To this point in what has been an enormously exhilarating baseball season, the once perennially successful Baltimore Orioles, who became a national disgrace in 1988, have forged a remarkable recovery. The Red Cross all but declared the team of a year ago a disaster and in need of emergency assistance.
But here it is mid-June, with 65 games entered into the record books, and the Orioles, of all teams, are threatening not only to win but to run away with the American League East Division. They just might do it because there's not much else to beat.
The standings show them in first place, five lengths ahead of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox, all tied for second. This time a year ago, the Orioles had no pulse and all their vital signs were bad as they were on their way to losing a club-record 107 games.
It was difficult to watch, although 1,660,738 mourners attended the season-long wake. Too bad about the Orioles, they said, reasoning that Baltimore had a long run of pennant winners and competitive teams, and consoling themselves it was going to be a long road back to regain respectability.
But, with the snap of General Manager Roland Hemond's fingers, without any delay, the team has awakened from the stupor of stumbling ineptness and now qualifies as the most surprising story of 1989. It's somewhat premature to block off hotel rooms for the World Series or for the players to start whispering how they are going to divide the financial shares.
But one thing has happened. There are early symptoms of a malady known as pennant fever infesting Memorial Stadium. While the Orioles were completing a three-out-of-four weekend conquest of what many observers consider the best team in either league, the Oakland A's, there were indications that the scores being flashed on the scoreboard were receiving more than cursory recognition.
When the New York Yankees lose, it enhances the Orioles' chances, so what's going on elsewhere is suddenly being viewed with profound interest. The Orioles are winning games in astonishing ways, beating the Yankees two-out-of-three and realizing it could have been a sweep if a fly ball hadn't vanished in the fog.
Sunday, they took advantage of th A's in the first inning with a robust offense that had two walks, a hit batsman and a double by Bob Melvin. Quickly, the Orioles were up by three runs, never to look back. This qualifies, in any league, as an awesome attack.
Meanwhile, starter Dave Schmidt had the A's under control until encountering trouble in the sixth inning. Then he was provided with near-perfect relief in the presence of Mickey Weston, who had been laboring in the minor leagues for almost 7 years.
Weston had been recalled from the Rochester Red Wings, arriving at 12:30 a.m. Sunday. He was pitching in his first major-league game that afternoon, holding the A's to only one hit as Billy Ripken turned in what resembled a Brooks Robinson play at second base, coming in hard to catch a bouncing ball in his bare hand and making an off-balance throw to first base.
The man who pitched and won the game the day before, Jose Bautista, was sent back to Rochester. And here was the man replacing him on the roster, Weston, making an immediate contribution. It's not supposed to be that easy, but that's how the pieces are meshing for the Orioles.
Melvin, who has been watching more than he has been catching because of Mickey Tettleton's success, drove in all four runs. So any way Manager Frank Robinson plays it, he's getting results.
The turnout of 46,541 lifted the club totals for the season to 947,046 for 34 home dates, 171,000 ahead this time last year, when the Orioles resembled a collection of sleepwalkers. They are on their way to drawing more than 2 million, and because they have simplified the sport to solid pitching and catching the ball when it's hit, it will not be too surprising if they lengthen their lead.
A's Manager Tony LaRussa refuses to define the Orioles as a fluke, preferring instead to say, "We've seen enough of them to know they are a legitimate contender. They've done an excellent job."
Meanwhile, the fans in the stands cheer the posting of scores of other games much the way you might expect in the last week of the season. Scoreboard watching is back in style.