Cumberland Times-News

August 9, 2012

Bring the kid up now? Why not?

Mike Burke
Cumberland Times-News

— It’s been said time and again, but baseball is a game of such beautiful symmetry. Not only is the game itself based on symmetry, but the life and the timeless aging of the game and of its history has teemed with it since the first ball was thrown in anger.

Take Steve Johnson, the young pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, who, with the way baseball works, was optioned back to Norfolk on Thursday. He’s a Baltimore native, a graduate of St. Paul’s High School, who grew up in the game and around the Orioles since his father Dave Johnson, now an analyst for MASN, pitched in 66 games over three years for the Orioles.

In that splendid summer of 1989, the magical Why Not? season, the Orioles, fresh off an 0-21 start and 107 losses in 1988, were picked to finish in last place in the American League East because, as one prognosticator wrote, “There is no place lower for them to finish.” Yet those Orioles, managed by the great Frank Robinson, were somehow in contention for the A.L. East title until the next-to-last day of the season, falling only then to the eventual champion Toronto Blue Jays.

Johnson was the emergency starter for the Orioles that Saturday afternoon in Skydome after scheduled starter Pete Harnisch had stepped on a nail the night before. But the kid from Middle River would pitch the game of his life, leaving in the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead, only to watch helplessly as the bullpen turned it into a 4-3 loss.

After he had been called up to Baltimore, Johnson had come through with many a big pitching performance in the second half of that season. Pitching more on heart and guile than talent, he was one of the biggest reasons the Orioles took things to the final weekend, with his first big league win being a 6-1 complete game over the Minnesota Twins — 23 years to the day Wednesday when his son Steve, an emergency starter no less, looking and pitching very much like his father, would work six solid innings against the Seattle Mariners for the first major league victory of his career.

In any other of life’s venues, a story and symmetry such as this would have to be made up. But not in baseball. In baseball, things like this have been happening for over 140 years.

So many things about this Orioles season are reminiscent of that 1989 season, for these Orioles were also picked to finish last in the East because there was no place lower for them to finish. And who knows? They may still end up finishing last, but after so many improbable victories and with their current stand in the A.L. East and wild card races being what they are, you’d be hard pressed to convince them they will.

Why else would they have brought the future to the present as they did late Wednesday night, 23 years to the day of Dave Johnson’s first major league win, by calling up heralded minor leaguer Manny Machado to join the major league pennant race in Baltimore? The “can’t-miss” shortstop from Miami, Machado, 6-3, 185 pounds in stature, is the No. 9 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, and was scheduled to make his major league debut at third base last night against the Kansas City Royals.

In the history of the Orioles so many beginnings have come with the Kansas Royals being in the ballpark. Seemingly every year in the late ‘70s and early-to-mid ‘80s, the Opening Day opponent in Memorial Stadium was the Royals. That includes the opening day of the ill-conceived second half of the 1981 season, forced by the players strike that had eaten 50 days and 712 games from the schedule.

Once the strike had ended, the Orioles opened the second half on Aug. 10 against, as Rex Barney once said, “Who else? The Kansas City Royals,” and making his big league debut was the last such-heralded infielder in Orioles history. In this instance he came up a third baseman who would go on to play shortstop, and 31 years ago today, 6-4, 200-pound rookie Cal Ripken Jr., pinch-running for Ken Singleton, scored from second base on a single by John Lowenstein to win the game, 3-2, in the 12th inning.

My buddy Bill Feeney and I were there that summer night of 1981, sitting in the Memorial Stadium upper deck along the third-base line. Somewhere we still probably have the ticket stubs because we knew then what we know now — we were in on the ground floor of something spectacular, something marvelous and something oh, so Cooperstown.

This is not to even suggest Manny Machado is going to have a career that can compare to Cal Ripken’s. But Bill and I, and every other Orioles fan, had been starving for the arrival of the tall, rangy kid from Aberdeen, who had been tagged “can’t-miss” just as Machado is being tagged now. And just as all Orioles fans have been waiting patiently while dreaming impatiently about the arrival of Manny Machado, bang or a bust, they, too, will likely have their ticket stubs somewhere 31 years from now.

This is the stuff that happens only in baseball.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com