The Baltimore Orioles this week celebrated the 25th anniversary of the last time the franchise was loved and admired by fans.
The Orioles held a ceremony at Camden Yards to honor the 1983 team that won the World Series. The organization has milked its proud past many times, and such events often seemed like an attempt to divert attention from the dismal present.
This occasion had a different feel.
The 2008 Orioles, though now slumping, have been an entertaining team to watch. They’ve got no reason to be ashamed.
Their modest success helped make this celebration of the 1983 championship squad more meaningful, less like a distraction from the past 10 losing seasons.
That’s good, because the 1983 team is worthy of a real celebration. Their World Series victory marked the end of an era - the great Orioles run from 1966 to 1983 in which the club won three World Series championships, six American League pennants and finished second seven times.
The Orioles’ victory also marked the official end of the player-development era in baseball that began in 1965 with the first amateur draft. The Orioles made the most of it, earning a reputation for a strong farm system and developing young talent with the “Oriole Way.”
Free agency took hold in the late 1970s and by the end of the 1983 season seemed to be the prevailing way to build a team.
Certainly the Orioles’ owner at the time, Edward Bennett Williams, bought into it. Williams sent the organization into a tailspin by spending money foolishly on free agents like Lee Lacy and Fred Lynn, and the Orioles never really recovered.
Today, though, player development is enjoying a resurgence: Teams are opting to use free agency as a complementary tool to build a roster rather than as the foundation. And if you believe the hype, the Orioles are on the road to that resurgence under the direction of team president Andy MacPhail. We shall see.
The 1983 squad also is noteworthy because, without it, the Orioles’ legacy during that era certainly would be diminished. The unit of players that began a run of success from 1979 through 1983 - Mike Flanagan, Eddie Murray, Scott McGregor, Cal Ripken - was among the best in baseball, and you can argue that they should have won more than one World Series championship.
The Orioles won the American League pennant in 1979 and were up 3-1 over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, but they lost three straight. That collapse hung over the team the next four years.
The Orioles won 100 games in 1980 but finished second in the division to the New York Yankees. In the strike-shortened season, they came up short in both halves. Then there was 1982, when the Orioles and the Brewers came down to the last game of the season for the division title. The Brewers won the game and the AL East crown.
Four straight second-place finishes. At that time - well before the wild-card era - second place and 100 wins only earned you a trip home at the end of September.
The players on that 1983 team competed as if they knew this was their last chance to have something to show for themselves. That squad was managed by Joe Altobelli, not Earl Weaver, who had retired after the 1982 season. Altobelli had just what that veteran squad needed, a lighter touch. Weaver’s hard-driving style might have kept them from winning that one championship.
It was good for the Orioles faithful to remember all of that this week, and they most likely felt better because of the atmosphere of hope surrounding the franchise these days.
Why not tap into it one more time next year? The 20th anniversary of the “Why Not” 1989 Orioles squad, a group that played the Toronto Blue Jays to the final series of the year for the division title.
That team brought as much joy and excitement to Baltimore as any, and celebrating history sure brings more pleasure when you aren’t using it as a means to forget the present.
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