orioles won the World Series, wrapping up the Philadelphia Phillies in five tidy games. But throughout that season, when the team got into late-inning deficits, teammates remember Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray used to say: “We got ’em right where we want ’em — they think they can win.”
The last Orioles World Series victory in 1983 is now 40 years gone, but thankfully not too far gone. A hearty chunk of the team, which won 98 games and topped the Philadelphia Phillies in a 4-1 series, has returned to Baltimore this weekend for festivities which will culminate in a pregame ceremony Saturday.
What’s all the more appetizing is that the ’83 Orioles are coming to celebrate at a lively Camden Yards that has a team atop the American League. Glenn Gulliver, a lightly used infielder on the ’83 team, said he was shocked when he came to Camden Yards a number of years ago and saw so many empty seats. Now there has been a shift.
“I’ve been watching them on TV the last weekend, and the place is packed,” he said. “You know, they’re cool again.”
The ’83 team would have had a hard time fathoming going 40 years without an appearance on baseball’s biggest stage. With a championship, those Orioles put their stamp on what was one of the most admired baseball dynasties of the era. Behind immaculate defense and one of the MLB’s best pitching staffs, the Orioles went to six World Series from 1966 to 1983 and won three of them.
The keys were continuity, competitiveness and perhaps the fiery leadership of Earl Weaver (who left the team after the 1982 season, replaced by Joe Altobelli). But there was a camaraderie in Baltimore that was uncommon in the league.
In 1983, John “T-Bone” Shelby was the next big thing in the Orioles clubhouse, a switch-hitter from Kentucky who could throw on a rope who was pushing for veteran Al Bumbry’s center field spot. Early in Shelby’s tenure, reporters would ask him daily about taking Bumbry’s job — all the more awkward because Bumbry’s locker was next to his own.
It’s the kind of tension that fractures clubhouses every year in the big leagues. But, in a private moment, Bumbry told Shelby: “Hey, we’re not gonna let these guys come in between us. I’m pulling for you more than you could ever imagine.”
Petty squabbles were beneath them. More than anything, the Orioles wanted to win.
“The desire that these guys had,” Shelby recalled Friday, as a beaming Bumbry sat by his side, “it carried over to me.”
Baltimore just felt different than other markets. Singleton arrived in 1975 after stints with the Mets and the Expos, a hardened vet at 27. Two things happened relatively quickly. Against Singleton’s protests, Weaver moved him into the leadoff spot because (in an insight ahead of its time) Singleton’s on-base percentage was so high. The second thing was Brooks Robinson slipped an arm over his shoulder and told him how things worked in Baltimore.
“He said, ‘Ken, welcome to the Orioles,’” Singleton recalled. “‘You do not need to do it by yourself. We have a lot of good players.’”
That was still true in 1983, even though some of the faces had changed. Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. were the stars of that team, slamming home runs and big hits seemingly whenever they were needed (Ripken would win the MVP). Mike Flanagan, Storm Davis, Mike Boddicker and McGregor all would win at least 12 games as starters with sub-4 ERAs.
The core of the team was driven by unfinished business in the 1979 Series, and they had a common sense of mission.
McGregor took the ’79 loss in Game 7, when the Pittsburgh Pirates came back from a 3-1 deficit to steal a championship the Orioles believed had been rightfully theirs — “we already figured out what ring we were gonna have and forgot to win the last game,” he said. The night before he was to pitch in the clinching Game 5 start in ’83, he was up at 2 a.m. weeping at the dreadful notion that the O’s might blow it again.
“I kept thinking we cannot be the only team in history to do this twice,” McGregor said. He needn’t have fretted, throwing a complete game without allowing a run in the victory.
Even beyond some of the biggest names, some of the most memorable plays of the season came thanks to role players. One of the unlikeliest wins of the season came on Aug. 24 against the Toronto Blue Jays when, thanks to a number of lineup substitutions, the Orioles fielded Gary Roenicke at third, John Lowenstein at second and Lenn Sakata at catcher (“I had not worn that equipment since Little League,” Sakata remembered).
But Tippy Martinez made unlikely history, becoming the first pitcher ever to pick off three runners in an MLB game. Sakata later hit the game-winning three-run homer, forever sealing a classic.
“I think Eddie Murray coined the phrase, ‘Every night is a different hero,” Sakata said. “And I think that was true of that organization that whole year — anybody that was called up contributed to the success of the team.”
Maybe the Orioles of 40 years ago feel a little like the Orioles of today? Some of the ’83 team — those that have kept up — see the parallels.
Bumbry mentioned the chemistry of the ’23 Orioles as one of the most encouraging common signs. Rick Dempsey, naturally, is drawn to Adley Rutschman’s influence from behind the plate: “He has an effect on the pitching staff that you don’t see anywhere in baseball.”
The Orioles’ depth — which has seen players such as Adam Frazier, Aaron Hicks and Ryan O’Hearn rise beyond their expectations — is reminiscent of the ’83 team’s tenacity no matter who was on the field. Jim Palmer, the Orioles ace across three decades, spent much of the 1983 season injured. A woman approached Palmer on Friday asking him to sign a team photo, and as Palmer took the pen, he said ruefully, “Right by the team trainer, of course.”
Those Orioles found a way to get the job done. And they think this team could, too.
“I like what I see, that’s for sure,” Singleton said. “Even if they don’t win this year, I have a feeling they won’t be bringing [the 1983 Orioles] back because we were the last team to win the World Series. I’ve got a feeling this team is gonna get it done.”
In 1983, it may have seemed like a given that the Orioles would be back in the World Series, if not the next season then maybe in just a few more. But baseball changed. After the 1981 strike, free agency meant players moved around more and started gravitating to big-money markets (Dempsey and Shelby wound up with the Dodgers, winning the 1988 World Series). The Orioles’ famous franchise stability also took a tumble after then-owner Edward Bennett Williams fired executive Hank Peters, who had been widely recognized as one of the architects of the dynasty.
Palmer recalled when Ripken told him that he figured he would play in more World Series in his career after ’83, but it never happened again. Only now can the Orioles appreciate what a rare run they had — he thinks the team’s No. 1-rated farm system is a good sign of what can return.
“The continuity was unbelievable,” Palmer said. “The farm system was kind of where they are now. We not only had really good teams, we had good organizations and farm systems.”
The Orioles’ rising tides are building hope that Baltimore can once again be a baseball town. One of Boddicker’s enduring memories is not from 1983 but actually 1982, when the Orioles lost the deciding game of the AL East on the last night of the season to Milwaukee. It was a gut punch to a team that had won four straight games going into the tiebreaker.
“We were pretty down, and I remember them coming into the clubhouse and saying, ‘You gotta come out – [the fans] won’t leave,” Boddicker recalled. “Standing ovation. We’re like, ‘Wow, we just lost.’ And they wouldn’t leave. That kind of pumps you up a little bit and pushes you for next year, when they appreciate you that much.”
When members of the ’83 team take the field Saturday, they’ll see a crowd not just swelling to see them, but to see the Orioles — a comeback of the “Orioles Magic” that the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s teams might have taken for granted in the midst of their success.
“That’s hard to find,” Boddicker said. “That’s hard to get. And, when you get it, you better not let it go.”