Al Bumbry is 76 years old, though he looks younger than most his age and carries defined muscle in his forearms.
But when the former Orioles star — who lives in Lutherville — is introduced somewhere around town today as a 1983 World Series champion, he’s whisked back to a different time.
“I get a chill just from hearing it,” he told The Banner in a recent interview. “That’s probably the best way I can explain what my feelings are about that year.”
Hearing this, you might imagine the emotions that stirred inside Bumbry on Friday afternoon, when nearly two dozen of his teammates gathered in Baltimore for a luncheon inside Camden Yards’ iconic Warehouse, as part of a weekend celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Orioles’ last world championship team.
“Bee,” his old teammates called him during lunch and an ensuing media session. He was smiling, full of energy, and, like everyone else, not immune to fielding locker-room jokes he hasn’t heard in person in a while.
“When we were playing, he was taller than me,” reserve catcher John Stefero said, gripping the 5-foot-8 Bumbry on both shoulders, not that he took offense. Moments later, Bumbry was making sure everyone in the banquet room knew the relatively little-known Stefero’s impact on the ‘83 Orioles, despite playing in only nine games that year.
Though there was a joke at Stefero’s expense, too.
“Did you ask him about those game-winning hits that he got?” Bumbry said, recalling a story about how a then-23-year-old Stefero pinch hit late one game against the Yankees’ hard-throwing Goose Gossage at Yankee Stadium and knocked a liner into left field to drive in the go-ahead run. Afterward, Stefero told Bumbry he didn’t usually hit the ball that way since he was a righty pull hitter. “That’s Goose Gossage,” Bumbry replied. “He throws close to 100. That’s why that ball went that way. Not because you tried to hit it there.”
This is how the 1983 Orioles were with each other 40 years ago, and have been while reuniting in Baltimore this weekend for the first time in ages.
Some of Bumbry’s teammates from 1983 have kept local homes, including the closer, Tippy Martinez, and fellow outfielder Ken Singleton, though they also split time between here and Colorado and Florida, respectively. Others have remained closely connected to the team or town, be it pitcher Jim Palmer calling O’s games on television or Cal Ripken Jr. doing charity work or Eddie Murray agreeing a few years ago to be a community ambassador for the club. But many more, such as pitcher Scott McGregor, who threw a complete-game shutout to clinch the World Series, left town when their playing careers ended.
Of everyone, Bumbry — who was the 1973 AL Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 1980 — spends the most time year round in Baltimore now. His son and former O’s draft pick, Steve, lives in the area and Bumbry has long had a stake in a Timonium sports memorabilia store, which maybe makes him most representative of the hometown view of this weekend’s reunion.
It looks like this: As the members of the Orioles team that beat the Philadelphia Phillies in five games to win the 1983 championship regroup four decades later, the current edition of the O’s is in first place in the entire American League. That’s somewhere the club hasn’t finished since 2014 and, since it’s August and the Orioles were just buyers at the trade deadline, the positioning has compelled discerning fans to legitimately consider the thought of Baltimore’s baseball team winning the sport’s ultimate prize again.
“You probably know the team best because you’re here,” outfielder Gary “Rhino” Roenicke said, sitting next to Bumbry, when this idea came up in a discussion Friday.
“The biggest thing is the camaraderie that the players have,” Bumbry said, “the connection that the players have. Everybody’s rooting for each other. … And the other thing is the best guider of success is winning, and they’ve started to win, and they’ve gotten a taste of what winning feels like compared to three or four years ago. … And, of course, you can’t win a race without some thoroughbreds, and these kids have gotten to the point where they believe in themselves, they’re starting to produce and they’re winning. The sky’s the limit, from what I see.”
Before you get too far afield with thoughts of destiny for Charm City’s baseball team on the ruby anniversary of its last championship season, consider the 1983 and 2023 Orioles aren’t exactly in similar situations staring down the end of the season. They were then and are now at the top of the American League standings, but as opposed to being a fresh-faced, water-chugging team of top prospects only beginning to prove their worth in the majors (though quickly), the group that met for lunch Friday, and will be honored in a pregame ceremony Saturday at Camden Yards before the O’s game against the New York Mets, was fully battle tested.
As the players will readily tell you, they were near the end of a championship window.
“We were all getting older,” Singleton said in an interview. Mostly. There were the 22-year-old Ripken and an in-the-prime Murray, who finished first and second in American League MVP voting in 1983. But to be sure catcher Rick Dempsey was 33, and a third future Hall of Famer, Palmer, was 37 and would retire the following season. So would Singleton, who was 36 along with Bumbry, who left after the 1984 season to play a final year in San Diego. More critical than the numbers on anyone’s birth certificate, though, were the shared experiences in the years prior that motivated them. “Us winning the World Series in ‘83,” said Singleton, an All-Star in 1977, 1979 and 1981, “was forged by two different things.”
The first was the Orioles losing Game 7 of the 1979 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates after being up three games to one. It was not exactly how anyone envisioned the season that formally birthed “Orioles Magic” would end, but it galvanized enough players in a close clubhouse. The era of free agency had started in 1975, but many players who had felt the pain of a title slip away four years earlier — Murray, Palmer, Dempsey, Bumbry, Singleton, second baseman Rich Dauer, outfielders John Lowenstein and Roenicke, starting pitchers McGregor, Mike Flanagan and Dennis Martinez, and reliever Tippy Martinez — were still on the team in 1983. “We should have won that World Series,” says Tippy Martinez, 73, who lives in Towson when he’s not traveling to watch his seven grandchildren play sports. “But we stayed with it.”
The second catalyst for the ‘83 title was how the 1982 season ended. The Orioles finished one regular-season win short of winning their division and missed the playoffs, even though they had the second-best record in baseball in legendary manager Earl Weaver’s final season. Needing to win their last four games at home against the Milwaukee Brewers to make the postseason, the Orioles won the first three, then lost on the last day of the season.
“To me, that is still the most crushing loss during my 10 years in Baltimore. I’m still ticked off about that,” Singleton said. “There were no wild cards then. If there were, we would have made it to the World Series more often. What it did, though, was get us geared up for the next year. In ‘83, we had more physical issues with the team, more injuries, but we couldn’t be stopped.”
Under manager Joe Altobelli, the 1983 Orioles won 98 regular-season games to win the AL East by six and they beat the Chicago White Sox three games to one in the AL Championship Series to reach the World Series. And they did it with virtually the same lineup as the year before, but with a 21-year-old Storm Davis added to the back end of the pitching rotation that dealt with injuries, notably to Flanagan’s left knee. Even bench players such as catcher Joe Nolan and outfielders Jim Dwyer and Benny Ayala, who’d have a key pinch hit RBI single in Game 3 of the World Series, were holdovers from 1982. Ayala was also on the 1979 team.
“I think all the guys, including myself, knew we had something because we all got along so well. We were family. There’s no question about that. We did a lot of things together and we enjoyed each other,” Tippy Martinez said, mentioning picnics on days off. “And that entwined with Hank Peters, the GM, keeping everybody intact. Everybody wanted to stay. He signed a lot of us to five-year contracts. We probably could have gone elsewhere and made a little bit more money and all that kind of stuff, but I think a combination of both the team that we had, and plus how we got along, we knew we could go to the World Series again, and we did in ‘83, so it happened.”
As the song goes, something magic happened. As it had throughout the previous decade, Memorial Stadium rocked, with more than 2 million tickets sold to watch the O’s at home in 1983.
“Baltimore is a unique community,” said Singleton, who lives in Baltimore County now when he’s not in Florida and spent 37 years broadcasting Yankees games after retiring as a player. “It’s the smallest big city on the East Coast. And you’d go to the gas station and the attendant would say, ‘I’m going to the game tonight. Hope you guys have a good game.’ Or you go to the supermarket and everybody’s saying, ‘We got a group going to the game.’ Things like that. Even nowadays, people come up to me and they say how they remember how good the teams were, and hopefully they can get like that again.”
There is reason to believe. If there is a commonality between the system that produced the Orioles’ last World Series winner and now, it is how the organization is going about developing players today, in a minor league structure designed to consistently channel the best from a flood of talent to the big leagues rather than banking on spending big on free agents plucked from other teams. This is the idea behind building a sustainable winning major league team in a relatively small market, as team owner John Angelos has said is the goal and current GM Mike Elias is doing.
Take Bumbry’s story, for example. The Virginia native was drafted in the 11th round in 1968 out of Virginia State College, which he initially attended on a basketball scholarship. He played baseball only when the school happened to restart its program while he was a senior. “I wanted to play basketball, but when I graduated, nobody called me,” Bumbry said. “I guess I wasn’t good enough because of my lack of size.”
Bumbry was also in Virginia State’s Army ROTC program, meaning he had military obligations after graduating. The Orioles selected him with a pick that in today’s scouting parlance might be described as a project with potential upside. Not only did Bumbry have limited baseball experience, but the O’s knew he was obligated to serve active duty, which he did from 1969 to 1971 as a platoon leader during the Vietnam War.
The only reason he landed with the Orioles was, while preparing for his one and only college baseball season (and after it), Bumbry played two seasons of summer baseball for a semipro team managed by part-time Orioles scout Dick Bowie, who saw potential in Bumbry. “He convinced the Orioles to take me,” Bumbry said, “and the rest is history.”
The experiment didn’t start well. The first few months Bumbry played in Class A in California before joining the Army, he hit only .178. He performed substantially better when he got back from Vietnam. “Maturity was a factor,” he said. “You’re in a war zone, and your primary responsibility is to keep you and your men alive to get back home. It makes you grow up and put things in a better perspective. That’s what happened to me.”
In one way, Bumbry took the long route to Baltimore, but his call to the majors was relatively short, too. Compared to peers who may have spent a full two or three seasons at one level of the minors, Bumbry was an exception. He hit so well upon return from the war – .336 at Class A (again) and a combined .345 in 134 games in AA and AAA – that he reached the majors for a few games late in 1972. He nearly got sent back down at the start of 1973, “but Earl decided he wanted to keep me,” he said, speaking of Weaver. “I had not played very much baseball, but I produced hitting-wise and I could catch and track the ball down. I was one of those diamonds in the rough that was able to get to the big leagues in a year and a half.”
He took over the leadoff spot a month into the 1973 season. He finished batting .337 with 34 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, seven home runs and a league-leading 11 triples, including three in one game. He started 58 games in left field and 24 in right.
Although his is not exactly the story of a modern top prospect such as Adley Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson raised in a year-round baseball training environment for years even prior to being drafted (not to mention they didn’t join the Army, fight in war and win a Bronze Star), Bumbry did similarly develop well in the time he spent in the minors and he was allowed time to progress in the majors, which set him up for longer-term success. He wasn’t the only one.
“We always had somebody that was prepared to come up from the minor leagues and make a major contribution,” Bumbry said. “We had a productive system during the good old days. The ones that eventually got to the big leagues spent a minimum of two or three years in the system, so they were progressing and learning.”
In the 1983 World Series, the O’s dropped the first game to the Phillies 2-1, spoiling a mostly strong pitching performance by 18-game winner McGregor, then won four straight games to take the title. Mike Boddicker went the distance on the mound in a 4-1 Game 2 win, and Palmer picked up a victory in relief in Game 3, as the O’s got to Phillies starter Steve Carlton in the sixth and seventh innings to build a 3-2 lead that Tippy Martinez closed out. “You take one pitch at a time,” Martinez recalls of his approach to entering the game with everything on the line.
He picked up another save in Game 4 after the O’s went up in part because of a sixth inning that featured four straight pinch hitters, with Singleton walking with the bases loaded to bring in Lowenstein for the tying run and John Shelby hitting a sacrifice fly to give the O’s the lead. In the series-clinching game, McGregor threw a five-hit shutout and Murray broke out of a hitting slump to crush a pair of home runs. Dempsey, who was named series MVP, also homered and scored twice in a 5-0 win. The beer was ice cold again.
The Orioles had won their third championship and first in 13 years. Nobody really thought then it would be four decades without another.
Of the plans to be honored on the field Saturday, Singleton said: “Maybe most of the people in the stadium weren’t even born yet when that happened. Hopefully they show pictures of us on the scoreboard so that people can realize, oh, these were young men at one time.”
Yes, they were. And the memories endure. “Winning a World Series is the ultimate accomplishment that you can get,” Bumbry said, playing the team sport that he did. He still gets goosebumps thinking or hearing about it — and especially being around those he did it with, back in Baltimore again.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.