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  •   Losing's Got a Hold on Orioles

    By Thomas Boswell
    Washington Post Columnist
    April 29, 1988; Page C1

    This could be the day. Please, let this be the day. It is written on every Orioles face on every pitch. They have the World Series look. Drawn, worried, faces so seriously, studiously intent that the idea of a smile or a word of idle infield chatter is unthinkable. You need binoculars to see that truth in the Baltimore Orioles' faces, but it is there, plain as 21 losses in a row.

    Maybe, a couple of weeks ago, there were Orioles who didn't care, Orioles who were mad or sad or distracted by the firing of Manager Cal Ripken Sr. But now, not a chance in the world. Not when they broke the American League record for consecutive defeats Thursday. Not now when they are just two losses shy of the 20th Century mark set by the '61 Phillies. Especially not now when they do not have a single victory all year. In the last 120 seasons, baseball has had countless slumps. But this is The Slump because of that "0" in the win column. "Weaver's Heroes to Robinson's Zeroes," said the cruel upper deck banner.

    All 24 Baltimore players are in the same foxhole, under fire. Every day, they are in the national spotlight, followed by more cameras and pencils than some pennant winners. They are jokes, clowns, symbols of ineptitude and failure in the clutch. Objects of pity. The President calls to sympathize. If a man in Duluth falls down the basement steps, his wife will probably tell him he's ready to play for the Orioles.

    Suddenly, in the fifth inning Thursday, Cal Ripken Jr., smiled a crooked grin, clenched his fist and made an amused baseball gesture. What had happened? On a team where no one -- absolutely no one -- will visit a pitcher on the mound when he is in trouble, where no sound breaks the infield silence for innings at a time, why would the Zeroes' best man be chuckling?

    The binoculars turn; the realization is simple. Kirby Puckett of the Twins is on second base, yammering at Ripken. "I told Cal I saw his wife outside the park yesterday. She must be 6 feet tall. I asked him, 'Is your wife getting taller or am I getting even shorter?' " said the 5-foot-8 Puckett. "He said he thought she was still growing."

    That is how the game should be, three weeks into a long season. But, as Puckett moved on, the silence returned. The Orioles were, once more, in the grip of The Thing That Ate Baltimore.

    "It's like World Series pressure," said Ripken, the team's only hot hitter -- 13 for 28. "That's the only way to describe it. That's the way it is."

    For a couple hours Thursday in the Metrodome, the Orioles had, if not hope, then some tingling of anticipation. A 1-0 lead, then a mere 2-1 deficit as late as the sixth inning showed distant promise. Better than those nine runs the Royals scored in the first inning in Kansas City last week. Maybe, as Larry Sheets said, "Somebody will give us one -- a walk, a couple of errors in a tight spot. That's what we need." Baseball's beggars receive as few gifts as the poor of the real world.

    First, Kent Hrbek dialed the upper deck for his fourth home run in three days; of course, he had none when the Baltimore Welcome Wagon arrived in town. Then, a long fly ball, the kind Frank Robinson would have caught on cruise control 20 years ago, thudded against the bottom of the right field baggy with Keith Hughes -- a gentleman not cited anywhere in the 255-page "Who's Who in Baseball 1988" -- in sluggish and misdirected pursuit. Two more Twins scored.

    "It would've been a great catch," said Hughes, "but it was catchable."

    "My runs, my responsibility," Mike Boddicker said. That, too, is how it is in the World Series; if you've got class, you never pass the buck on a national stage.

    Let no one say Tom Kelly and his Minnesotans have no sense of pity. Or perhaps a sense of humor. The Twins' starter was Allan Anderson, who had a 10.95 ERA with the Twins last season and was in Class AAA last week. He was followed by Mike Mason, who walked every batter he faced, and Mark Portugal, 1-10 in the minors last season.

    In the seventh, the Twins gave it their all. Anderson walked two. Mason walked two more. Up stepped the heart, or at least the wallet, of the order. Fred Lynn struck out chasing pitches over his head. Ripken took a borderline two-strike pitch. Umpire Daryl (Mother Teresa) Cousins called it a ball. Have one more hack, Cal. So, Portugal hung one -- a real gopher ball. And Ripken missed hitting a grand slam to Canada by a fraction of an inch. Instead, just a roof-scraping fly out.

    "Almost got it. Had a good swing," said Ripken, who also flubbed a routine ground ball at shortstop. But Ripken also had to wonder if, in this Twilight Zone, any player could really know his own emotional state. "When you press to do well, you squeeze the bat tighter, you're not as quick . . . Support is great. {Team} morale is great. But when you're up there alone, it's just you. Maybe we need to be a little selfish, each do his own job and not worry about 'us.' "

    Though the Orioles cheer for each other outwardly, each feels isolated. Glances are seldom exchanged. Byplay has died. "You're in your own little void out there," said Sheets.

    Exacerbating enormous pressure is confidence that has almost evaporated. "We got a bunch of old guys who are over the hill, or going over it, and a bunch of young guys who just can't play baseball," said one veteran Oriole before this game. "We're trying. We just don't have any talent."

    The Orioles, those 24 sorrowful little voids, head to Chicago next. Charms will be invoked, like General Manager Roland Hemond's "lucky suit." Some might look for a silver lining to this slump of slumps. A few might blather about adversity building character.

    Maybe. But not this level of adversity. "I feel for 'em," said Puckett. "Bet ya, a million-to-one, they come out of it." Then, more quietly, he added, "The whole thing's getting out of hand."

    The Orioles have known that for some time. "Usually, in a losing streak, there are lessons to take out of it. We're so far beyond that point it's not funny," said third base coach John Hart. "There's not a positive thing about this, nothing to be gained or learned.

    "We just want it to end."

    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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