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  •   The Orioles at 0-17, Being Loved

    By Richard Justice
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, April 24, 1988; Page A1

    KANSAS CITY, MO., APRIL 23 -- The most improbable losing streak in the 120 years of organized baseball began on an unseasonably warm day in Baltimore before a franchise-record 52,395 spectators. The Milwaukee Brewers beat the Orioles, 12-0, that afternoon of April 4 in a game that not only was one of the three most lopsided opening-day losses in American League history, but a chilling omen of things to come.

    Five days later, after two more losses, the Orioles again found themselves down, 12-0, and with that eventual 12-1 bummer they were off on an eerie, incredible ride, one that seemingly has no end and may not even have found its midsection.

    The Orioles, who lost by 4-3 on a ninth-inning run in Kansas City today, have begun a season of hope with 17 consecutive losses, and less than five years after they were celebrated for their stylish, selfless play and a World Series championship, these Orioles are cult figures and media celebrities of another kind.

    "Being part of this isn't the way you want to be remembered," catcher Terry Kennedy said the other night.

    Yet, failure has its rewards. A season after they were booed mercilessly in their home ballpark, these Orioles seemingly are loved by everyone. Comedian Bill Cosby phones with words of encouragement. A traveling salesman offers his four-star motivational speech. A friend of a friend phones to tell General Manager Roland Hemond she's praying for him.

    Their clubhouse gets a card or a telegram almost every day. There have been brownies and oatmeal cookies and the promise of a parade when they return home. There have been spots on the network news and a campaign-sized press following.

    America embraced the 1962 New York Mets, and it appears America will embrace these Orioles, a team of aging millionaires, mediocre kids and awful pitchers. Has there ever been anything like it? The '62 Mets were youthful bunglers and professional fumblers. The '88 Orioles tool to work in their Mercedeses and Corvettes and know all the best restaurants. They may not take their defeats lying down, but they haven't let them interfere with dinner reservations, either.

    But like the '62 Mets, they've done their losing with style. First baseman Eddie Murray turned to argue with an umpire while a run scored in game three. Pitcher Mike Boddicker balked in two runs in No. 4. Outfielder Jeff Stone misplayed a fly ball, or three or four. They allowed a steal of home on opening day, then muffed the same double-steal play a week later.

    They make a mistake, and two days later they make the same mistake. Their average margin of defeat has been an unheard-of five runs, and that doesn't even tell the story. After four innings, the average deficit has been four runs, which prevents a lot of postgame traffic jams.

    Their losing streak, the longest ever at the beginning of a major league season, already has cost one manager his job, another his patience. And as it grows and seemingly takes on a life of its own, it has engulfed a franchise that once had the reputation of being the best and the brightest.

    Late one night, it drove Stone to announce he was driving from Baltimore to his apartment in New Jersey to fetch 1986 videotapes of his batting stance. The Orioles were scheduled to play a game 13 hours later and Stone, in the worst slump of his young career, had to be talked out of going. A day later, he did make the drive, spent the night and returned the next day, tapes in hand.

    It led outfielder Larry Sheets to shave his mustache in an attempt to change his luck. Asked about it, he said, "I didn't shave it. I plucked it out. I'm into pain."

    It led Boddicker, still angry about a winter contract dispute, to promise that next season he'd be playing somewhere else. Tell them to trade me, he told a reporter.

    It's the best of the human condition and the worst. It's the sons of fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. sitting alone and looking lost an hour after their first game without their dad.

    "When someone in your family hurts, you hurt," said shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. Teammates and friends rallied around the Ripkens that night, 11 losses ago now, offering everything from a pat on the back to prayers.

    "It kills me to watch this," one player said. That player had been at Cal Jr.'s wedding that winter and he had seen the relationship between Cal Jr., the groom, and Cal Sr., the best man. He had heard the emotional toast in which the father had looked at the son and said, "May the most that you desire be the least that you accomplish."

    They've lost in Cleveland, in Milwaukee and Kansas City. They've lost eight in their cozy home park.

    And, in Royals Stadium after their 16th loss, a game that was no game after a 9-0 first inning, there was Manager Frank Robinson shoving a plate of ribs and cole slaw down his desk and working hard to control his emotions as television crews, radio microphones and notebooks closed in around him. It had just occurred to him that his players might not care, and it appeared to be eating him alive.

    Today, Robinson got himself ejected from the dugout in the second inning for arguing a balk call.

    Yet he's one of the best ever at a game that requires soul and patience and resilience, and it's a game that begs you to beg it for forgiveness. Grown men have cried at lesser thoughts than that of another splintered bat somehow looping a run-scoring single beyond your shortstop's glove.

    They look you in the eye and their expression says: "This can't be happening." They wave a hand down toward their ankles and they say: "The pitch was down there."

    Baseball extracts its pound of flesh in one way or another and has waited a long time to extract it from the Orioles. They never thought it would come to this, not 18 consecutive winning seasons (1968-85) spinning into 17 consecutive losses.

    In retrospect, the Orioles say they saw it going badly from the beginning. They say it wasn't just the 9-19 spring training record, but that management kept changing the team, then changing it again and then changing it some more. They say that despite what people say, baseball is a team game where team concepts still matter.

    They say that when a team starts a season with 13 new players -- a 54 percent turnover -- that no one will be singing "We Are Family," the theme song of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, for a while.

    "You need to know your teammates," Orioles outfielder Fred Lynn said. "It comes up in the little things. When you're going badly, you need to be able to go have a beer and talk about things. You need to know one another when you're on the bench in the ninth inning and two runs down. You want to know everyone's pulling together. We haven't had that. We didn't even know each other's name at the end of spring training."

    Finally, the Orioles surely could not have guessed all the people their losing would touch. They could not have guessed that Hank Peters, who was fired as general manager by owner Edward Bennett Williams last fall only to become president of the Cleveland Indians, would watch his new team beat his former one seven consecutive times with a look that was as much sadness as happiness.

    "A lot of my heart is still here," in Baltimore, Peters said. "I take no pleasure in this."

    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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