To call a Baltimore Orioles fan is like saying that Frank Robinson was a pretty good fastball hitter. Pemstein, a native of the Washington, D.C. area (specifically Falls Church, Va.) grew up in a state of intense absorption, soaking up and taking in all things Orioles.
A longtime sports writer for Pioneer Press and a Patch freelancer, the Lake Zurich resident has written A Stone's Throw, a self-published book that looks at Steve Stone’s amazing and improbable 1980 season with the Baltimore Orioles.
“That was back when Earl Weaver was their manager and they had a tremendous pitching staff — veteran Jim Palmer; Mike Flanagan, who won the Cy Young award in ’79; Dennis Martinez; and Scott McGregor. They finished 100-62 and still couldn’t catch the Yankees.”
Pemstein is such an Oriole fanatic that his three sons — Brady, Riley and Nolan — are all named after former Orioles players.
“Brady for Brady Anderson, who once hit over 50 home runs in a season for the Orioles. The other two are a not as easy to figure out. My wife is Irish-American, so the deal was the names had to sound Irish as well.”
Pemstein’s son Riley was named after former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley, who played briefly for the team in 1999 and 2003-04, and Nolan after backup catcher Joe Nolan, who was with Baltimore back in the ’80s.
If you ask the average baseball fan which Oriole pitcher had the single-best season, most would assume that honor would belong to Jim Palmer, or perhaps Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar or Mike Flanagan. But they would be incorrect. It’s actually Steve Stone. That’s right — longtime Cubs and White Sox announcer Steve Stone.
In 1980, Stone went 25-7 for Baltimore. Throwing a dazzling mix of variable-speed curveballs that baffled hitters, mixed in with some decent fastballs, Stone compiled one of the single-best seasons of all time. Pemstein’s book, A Stone's Throw, covers that magical year.
Unfortunately for Stone, the magic was elusive; the next year, he fell to 4-7, pitching just 62.2 innings. The darting, elusive curveballs that Stone had perfected a year earlier had exacted a toll on his arm; he retired after the 1981 season and became a radio color commentator for the Cubs.
“The best line I heard about Stone's amazing season was by Ken Singleton,” said Pemstein, referring to the great Oriole right fielder who was Stone’s teammate. “He said that Stone must have sold his soul to the devil for that one good year.”
At least in the Chicago area, more people know Stone as a knowledgeable and articulate baseball analyst who spent many years with the Cubs until a well-publicized falling-out during the 2004 season, when he was critical of an underperforming team that he felt should have made the playoffs.
Stone became the White Sox’ radio color man in 2008 before moving over to the television booth to team up with veteran play-by-play man Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson.
But before his long and distinguished career in the announcer’s booth, there was a somewhat long and decidedly less-distinguished career as a journeyman pitcher, at least until 1980. Stone originally was signed by the San Francisco Giants out of college in 1969, and played for them in 1971 and 1972.
As a starter, he went 5-9 in 1971 and 6-8 the next year before moving on to the White Sox, where he went 6-11 in 1973 before traveling to the North Side to join the Cubs.
Stone finally had a winning season in 1974, going 8-6 with the Cubbies. The next year, he went 12-8 with a career-high 139 strikeouts, but fell to 3-6 the following year when he suffered a torn rotator cuff.
Returning to the South Side in 1977, Stone bounced back, going 15-12 for the Sox. He followed that up with a 12-12 mark in 1978 before signing as a free agent with Baltimore.
In Stone’s first season with the Orioles, he posted a decent 11-7 record. Then the amazing, utterly improbable season occurred.
“Here was a guy who had a career losing record up to that point in his career,” said Pemstein, referring to his 78-79 won-lost record through the 1979 season. “And then, out of nowhere, he has this tremendous season – one of the best years that any pitcher ever had. He still holds the record for most wins in a season by an Orioles pitcher.”
Stone strung together 14 straight wins during part of the season, started the All-Star game and retired all nine batters that he faced in three innings of work.
Pemstein’s love of the Orioles led to working for the team from 1983 to 1987 in the team’s group tickets sales division. After moving to the Chicago area, he worked for Pioneer Press for close to 21 years. But cutbacks in staff eventually left Pemstein a casualty.
“I talked to my wife, Eileen, around this time and said ‘I’ve got to write a book.’ I had been thinking about Stone’s great season, remembering in ’80 when me and a friend of mine were watching Stone throwing a no-hitter (which eventually was broken up) and I thought it would make a good story.”
In 2003, Pemstein attended the 20-year anniversary of the 1983 Orioles, the last team that won the World Series. That year is a dark memory for White Sox fans, whose team finished with a 99-63 record, the best in baseball, only to be quickly dispatched in the playoffs by the Orioles, who took the series, 3-1.
“I was the only reporter at the reunion. I talked to some of the players from the ’83 team, asking them for their memories of that era.”
At first, Pemstein said, Stone was not interested in talking about his incredible season in the sun.
“He dismissed it as something he had done in the past and didn’t really want to talk about it,” said Pemstein, who nonetheless persisted in trying to get Stone to open up.
“In 2006 or 2007, Stone was at an autograph signing session, signing autographs at $25 a pop. So I went to see him.”
Afterward, Stone finally agreed to sit down with Pemstein for an interview, giving him some much-needed meat for his book.
Pemstein approached several publishers with his manuscript, including Triumph Books.
“The editor there complained that 1980 was so long ago,” Pemstein said with a laugh.
“I finally decided to go the self-publishing route, which has proven to be relatively easy and uncomplicated. Once I finished the book, I was able to print it.”
While Pemstein already was well-versed in Orioles history, he was able to excavate some interesting new nuggets. He recalled one of the more ironic items that his research into Stone’s amazing season turned up.
“When he signed with the Orioles, Hank Peters, the team’s general manager, put in Stone’s contract a $10,000 bonus if he won the Cy Young award. I’ll bet when he did that he never for a moment thought that would ever happen.”