Alex Rychwalski | The O's and Buccos, a once fierce rivalry long forgotten

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Jul. 13—When I moved to this region three years ago, the number of Pirates fans here surprised me.

It shouldn't have, since Pittsburgh is approximately two hours from Cumberland and a little closer than Baltimore. Growing up in Carroll County, there were plenty of Steelers faithful, but there wasn't much Pirates pride to go around.

As young people, we also often forget just how good the Pirates and Orioles were. Consistent winning builds fanbases, and consistent losing eventually destroys them.

They had their moments in the 2010s. The Pirates made three consecutive postseason trips beginning in 2013 to end a streak of 20 losing seasons, the longest in history.

The Clint Hurdle-led squad featured a strong corps of starting pitching of AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker were fan favorites at the dish.

The Orioles, meanwhile, ended a streak of 14 straight losing seasons when they made the playoffs in 2012. Buck Showalter would guide Baltimore to three playoff trips in five years.

Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Jonathan Schoop and JJ Hardy were mainstays throughout that run. Mark Trumbo hit 47 home runs in 2016, and Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel González were serviceable starting pitchers before leaving the team in '15.

Yet, those reprieves from futility were short-lived, and they were a fraction of the excitement that existed in the region during the clubs' heydays between 1969 and 1979.

In the 1970s, the Orioles had the second-most regular-season wins in baseball with a 944-656 record, five postseason trips, three World Series appearances and one title. The Pirates were third in wins with a record of 916-695, making the playoffs six times and capturing both World Series it competed in.

Only the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati won more games (953) between 1970-79.

When someone in the year 2022 comments that I should swap out my Orioles cap for a Pirates one, it's a lighthearted joke between fans of the two sorriest franchises in Major League Baseball.

It would've been no joke 51 years ago.

Both 1971 and 1979 seasons ended with Baltimore and Pittsburgh waging a seven-game classic in the World Series, and both seasons ended with the Pirates popping bottles of champagne when the series was over.

Baltimore, playing in its third consecutive World Series (and beating the Reds in five games in 1970), were again heavy favorites against Pittsburgh in 1971.

Earl Weaver's Orioles sported a record four 20-game winners which included Dave McNally (21-5), Pat Dobson (20-8), Mike Cuellar (20-9) and Jim Palmer (20-9) en route to a third consecutive 100-win season.

Baltimore had a quality line-up, too, with both power and speed. Five players hit at least 18 home runs, and four players stole at least 10 bases.

Defensively, Gold Glove winners Mark Belanger at shortstop and Brooks Robinson at third base gave the Orioles arguably the best left side of an infield in history (they combined to win 24 Gold Gloves during their careers).

The National League champion Pirates were 97-65 during the regular season, led by seasoned skipper Danny Murtaugh. Willie Stargell belted 48 home runs and drove in 125 runs, and Roberto Clemente batted .341 at the age of 36.

Mount Savage legend Bob Robertson hit 26 home runs that year and a then-record four in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants. He would hit two against the Orioles in the World Series.

On the mound, the Pirates sported 19-game winner Dock Ellis and Steve Blass with a 15-8 record and a 2.85 earned run average. The Bucs bullpen was deep, and Dave Giusti recorded 30 saves.

The opening six affairs were all won by the home team, setting up a Game 7 at Memorial Stadium on October 17.

Cuellar, three years removed from winning the Cy Young Award, and Blass pitched three scoreless innings to start before Clemente — playing in his final World Series before his death in 1972 — gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead with a solo home run to left.

Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the ninth, Blass retired Boog Powell, Frank Robinson and Merv Rettenmund in order to win their fourth World Series title. Clemente was named series MVP.

Bitterly disappointed, the Orioles would get their chance at revenge with a rematch in the 76th World Series in 1979, but the "We Are Family" Pirates again edged Baltimore in seven games.

Only Belanger and Palmer were Orioles' holdovers between the two years. A young Eddie Murray was an emerging superstar, and Ken Singleton set career-highs in home runs (35) and RBIs (111). Veteran catcher Rick Dempsey commanded a pitching staff that featured 1979 Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan.

The Pirates were again more of a Cinderella story, turning around their season after the acquisition of Tim Foli (Mets) and Bill Madlock (Giants). Six pitchers won at least 10 games.

Stargell, then a veteran at 38 years of age, filled the same role Clemente did eight years prior as the team's leader.

Stargell set a World Series record with seven extra-base hits — four doubles and three homers. He tied Reggie Jackson's total-base mark of 25 set in 1977. Stargell became the first player to win MVP awards in the regular season, League Championship Series and World Series in the same campaign.

The Orioles' most potent bat struggled. Murray was 0 for 21 over the final five games of the series. No AB was bigger than with Baltimore trailing 2-1 in the eighth with the bases loaded in Game 7, which ended in a fly-out.

The Orioles scored just two runs over the final 28 innings of the series.

Jimmy Carter threw out the first pitch of Game 7 and was nearly struck by a foul ball later in the day. After the game, the president celebrated Pittsburgh's triumph in the clubhouse — the Pirates haven't won a postseason series since (they won the 2013 Wild Card Game).

Baltimore would ride Murray and Most Valuable Player Cal Ripken Jr. to the 1983 World Series title. The Orioles haven't been to a World Series since, falling in the 1996, 1997 and 2014 championship series.

While Orioles fans are enjoying their team's surprising first half this year, their window at competing likely won't start for two more seasons. With a loaded farm system on the cusp of the majors — nine of Baltimore's Top 10 prospects are in Double- or Triple-A — the future is bright.

Pittsburgh's top five prospects — Oneil Cruz, Henry Davis, Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester and Liover Peguero — are in Double-A with the exception of Cruz, who is getting his feet wet at the Major League level.

Whether either franchise develops their talent and becomes a consistent winner again is yet to be seen. Their track records leave a lot to be desired.

It's no longer a fierce rivalry — years of futility will do that.

Maybe one of these days, somebody will tell me to take my Orioles cap off, and I won't burst out laughing.

Alex Rychwalski is a sports reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.