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  •   Hey! This Isn't Funny!

    By Thomas Boswell
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, April 28, 1988; Page B1

    MINNEAPOLIS -- This might have been a gloriously ridiculous moment in baseball history, this night when the Baltimore Orioles began a new season with their 20th consecutive defeat. Humm, you Bird babes. Lose on a walk, a balk and a throwing error -- perfecto mundo. Way to tie that all-time American League record. Now, go for 21. Hey, why not go for 24 and the 20th century record. Then you could return home Monday to a parade -- down Charles Street to the Inner Harbor.

    And, maybe, right into the Harbor.

    Man, nobody ever dreamed you guys might go 0-12 on the road when they scheduled that parade, now did they?

    Sure, innocent, goofy and harmless. That's how it ought to be now, making the best of the worst. Evoking tales of the '30s Brownies, the '40s Pirates, the '50s Senators and the '60s Mets. Bad isn't sad in baseball, it's just unique, eccentric, endearing and inevitable. Somebody has to be at the bottom.

    Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker have made fortunes milking their gaffs. Marv Throneberry was marvelous before "mah-vel-ous". Baseball has always had its clown princes and beloved buffoons. What's sad about a bunch of lousy old players who're numbingly overpaid and a bunch of AAA kids who should thank their lucky stars they're in the majors at all? Nothing at all.

    But that's not how it felt here in the Metrodome tonight.

    These Woes, these Zer-Os, make themselves, and everybody who comes in contact with their magnificent losing streak, feel depressed.

    Those back-to-back, tie-breaking home runs by Kent Hrbek and Tim Laudner to start the eighth inning, both within the space of southpaw Bill Scherrer's first five pitches, should have been grist for some new Orioles joke. What do you do after you give up a homer, a homer, a walk and a balk? Take a cold Scherrer.

    However, we don't get to laugh about this 7-6 Minnesota win. Or about the tying run left on third base or Frank Robinson's star-crossed managing, which blew up so badly that he said, "I'll take the blame for this one."

    The Orioles, you see, are mostly nice people -- soft spoken, unpretentious. They want to do the right thing. So, they feel guilty. Enormously guilty. About everything. This is all an incredibly big deal to them. They're suffering. And they can't help but want you to know it; that's all the dignity they have left.

    It wouldn't be so bad if they didn't care. But most do. Larry Sheets rubbed Eddie Murray's shoulders in the clubhouse, moments after a ninth-inning rally fell short, rubbed them like you would a favorite brother so he wouldn't cry. But it was Sheets who seemed near tears. "It's just not to be right now," murmured Sheets.

    "I admire these players," said Frank Robinson this evening. "Nobody's really gone off the deep end. All except one game, there's been a real effort. I can't ask 'em to play any harder."

    This evening's battery, Scott McGregor and Terry Kennedy, feel guilty about the million dollar salaries that they're not earning. "This is my fourth chance to be the stopper," said McGregor, before getting shelled again, blowing a 3-0 first-inning lead.

    The Ripken brothers feel guilty that their father got fired. Cal has his name; Billy now wears his number. Mike Boddicker and Murray, two old-school old Orioles from the glory days, say they want to get out of town by trade. But they really feel the guilt, too. They're trying to jump ship after being Orioles their whole careers.

    Manager Robinson even feels guilty about letting down the team's supporters. Of one marathon radio disc jockey who's getting famous off the losing streak, Robinson said, "We're gonna kill the poor guy." Of the Birds fans, he says, "You would think people would act worse, that they'd really be down on you and they haven't been. We really appreciate that. The fans have been so great, you start to feel bad for them."

    Only the Orioles can turn a parade and a possible sell-out welcome-home crowd into a reason to weep.

    True to the guilt motif, Robinson welcomed the national media into his office after this loss and offered a subdued mea culpa for leaving Scherrer in to face the right-handed Laudner after Hrbek's leadoff homer.

    "The fans watch us to get pleasure or relax or get rid of frustrations," said general manager Roland Hemond, who tried to change the team's luck by roaming all over the park, never sitting in the same section two innings in a row. "When you play like this, you feel like you aren't providing them with what they're entitled to."

    All the new Birds, 19 of them in the last two seasons, move into an atmosphere poisoned by memories of firings and lost faith, unfulfilled promise and high anxiety. Many players feel guilty about making owner Ed Williams, who has had six cancer surgeries, endure their blundering. "I suffer for Ed," says Hemond.

    Everybody here is into suffering, depression, guilt. Believe it.

    A secret admirer sent Ken Gerhart flowers before this game. Players draped his locker with them. "They're sending us roses," said Jim Dwyer, "like this was a funeral parlor."

    Nearby, Cal Ripken Jr. spotted a new reporter on the death-watch scene, one more media type who can't go home to his family until the Orioles release him with a victory.

    "Join the hostages," said Ripken.

    That's as close to humor as the Orioles generally come. They are not so much self-deprecating as self-flagellating. "We don't see very much funny in this," said Hemond.

    This isn't a team with a jinx on it. Don't call an exorcist. What the Orioles need is a team shrink. They're in the grip of a group depressive psychosis -- or something with an equally gaudy name. Just as a good team can play above its head almost indefinitely in a pennant race, so the Orioles seem capable of finding ways to lose as long as they have a goal in sight.

    But what is their goal?

    What is all this about? How much do they have to punish themselves? How much is enough to make up for the wrongs they imagine that they have done? Five loses in a row, or even 10, is about baseball -- i.e., who's injured, who's in a slump. Twenty in a row is about something else.

    "Nobody likes to be the joke of the league," said Robinson, "but we accept it."

    In the manager's desk drawer was a lapel pin, given to him for luck. "It's been lovely," the pin read, "but I have to scream now."

    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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