Ah, the joys of spring training games showing up on my television, enabling me fleeting glances between hospital visits of a spring that here in New York seems a long way off.
The first few exhibitions always make me wonder if any player ever made a greater debut than that of a fairly obscure catcher for the Baltimore Orioles during the exhibition season of 1963. In the preceding off-season, the Birds had moved on from the man who had been virtually the only catcher in their modern history, Gus Triandos, and were auditioning a kid with just 43 games of big league experience whom they’d gotten in a winter deal with San Francisco.
Johnny Orsino had shown a power bat in the minors but was an unproven commodity as the Birds assembled in Miami 47 years ago. More over, he was hurt. A bad back forced him to miss Baltimore’s first six exhibition games. So his first at bat in an Orioles uniform on March 15th was by itself something of a triumph.
Orsino promptly hit a three-run homer off Joe Moeller of the Dodgers. In his next at bat, he was accidentally intentionally walked (Boog Powell had been balked to second and manager Walter Alston was gesticulating wildly about the call; Dodger catcher Mike Brumley mistakenly believed he was being inexplicably ordered to walk his Oriole counterpart). In his third trip to the plate, Orsino hit another homer, a solo blast.
He came out of the game at that point, and missed Baltimore’s next two exhibitions. But against veteran Reds’ lefty Jim O’Toole at Al Lopez Field in Tampa on March 18th, Orsino made it three homers in three Baltimore ups. Then four in four. Then five in five.
You read correctly. Not just home runs in five consecutive official at bats, nor just home runs in the first five at bats of spring training, but five consecutive home runs in the first five at bats with a new team. The streak was finally snapped when a Reds’ prospect named John Flavin got Orsino to pop up to the catcher.
Orsino’s unbeatable debut (What? somebody’s going to hit homers in his first six at bats with a new team, even in spring training?) got him considerable attention, and he had a strong season (19-56-.272) as Baltimore’s top receiver in 1964. But the bad back lingered, and he never again played in as many as 100 games in a season. By 1966 the Orioles had dished him off to the Senators, and he spent all but one game of 1967 in the Pacific Coast League, and by 1968 was in Double-A.
But the spring training world was his. It is largely forgotten now, but the Designated Hitter made its debut on the big league level not in 1973, but in a handful of exhibitions in 1969. And the first man to get a hit as “The Designated Pinch Hitter” was a non-roster invitee struggling unsuccessfully to catch on with the Yankees: John Orsino.
I promised no politics here and I stick to it. But I never said anything about never mentioning other sports, although I think I’ll start that rule about a paragraph from now. If you’d like to read the most poorly-informed conclusion I’ve come across in sports media this year, you have your link. Proceed with caution. In short, it is the contention that the comeback of Tiger Woods will be more difficult than the one Muhammad Ali faced in the 1960’s. If the writer can let me know when Woods is punitively drafted by the military even though he is about eight years older than almost all the other draftees, I’ll begin to take him seriously. In the interim I am again left to marvel how somebody can rise to a fairly prominent media position with no discernible insight or talent, save for an apparent ability to mix up a vast bowl of word salad very quickly.