1983 Baltimore Orioles: The End Of The Frustration

The 1983 Baltimore Orioles were a franchise that was as consistently in the hunt as anyone in baseball, but for the past thirteen years had not been able to win a championship. The previous four years had been as frustrating as any.

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In 1979, Baltimore led the Pittsburgh Pirates three games to one in the World Series, before losing three straight, the last two at home. One year later the Orioles won 100 games…but the Yankees won 103. In 1982, the final season for legendary manager Earl Weaver they’d nearly staged one of the great late-season rallies in baseball history before losing a winner-take-all regular season finale to the Milwaukee Brewers.

With a new manager on hand for 1983 in Joe Altobelli, Baltimore’s players felt like it was win now or else. The city might have experienced a championship in 1970, but the current cast of players had not.

Baltimore was led by two future Hall of Famers in the everyday lineup. Shortstop Cal Ripken was in his second year, while first baseman Eddie Murray had developed into a perennial All-Star at age 27. Murray posted an on-base percentage of .393, hit 33 home runs and finished with 111 RBI. It was good for second in the American League MVP voting. Ripken wound up with a .371 OBP, 27 home runs, 102 RBI and won the MVP award.

Ken Singleton, playing some rightfield and also DH’ing, was another productive player, with a .393 OBP/.436 slugging percentage. Beyond that, it was depth that characterized the 1983 Baltimore Orioles, with solid veteran players who knew their roles.

Catcher Rick Dempsey was a terrific field leader. Leftfielder Gary Roenicke was a productive bat and shared time with John Lowenstein, who had a knack for the key hit. Second baseman Rich Dauer was a very steady gloveman. Al Bumbry was reliable in centerfield and competent, if not spectacular at the top of the order. Jim Dwyer and Joe Nolan were good bats off the bench.

And the starting pitching, an Oriole staple going back to their first World Series title in 1966, had Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan and young Mike Boddicker to anchor the rotation, with Storm Davis a reliable fourth. McGregor won 18 games with 3.18 ERA, while Boddicker won 16 with an ERA of 2.77. Davis logged 200 innings and was consistent, and Altobelli pieced together the rest of the rotation with Dennis Martinez, 26-year-old Allan Ramirez, and the aging 37-year-old Jim Palmer.

In the bullpen, Altobelli could turn to workhorses Sammy Stewart and Tippy Martinez, a good righty-lefty combo and each relievers in the old school tradition, who could throw 3-4 innings at a crack. Martinez saved 21 games, won nine more and finished with a 2.35 ERA. Stewart worked 144 innings and finished with a 3.62 ERA.

Baltimore started the season 23-13, mostly against AL West teams in the early portion of the schedule, but they lost seven in a row in a schedule stretch against the Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, and the opener of a series with the Kanas City Royals. Fortunately, no one in the AL East really had traction and the Orioles’ 25-21 record put them squarely in the mix of a race where six of the division’s seven teams (everyone but the Cleveland Indians) were packed on top of each other.

The Orioles played two series with the Brewers in early June and won five of the six games. Baltimore spurted into first place and to a lead as big as four games. But they went 4-7 in the ensuing stretch of games with the Yankees and Detroit Tigers. When the early All-Star arrived on July 3, Baltimore was 42-34, and there were still six teams—the Orioles, Yankees, Tigers, Brewers, Red Sox and Blue Jays—within a five games of each other.

Baltimore won 10 of 13 out of the break and were tied for first. They moved ahead by two games, but again couldn’t stand prosperity. A seven-game losing streak followed, but still, no one was able to take control of the race. The Orioles only slipped a game back of Detroit and Milwaukee.

August 24 started a decisive stretch. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the final push began with the Blue Jays, Twins and Royals, the same teams the Orioles slumped against in the spring. This time, Baltimore won 11 of 12 against these teams and got some separation in the AL East. They were 4 ½ games up by Labor Day, and the lead was still five games on September 9, with only the Yankees, Tigers and Brewers left to give chase.

Baltimore went to New York a four-game weekend series. They lost the opener 5-3 when McGregor gave up a two-run shot to Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles in the eighth inning. The first game of a Saturday doubleheader was tied 2-2 in the ninth, when the Orioles broke it open with six runs, punctuated by a Lowenstein grand slam. Then they took the nightcap 3-1 behind seven strong innings from Boddicker. Baltimore finished the job on Sunday by scoring five times in the second inning and winning 5-3.

A series victory in Boston followed, and up next was four games at home with Milwaukee. Boddicker delivered another dominating start in the Friday opener to win 8-1. On Saturday, Bumbry got three hits and scored three runs in a 5-4 win. On Sunday, Palmer was hit hard and gave up seven runs in the second inning. But the Orioles came all the way back and it was tied 9-9 in the ninth inning.

Enter an unlikely hero. John Stefero was a backup catcher who had only 14 plate appearances in 1983 and just 210 for his career. He delivered a walkoff single to complete the 10-9 comeback win. What makes that especially noteworthy is that Stefero did it again on Sunday, with the walkoff hit in an 8-7 win.

Baltimore went to Detroit and split four games, but by this point, a split was as good as a sweep. There were just ten days left in the season after that series and the lead was 7 ½ games. The final nine games of the season—against Milwaukee, Detroit and New York—had promised drama, but would instead be a coronation ride for the Orioles, as they cruised into an AL East title with a record of 98-64.

Only one team in baseball won more games than Baltimore and it was the 99-win Chicago White Sox, the opponent in the American League Championship Series. McGregor lost a pitcher’s duel to start the series, but Boddicker answered with a Game 2 win and the Orioles ultimately clinched in a 10-inning thriller won by a home run from Tito Landrum.

The World Series was an I-95 affair against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Series followed a similar path to the ALCS—McGregor lost a hard-luck pitchers’ duel, Boddicker answered and the Orioles took over, winning the World Series in five games.

Baltimore was finally back on top of the baseball world. The feeling that many veteran players had, that this was their last real shot, proved to be accurate. The Orioles never seriously contended in the AL East again until 1989, and didn’t get back to the playoffs until after the realignment of 1994 created a three-division format and wild-card. The city still awaits a return to the World Series.