“The catcher,” former Orioles closer Tippy Martinez said recently from his home in Towson, with a hint of excitement in his easygoing voice. “I really like the catcher.”
He was talking about the Orioles’ burgeoning star, Adley Rutschman.
Martinez, who saved two games for the Orioles in the 1983 World Series — Baltimore’s last championship season, 40 years ago — is a fan because he can easily imagine playing with Rutschman. When he saw the 25-year-old get called up to the major leagues last season, he immediately noticed him hugging current closer Félix Bautista after a save, and constantly greeting pitchers near the mound as they walked to the dugout after an inning. The images reminded him of someone from the good old days.
“That’s what Rick Dempsey used to do,” Martinez said, naming his catcher for all but one of Martinez’s 14 major league seasons. “The hooray, hurrah, pat the pitcher on the butt type of thing. Those little things.”
The gestures might seem inconsequential or more like an invasion of personal space to some (at least one Oriole pitcher last season kindly suggested Rutschman give the hurlers some space walking off the mound), but to a trained eye of a former All-Star pitcher, World Series winner, and Orioles Hall of Famer, Rutschman’s embraces and generally upbeat attitude reflect Martinez’ overall assessment of a team loaded with top prospects. “You can tell they’re enjoying the game and having with it,” he says, “and I’m excited to watch them.”
For the first time since the end of the Buck Showalter era half a decade ago, optimism — even if it is measured by a fanbase with plenty of reason to be skeptical — has returned to pretty much every discussion about the Orioles, at least on the field and locally. Count that to be true if you talk to Martinez, who is 72 now and has seven grandchildren, or two other local legends from the O’s 1983 championship team: outfielders Al Bumbry and Ken Singleton, who both live in Baltimore County. Forty years on from when they made history on the Orioles last title team, when the trio gets together now — they play golf frequently; “They’re my first two calls when we’re ready to play, or they’ll call me,” Singleton said the other day — the state of the current O’s is definitely part of the between-shot chatter.
Bumbry, now 75, was the Orioles center fielder for 12 seasons, the American League’s rookie of the year in 1973, and played in two World Series — and he’s in the team’s Hall of Fame, too. As he told The Banner recently about the club’s recent yearslong tear-it-down-to-the-studs rebuild, which resulted in the Orioles losing two-thirds of their games over three seasons before posting an 83-79 record in 2022: “It’s been difficult to watch and accept the growing pains, but they’ve turned the corner, which is what everyone wants to see.”
Singleton, also 75, was a right fielder and designated hitter for the Orioles for a decade through 1984 and was runner-up for American League MVP award in 1979 when the O’s came up one game short of winning another World Series. He retired from his post-playing broadcasting career in 2021 after 25 years calling New York Yankees games. When he watches baseball now, it’s often Yankees or Orioles games. He flips back and forth but senses that, this year, he’ll be watching more of the team for which he played a decade. “The Orioles are more interesting now than they have been,” Singleton said — a classy understatement.
As ‘dem O’s begin their 2023 Camden Yards schedule on Friday against the Yankees, the timing of the 40th anniversary of Baltimore’s last championship season, too, will inevitably lead to comparisons to the glory days. The team will have a reunion and be honored in early August at Camden Yards, too, during a series with Showalter’s New York Mets. And in that context, thoughts about where this year’s collection of mostly twenty-something talents and top prospects might finish in the American League East standings and daydreams of the postseason are natural. Like it’s serendipity or something, for Baltimore to have a good baseball team again, in the same year of a nice round number milestone.
Taking a closer look at reality, though, reveals a more sobering and complicated picture. For instance, when he talks about baseball today, Martinez does not hesitate to acknowledge the game has changed substantially since he played in the stirrup sock era. “These guys are throwing, what, around 97 miles an hour? And maybe they throw a breaking pitch and it’s 89,” he said. “Well, shoot, their 89 mile per hour slider or breaking ball was my fastball.”
He can go on with more examples, like how hitters can strike out 200 times a year and stick in the majors, or modern players’ lack of aggressive base running, which he never necessarily minded. The left-handed Martinez famously picked off three consecutive runners in one inning of an August 1983 game, getting a win against the Toronto Blue Jays without getting a single batter out.
At the same time though, Martinez can also identify the timeless traits that tend to be common among good and great teams and players — like camaraderie and character. Like with “the catcher.” Potentially generational talents such as Rutschman and Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson, who entered last season as the consensus top prospect in all of baseball, have intangibles that are perhaps becoming increasingly apparent as their builds, full heads of hair, and crisp hitting and fielding ability. “There’s a lot of energy,” Martinez said, “and that’s exciting.” Said Singleton: “There’s enthusiasm. Everybody likes to see young kids come up and play well and the Orioles have a whole bunch of them. Maybe it’s going to energize the fanbase and get people to come out to the stadium again. I think that will happen.”
To say this wave of young talent has championship bonafides at this point, though, is a stretch. Consider the 1983 Orioles — they had a more veteran roster, a stronger pitching staff and what we now know for sure are three Cooperstown Hall of Famers. One was in his second full season (22-year-old Cal Ripken Jr.), one was in his prime (27-year-old first baseman Eddie Murray) and another who would pitch in just five more games the next year (37-year-old Jim Palmer). Singleton retired after the next season, Bumbry played two more, and Martinez, then 33, three.
They also had tender scars from recent playoff runs. The ‘83 season wasn’t their first rodeo with expectations. More than dozen players from the Orioles team that lost in Game 7 of the 1979 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates were still on the roster four years later, a kind of consistency that fans can only hope for today. “There’s different dynamics,” Singleton said. “We were kind of on our way out. It was our last shot at it.”
There’s also competition, of course. A year before the Orioles ended up beating the Philadelphia Phillies in five games for the ‘83 championship, the Orioles had just missed a playoff berth by one win, in legendary manager Earl Weaver’s final season and with what might have been a better top-to-bottom roster and the second-best record in the major leagues. (There were no wild cards then; only division winners made the postseason.)
The current Orioles, ready to be cradled by an eager fanbase, are still in the early stages of “liftoff,” as O’s general manager Mike Elias put it, but what is the most relevant today about the O’s last title team is how the roster then and now was built. A 10-player trade with the Yankees in 1976 brought Martinez, Dempsey and pitchers Scott McGregor (who threw a shutout in the clinching game of the ‘83 World Series), Rudy May and Dave Pagan to Baltimore. The move was a catalyst for a long run of Orioles success. But, just as notably, Ripken, Murray and Palmer were homegrown draft picks who developed in a deep O’s minor-league system.
“One of our methods of being successful was that if somebody did not make the major league roster and went to triple-A, then someone got injured for a period of time, we had somebody that we prepared to come up to the club and make a major contribution,” said Bumbry, an 11th-round O’s draft pick in 1968 who, after serving two years as a platoon leader in the Vietnam War, reached the majors late in the 1972 season. “We could always find somebody in the minors that could keep us afloat, so to speak. And players also did not fly through the system. They spent a minimum of two or three years at Triple-A. They were progressing and learning, so when they did get called up, they were ready.”
There are computers and advanced analytics involved in the process today, but the main idea, so far for the Orioles, is the same. Seed the minor league system with great talent, develop it, and be patient, as general manager Mike Elias said on the final day of spring training last month. Rutschman might have made it to the majors a little earlier if not for an arm muscle strain last spring, but the former No. 1 overall pick still played 180 minor league games and got 650 at-bats from 2019 to 2022, with the strange pandemic year training included. “We have a systematic way of assessing when these guys are ready to come up,” Elias said, “and we’ll let the track record kind of speak for that.”
The bigger uncertainties at the moment about the rebuilding plan hatched by the O’s brain trust is how long do today’s most promising Orioles remain on the major league team or in the system? Who might get traded or not (a la Manny Machado)? Or signed to contract extensions beyond their initial years of team control, or if they are lured to other teams in free agency?
These questions were part of the story in the 1970s and ‘80s, too. How to develop a sustainable winner in a small-market city and a salary-cap-less sport with free agency becoming a thing in 1976? Orioles general manager Hank Peters “signed a lot of us to five-year contracts to keep the team intact,” Martinez said, adding that he believes “you need to lock” players up before they get into the final year of their contracts or reach arbitration. “Baseball’s a business,” Singleton said. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
Sometimes they let players go if the price wasn’t right. Former Orioles ace Wayne Garland, a 20-game winner in ‘76, signed a massive 10-year, $2.5 million contract after that season to join Cleveland, which turned out to be a bust after he got hurt in the first year of the deal. “We also made some trades here and there to shore up weaknesses that we had,” Bumbry said.
And they kept talent, too, deliberately and organically. Singleton, a New York native and a three-time All-Star, said former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner tried to acquire him from the Orioles via trade twice, but the O’s turned down the offers. Singleton also had a chance to be a free agent twice and probably could have made more money elsewhere, but re-signed with the O’s “because I didn’t feel like going anywhere,” he said. “The guys all liked each other. Earl was a constant. He was a tough, but fair — and we won. I was there 10 years, and we won over 900 regular season games, more than any other team. Why would you want to leave a situation like that?”
He couldn’t find a good reason.
If the present-day O’s can recreate that scenario, they may be more likely to sustain success. And they might be closer to that clubhouse atmosphere than it even appears to Martinez on television. This offseason, members of the Orioles’ young core — Rutschman, Henderson, infielder Terrin Vavra and outfielder Kyle Stowers — frequently met up to golf. One time, even in the snow. The old timers won’t do that, but they will still play together.
They plan to watch some more Orioles games this season, too.
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.