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Recalling “The Pickoff Game,” Forty Years Later

Baltimore Orioles left-hander Tippy Martinez, from a 1983 game against the Chicago White Sox.
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Forty years ago this month I saw a sports miracle, live and in person. I watched a Baltimore Orioles pitcher pick off the side. In extra innings. It happened. You can look it up

The late-model O’s have been making too much news off the field of late, what with John Angelos showing himself to be the pettiest possible micro-meddler, while simultaneously shaking down the state for more public lands and more public funds, yet still refusing to commit to keeping his damn team in town. Peter Angelos, a guy who used to win lots of national polls for Worst Owner In Sports, wouldn’t even finish first in his own family in such a ranking nowadays. 

But if you can ignore the front-office noise, the guys wearing the uniforms are making anybody old enough to remember the franchise’s good times do just that. I’m one of those anybodies. So recently I revisited the most bizarre baseball game that my neighborhood buddy Pat and I—and likely any of the other 25,880 folks with us at Memorial Stadium on August 24, 1983—ever saw in person. 

I grew up outside of Washington, D.C., but during my childhood the O’s had become the home team for me and all baseball fans in the nation’s capital. The Washington Senators left for Texas in 1971, and the Washington Nationals were decades away from showing up. The O’s had been bought in 1979 by a D.C. lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams; he marketed the team heavily inside our Beltway, and put a team store and ticket office in Farragut Square, just a few blocks from the White House. Williams’s efforts to make my hometown into O’s territory was aided and abetted by the team’s being in the mix for a World Series, or actually there, year after year after year. I was an O’s fanatic by my adolescence.

The last month of the 1982 season provided me and my pals the greatest sporting thrills and chills possible, as the O’s fought back to tie the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the AL East on the final weekend. Then the Brewers and Don Sutton crushed Jim Palmer and Baltimore to win the division title in the last regular-season game. There was no wild card for the losers back then. Only heartbreak and looking ahead to next year.

And what a next year the O’s delivered. Legendary manager Earl Weaver had retired and been replaced by a Yankees coach with strong ties to the organization in Baltimore, Joe Altobelli, but there was no drop-off in performance that year. August of 1983 was particularly loaded with Orioles magic. On Aug. 5, which was Brooks Robinson Night at Memorial Stadium, the O’s got five consecutive singles with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning for a comeback 4-2 win [CORRECTION: 5-4 win, which started with the score 4-2]. Then on Aug. 19, the O’s got four consecutive singles with two outs in the bottom of the ninth off Royals closer Dan Quisenberry, perhaps the least hittable hurler in baseball that season, for another wonder win. 

But those thrillers didn’t match the craziness that took place when the O’s met the Blue Jays on Aug. 24. I’ve bored lots of people through the years with my recountings of what I saw from the cheap seats in right field that night. But I retain only fluids at my age. So with the 40th anniversary looming, I looked up box scores and old newspaper clippings from that game, and, good god, it was even better than I remembered. 

The glorious shenanigans started in earnest with, you guessed it, two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, with the Orioles down 3-1.

The O’s entered the inning with only two hits all night. A bunt, a walk, and two cheap groundball hits later, they'd tied the game. But Altobelli had been playing to get to extra innings without considering what would happen if his team actually got there. Because of his pinch hitting decisions, the lineup that took the field for the top of the 10th had: MLB veteran outfielders John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke playing second base and third base, respectively; pinch-hitting specialist Benny Ayala in left field, which the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote was “a position some say he has never played." And, most momentously: Lenn Sakata, normally a second-baseman, playing catcher. Sakata would later say he'd last caught a game in Little League. 

The Blue Jays took the lead on the first pitch of the 10th inning, with a home run by Cliff Johnson. After Toronto’s Barry Bonnell singled, Altobelli brought in left-handed reliever Tippy Martinez. The Blue Jays had clearly realized Sakata didn’t belong behind the plate. Bonnell had gotten the scouting report on the catcher, and got greedy: Martinez caught him leaning toward second and picked him off before even throwing a pitch. Martinez then walked Dave Collins, a Jays outfielder pinch hitting for Jesse Barfield—and promptly picked Collins off first, also before throwing a pitch to the next batter, Willie Upshaw. Upshaw then got on base when Lowenstein, proving he really was out of position, couldn’t handle a grounder to the right side.

As the great Tom Boswell wrote for the next day’s Washington Post: “With the whole park screaming for Martinez to pick him off, Martinez picked him off.”

The O’s then tied the game when Cal Ripken, the burgeoning Iron Man and eventual 1983 MVP (who was celebrating his 23rd birthday), led off the bottom of the 10th with a home run. With future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and future guy John Shelby on base after drawing walks, Sakata, whose alleged helplessness behind the plate inspired all the craziness, ended the night with a three-run walkoff blast just inside the left-field foul pole. The best sports moments feel like destiny. This felt like destiny.

In its game story, the New York Times quoted Tom Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, then the main clearinghouse of baseball stats, saying that picking off the side had ''probably happened before, but we have no way of checking without going into the scrapbooks.'' (I’ve still never found a definitive answer on if it had happened.)

The O’s pickoff game was an instant classic. As referenced by the Society for American Baseball Research, the Orioles 1984 media guide gave the game its own write-up, with the conclusion: “No one who was there or who listened to that game on the radio will ever forget it.”

I left DC that weekend for another semester of college, so that was the last game I went to that year. The Orioles went on an eight-game winning streak without me and never looked back. They beat the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS in four games and crushed the Philadelphia Phillies in five games in the 1983 World Series. After the Martinez magic, any other denouement to the MLB season would have seemed just wrong.

A few days ago, I looked up my buddy Pat, now retired and fishing in North Carolina, to reminisce about the game. He reminded me that while I was away at school, he saw two games of the 1983 World Series. What a time to be alive. The Orioles have not been back to the World Series since. 

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