Baseball: Orioles join in new dawn chorus: Rob Steen on how a saloon once owned by Babe Ruth's father has provided a solid foundation for the resurgence of Baltimore

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The Independent Online
AS AN illustration of the way baseball flits between contemporary brashness and nostalgic yearning, the tussle at the top of the American League East could scarcely be more vivid.

In the blue corner, the Toronto Blue Jays, whose futuristic SkyDome home, with its shopping mall and retractable roof, was once described by Larry Lucchino, the president of the Baltimore Orioles, as 'the eighth wonder of the world'. In the red, the Orioles themselves, proud tenants of an unpretentious new ballpark whose adherence to traditional architectural values has had the old-timers drooling in dewy-eyed appreciation. 'You get the feeling this wasn't the first game played here,' remarked shortstop Cal Ripken Jnr after the exhibition game that unveiled the park in April.

Built on the site of a saloon once owned by Babe Ruth's father, Oriole Park at Camden Yards certainly had the right foundations. Eschewing soulless concrete in favour of good old-fashioned brick and steel, its name is the only inelegant thing about it. Reflecting civic enthusiasm, the dollars 106.5m ( pounds 55m) tab was picked up by a Maryland state lottery.

Beyond the short right-field fence, a boon for left-handed hitters like Brady Anderson - who has shown his appreciation by enjoying his most productive season yet - stands a lovingly restored, 94-year-old warehouse that has seduced hearts in the manner of the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park and the ivy-covered walls at the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field.

'This is a town of tradition,' stressed Mike Flanagan, the veteran pitcher who, along with catcher Rick Dempsey, provides a link with the high- flying Orioles of the 1970s. 'It's a working-class park in a working-class town.'

Fittingly, the Orioles have responded to their new environment by taking wing, though not before time. In 1988, they set the most unenviable of major league milestones by losing their first 21 games, while in the past five seasons only Cleveland and Atlanta have sustained more defeats.

The key to the revival has been another evergreen hurler, Rick Sutcliffe, 36, a combative, hulking, 6ft 7in right-hander whose 16-1 mark for the Chicago Cubs in 1984 remains the second best winning percentage in major league history. Johnny Oates, installed as the Orioles manager this season, signed him as a free agent last winter in the hope that he would teach erratic prodigies such as Ben McDonald, the No 1 draft choice in 1989, how to convert potential into results. That faith has been amply rewarded.

Quite apart from spearheading a rejuvenated rotation with his 10-8 record, Sutcliffe has proved an invaluable tutor in single-mindedness. When George Bush came to Camden Yards to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day, he declined to shake the President's hand, preferring to immerse himself in his beloved country music as a prelude to shutting out the Cleveland Indians. When he is scheduled to pitch he instructs his wife to burn his toast, 'so I can work up a little anger'.

Not that Sutcliffe is all growl and grimace. A renowned prankster, he has resisted pulling any of his really notorious stunts, contenting himself with filling the clubhouse coffee pots with salt rather than setting his colleagues' shoelaces ablaze as he did on one infamous occasion at Wrigley Field.

'I usually hold that stuff back until the team is going poorly, and everyone's getting tense and taking things too seriously,' he said. 'That stuff's for when you need to change the mood.' In more senses than one, the Orioles will be hoping that need never arises.

----------------------------------------------------------------- RESULTS AND STANDINGS -----------------------------------------------------------------

AMERICAN LEAGUE: Boston Red Sox 3 Chicago White Sox 0; Seattle Mariners 7 New York Yankees 6; Minnesota Twins 9 Baltimore Orioles 4; Oakland Athletics 8 Toronto Blue Jays 0; California Angels 5 Detroit Tigers 4 (10); Kansas City Royals 5 Milwaukee Brewers 1; Cleveland Indians 6 Texas Rangers 3.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct. GB Toronto Blue Jays 53 34 .609 - Baltimore Orioles 49 38 .563 4 Milwaukee Brewers 45 41 .543 7 Boston Red Sox 42 43 .494 10 New York Yankees 42 45 .483 11 Detroit Tigers 41 48 .461 13 Cleveland Indians 36 52 .409 17 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- Minnesota Twins 53 34 .609 - Oakland Athletics 51 36 .586 2 Texas Rangers 48 42 .533 6 Chicago White Sox 43 43 .500 9 Kansas City Royals 37 50 .425 16 Seattle Mariners 36 53 .404 18 California Angels 35 52 .402 18 -----------------------------------------------------------------

NATIONAL LEAGUE: Pittsburgh Pirates 7 Cincinnati Reds 6 (10); Atlanta Braves 7 Chicago Cubs 4 (10); Houston Astros 3 New York Mets 1; San Francisco Giants 4 Montreal Expos 0; Los Angeles Dodgers 9 St Louis Cardinals 0; San Diego Padres 8 Philadelphia Phillies 2.

----------------------------------------------------------------- East Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- W L Pct. GB Pittsburgh Pirates 49 39 .557 - St Louis Cardinals 44 43 .506 4 Montreal Expos 44 44 .500 5 New York Mets 42 46 .477 7 Chicago Cubs 40 47 .460 8 Philadelphia Phillies 36 52 .409 13 ----------------------------------------------------------------- West Division ----------------------------------------------------------------- Cincinnati Reds 51 35 .593 - Atlanta Braves 49 37 .570 2 San Diego Padres 47 42 .528 5 San Francisco Giants 43 44 .494 8 Houston Astros 41 47 .466 11 Los Angeles Dodgers 39 49 .443 13 -----------------------------------------------------------------