The 50 All-Time Favorite Orioles were revealed on Sunday before the game. Here's the roster, sorted first by position, then alphabetically by last name:
PITCHERS (15): Jeff Ballard, Steve Barber, Mike Boddicker, Mike Cuéllar, Scott Erickson, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martínez, Tippy Martínez, Scott McGregor, Dave McNally, Mike Mussina, Gregg Olson, Jesse Orosco, Jim Palmer, Hoyt Wilhelm.
CATCHERS (6): Rick Dempsey, Andy Etchebarren, Elrod Hendricks, Chris Hoiles, Mickey Tettleton, Gus Triandos.
FIRST BASEMEN (5): Jeff Conine, Jim Gentile, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Boog Powell.
SECOND BASEMEN (6): Jerry Adair, Roberto Alomar, Rich Dauer, Bobby Grich, Davey Johnson, Billy Ripken.
SHORTSTOPS (4): Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger, Mike Bordick, Cal Ripken.
THIRD BASEMEN (2): Doug DeCinces, Brooks Robinson.
OUTFIELDERS (10): Brady Anderson, Don Baylor, Paul Blair, Don Buford, Al Bumbry, Mike Devereaux, Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson, Ken Singleton, B.J. Surhoff.
DESIGNATED HITTERS (2): Harold Baines, Tommy Davis.
A modest contestation
Monica Pence, the team's communications manager, commented to MLB.com on Friday that “this wasn't necessarily a greatest Orioles list, but a favorite Orioles list.” Good of her to tell it like it is. This was trumpeted as a "50 Greatest Orioles" vote throughout the season, but it really turned out to be the Oriole version of the People's Choice Awards. That's not so bad if the ultimate purpose is a season-long promotion to attract fan interest, as it was in this case. In that narrow sense, the vote was a success. It was also a great excuse to bring many of those old warriors back to the city of their past triumphs. Sunday's pregame ceremony pleased many fans in Birdland, and hearing the crowd's cheers again likely was fulfilling for the honored players as well.
But movie buffs don't bother remembering the winners of the People's Choice Awards. They do, however, distinctly recall—and often argue over—the winners of the Oscars. Why? Because the Oscars are meant to honor quality of craft and artistry, which are the primary reasons most people go into movies in the first place. In the same way, historians don't passionately argue over which president was America's most popular. Instead, they debate who was the most effective, the most accomplished—in essence, who was the greatest president. After all, politicians don't run for president to become the most popular person in the country; they run so they can have the power and the platform to accomplish great things in the civic arena.
The same logic applies to baseball players. Most ballplayers don't play the game for the fans' acclaim—at least, approbation is not their primary motivation. Most do it because they love the game and the atmosphere of competition, and because they are driven to succeed as individuals and as a team. Monetary compensation plays a part as well, of course. Meanwhile, being well received by onlookers is just icing on the cake—and as perhaps you can tell by now, I don't care much for icing.
To put it another way, how many baseball players care who the most popular player on the field is? (Insert Colin Powell joke here—no, wait, this is not a political blog.) Although a lot of players make an effort to maintain a good relationship with the fans, most of them are indifferent or ambivalent about their popularity, and some players regard fan adulation with reluctance, suspicion, or even loathing.
Yet most players care about who is good—and by extension, who is the best—between the lines. To a ballplayer, being popular with the fans is not a bad thing, but he would prefer that such celebrity come as a side effect of his success on the field.
So while coming up with the fans' favorite Orioles was a nice excursion, in the end it is a relatively lightweight honor to be named a fan favorite. Being elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown or to the Orioles Hall of Fame obviously carries more gravity and meaning for a player. (Ironically, both of those institutions and others of their ilk have "fame" in their names when it is really greatness that they recognize.)
The fans' list: a brief mental breakdown
The problem for all of these referendums on greatness is that the definition of greatness is inherently ambiguous and subjective. This applies no matter the topic, whether it is movies, presidents, or baseball players. Because there never can be a consensus on what constitutes a great player, any 50 Greatest Orioles vote was inevitably going to be subject to the whims of the voting populace, leaving the potential for the kind of flawed picks we see every year in the All-Star and postseason awards voting. And the results of this election were predictably mixed.
The will of the people assembled a roster of 50 mostly fine players. But if the goal was to determine the greatest players in the history of Birdland, according the original intent of the poll, the fans' list left some room for improvement. Overall, the fans did a passable job. Thirty-nine of the fans' 50 selections coincided with players on my 50 greatest Orioles list, a 78% agreement rate. That's a fairly substantial degree of overlap, considering the imperfect design of the ballot.
Among the eleven players the fans chose that didn't make my list, there were some questionable picks, but most of those selections I can understand even though I don't agree with them. Eight of those players—Etchebarren, Hendricks, Tettleton, Conine, Adair, Billy Ripken, Devereaux, Tommy Davis—earned honorable mentions in my positional rankings, even though they didn't make my top 50. With the exception of Tettleton, they were all ordinary players who spent several years in an Oriole uniform, long enough to make an imprint in the fans' memories. (Tettleton was a little better than the rest, but his stay was also the shortest.) Quantity appears to have taken precedence over quality in those cases.
However, quality apparently trumped quantity in the case of Reggie Jackson, who didn't make my top 50 or my honorable mentions among outfielders because he played just one season in Baltimore, 1976, before taking his show to the Yankees. Traded to Baltimore before the season by the cost-cutting A's, the disenchanted Jackson didn't even report to his new team until a month of the regular season had elapsed. Jackson was certainly one of the greatest players to ever put on an Oriole uniform, and his performance with the O's wasn't bad (he hit .277/.351/.502 in 134 games). But his stint in the orange and black was way too short to make him one of the 50 greatest Birds. I chose outfielders who may not have been as excellent as Jackson over the balance of their big-league careers, but provided far more cumulative value to the Orioles than Jackson.
There were two questionable choices among the pitchers, Jeff Ballard and Jesse Orosco. Both were left-handers, and I suspect this was not a coincidence. For one thing, the ballot inconsiderately provided as many slots for left-handed pitchers as for right-handers even though the righty candidates massively outnumbered the lefties. And apparently some of the younger fans had trouble coming up with three southpaws to fill their ballots, so they decided to pick one or two of a recent vintage. Thus, we were left with Ballard and Orosco.
Had the left- and right-handed restrictions been eliminated from the voting for pitchers, Ballard likely would have missed out on the top 50 team. Ballard had one good year (1989), one mediocre year (1988), and three years that were worse than mediocre (1987, 1990, 1991) for the Orioles. But he had the good fortune to be one of the stars of the Orioles' Why Not? season of 1989, which was a memorable oasis during their postseason drought between 1983 and 1996. If you have a career year, it sure helps to have it in a season that everyone remembers.
Orosco was a left-handed short reliever who provided the Orioles with five seasons of low-hit pitching from 1995 to 1999. Again, it helped that he pitched for memorable teams, including two that reached the postseason in 1996 and 1997. Orosco had a seemingly interminable big-league career that began in 1979 and finally ended last year; his arm is so resilient that I wouldn't count out a comeback in the future. But he also looks a little out of place on this list.
Milt Pappas, who accumulated 110 wins for the O's from 1957-1965, is conspicuously missing from the pitchers; he appears to have been the right-hander hurt most by the three-RHP limitation. It's disappointing that Dick Hall and Stu Miller, two ace relievers for Oriole teams of yesteryear, failed to make the team. Among left-handers, it's hard to make the case that Orosco and Ballard deserved nods over Pete Richert, Billy O'Dell, Ross Grimsley, Arthur Rhodes, Grant Jackson, and Randy Myers.
The three-outfielder voting limit appears to have pushed some fine flycatchers off the team. The ones I included in my top 50 that got lost in the crowd were Merv Rettenmund, Gary Roenicke, Jackie Brandt, Curt Blefary, and Bob Nieman. Any number of others, including John Lowenstein and Don Baylor, had strong cases to make the team ahead of the depth players at other positions. Unfortunately, the predictions I made about the inequitable allocation of votes on the ballot appear to have come to pass. Perhaps this will be a lesson for future all-Oriole team ballots.
In all, the distribution of players by position was like this:
In my ideal scenario, there would be a few more pitchers (but not as many left-handers), a few more outfielders, and fewer second basemen and catchers. But I think I've criticized this voting process enough for one year, perhaps enough for 50 years, so I'll stop now.