The last game of the Orioles’ 1982 season, rife with heartbreak in a postseason-bound-or-bust loss to a Brewers team they were tied with in the standings, was sounded off into the winter not by jeers but by applause. That’s because their gargantuan leader, Earl Weaver, deserved to be played off into retirement (or at least, his first retirement) by adoration from 51,642 at Memorial Stadium no matter how devastating the result on the field was.
“The sting of defeat is the only thing that has really hit me,” Weaver said at the time, a picture of his teary face emblazoned on the next day’s Baltimore Sun front page. “It probably won’t hit me hard until the team gets on the airplane next spring in Miami and leaves. Then it will be like not making the club … like I’m being optioned out.”
Weaver wasn’t part of the next year’s team as he enjoyed the first taste of a calming post-baseball life, admitting he may have gotten more “soft” and “mellow” in his final years. But in many ways, his presence was central.
That’s because the 1983 champion O’s, despite no 5-foot-7 Weaver overseeing them in the dugout, were a direct result of the play he instilled and the players he groomed. They were led in the field by an unrivaled 1-2 punch: Cal Ripken Jr. fully broke out with MVP honors … and Eddie Murray finished runner-up. They were led on the mound by Scott McGregor, Mike Boddicker and Mike Flanagan atop the rotation (Dennis Martinez and his struggles were left off the postseason roster), Tippy Martinez as the closer, and Jim Palmer as a swingman by necessity, battling injuries at age 37 to pitch as a reliever in the postseason.
And they were led in the dugout by Joe Altobelli, a riser through the system under Weaver who left to manage the Giants, coached in New York and then returned to lead the big league club he helped funnel players to for years as a Minor League bench boss.
For as much as Weaver was missing, his void was filled by Altobelli -- in a far different manner.
“He’s the smartest guy I know,” Murray said of Altobelli, who passed away in 2021, at the parade following the World Series. “He put the right nine out there every day.”
Whereas Weaver’s fiery passion is what earned him his adoration from the Baltimore faithful and baseball en masse, Altobelli was a gentler leader -- and stood at six feet tall. He had to earn trust, not just from a city that was missing its hero -- letters to the editor in The Baltimore Sun following Weaver’s announced retirement begged him to stay -- but one that didn’t quite know if Altobelli was the best man for the job. Ray Miller and Cal Ripken Sr. -- the second of whom was Weaver’s personal choice for successor -- were the only other known candidates for the job.
Even when they were passed over (the elder Ripken would get his chance at a later date), they elected to remain on Altobelli’s coaching staff. It was a surprise decision, but one that signaled the cohesion of the 1983 O’s.
“Naturally, I’m a little disappointed,” Ripken Sr. said at the time. “ … I would like to have had the job, but Joe’s a good baseball man and I’m looking forward to working with him. I don’t think this will have any effect on my work. I’m a coach, working for Joe, and I’ll do what he wants.”
And then, quickly, quietly and diligently, they got to work.
Without the surefire service of Palmer -- a centerpiece of the recent titles in 1966 and ’70 but now in his career twilight -- the O’s compiled a 42-34 record before the All-Star Game, of which Tippy Martinez, Murray and Ripken Jr. were attendees. But it was sandwiched around that pause that the O’s put together a torrid 19-7 mark in July and took off.
By July 20, the O’s had just finished a string of 10 wins in their last 11 games -- and moved past Toronto into first place in the AL East. By Aug. 27, fresh off two consecutive walk-off triumphs over the Blue Jays and a 9-0 blanking of the Twins -- and after some teetering with Toronto, Milwaukee and Detroit -- Baltimore was back in first place -- and back there for good.
Altobelli continued Weaver’s pioneering tactics with aplomb. The outfield featured platoonships in every position, employing John Lowenstein/Gary Roenicke in left, Al Bumbry/John Shelby in center and Dan Ford/Jim Dwyer in right to the strengths of each matchup and player. Somewhat remarkably, all six appeared in at least 100 contests. Ripken was handed the shortstop role and ran with it. Ten different pitchers made starts. Even Sammy Stewart, used almost exclusively as a multi-inning reliever far before his time, made a start.
The highlights were aplenty. Those two dramatic walk-off wins over the Blue Jays in August -- one that saw Martinez’s famed three pickoffs in an inning as well as middle-infielder Lenn Sakata making his only career appearance at catcher -- might have been chief among the group. There was also the rain-soaked August night to honor Brooks Robinson’s entrance to the Hall of Fame, a game that began at 10:01 p.m. local time, lasted until almost 2 a.m. and was won in walk-off fashion thanks to five consecutive two-out hits. (Almost identical heroics played out two weeks later, against the Royals.)
And, of course, the postseason run. It started with a loss, 2-1, to the White Sox in the ALCS. And then: one run conceded over the next three games with 18 runs scored themselves, highlighted by Boddicker’s 14-strikeout shutout in Game 2.
The World Series against Philly -- “The I-95 Series” -- went similarly. The O’s dropped Game 1, 2-1, but then won four straight nailbiters, with McGregor excellent over two starts and Palmer most famously coming out of the bullpen in Game 3 for his 17th and final postseason appearance, taking the win. And the lineup, with Ripken hitting just .167, was paced by Murray and eventual Series MVP Rick Dempsey, who compiled five hits (all for extra bases), a 1.390 OPS and three runs scored. He, like Murray did (twice), hit his only home run of the series in the Game 5 clincher on the road.
It was a team of resiliency. A team with “poise and resistance to emotional highs and lows, and its ability to rumble through the stretch when arms and legs are most fatigued and the faint of heart don’t survive,” wrote longtime Baltimore Sun beat writer Kent Baker in his regular-season finale game story.
The top sports the next day, after the O’s one-hit the Yankees, proclaimed that they “looked like champs.”
Nine more games, and 13 more days, proved they were. Disappointment a year earlier against the Brewers, as well as from four years earlier in Weaver's last Fall Classic against the Pirates? Gone for good.
“Oh, it was unbelievable,” Dempsey said of the 100,000 Baltimoreans at the parade. “The faces you saw out there today were happy faces.”