When bad baseball teams lose, they alibi. What else can they do? When good clubs lose, they fight their mounting confusion with anger.
The last-place Baltimore Orioles - a phrase almost never heard for the last 21 years - have lost four in a row. And they're angry.
"We've made a colossal number of mistakes," said Oriole General Manager Hank Peters. "We've crucified our own pitching staff with errors. We've got 'four-out' syndrome. Give the other team four outs an inning and they'll bury you."
"But, lets face it, our pitchers have been lousy, too. They've had a lot to overcome, but htey haven't overcome it.
"And our hitters have left a ton of men on the base. We can't get that third hit in an inning that opens the flood gates. Too many fourth outs. Not enough third hits.
"Our losing is a total team effort. It's high time we shaped up."
"Yes," said the normally placid Peters. "I've said a prayer."
Few teams have ever been as tempted to lapse into self-pity as the Birds. Everywhere they fly, the Os are greeted as the precocious urchins of the free-agent holocaust.
Even Baltimoreans, who seem to have a city inferiority complex about their defecting stars, seem to ask their team, "How have you stayed aloft so long? When's the crash,?"
The Orioles, however, are genuinely shocked at their staggering 5-11 start.
"If this had happened a year ago, I'd have believed it," said Peters. "We had rookies and new faces everywhere. But by the end of the year we were a well-knit club."
The Orioles were considerably more than that. They won 62 of their last 93 games.The starting one-two punch of Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan finished the season with a 22-2 streak between them.
"People keep fretting about us," said Doug DeClinces, "but the only person we really lost was Ross Grimsley and he shouldn't be the hardest guy in the world to replace.
"We needed a tough righty reliever club, and we got a guy in (Don) Stanmore than anything on the whole house who looks like he can chew nails Giving up Rudy May for him . . . you gotta say it looks like a darn good trade."
However, just as a dozen minor blessings kept the Baby Birds' confidence worries are tearing at the confidence now.
"You ain't going to get no better young arms than Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor," said Manager Earl Weaver defiantly. "But, brother, it's tough to get anybody to believe that right now.
"We've put our baseball judgment on the line for two winters in a row. We said Flanagan could replace (Wayne) Garland in '77 and he did.
Now we're saying McGregor can replace Grimsley. We'll live or die by that decision. Those two kids are what we've got. Did we make a mistake? I'm nowhere close to believing that.
"Let those two win a few games and they'll walk out the mound thinking 'This ain't so tough,'" said Weaver, who has never been one for whristling in the dark in the past. "Then we'll look smart again."
But Weaver wonders if that turn-around may come too late - when Boston and New York are only puffs of dust on the horizon.
"Yeah, Yeah," Weaver snorts. "In September we'll be congratulating ourselves on what a great comeback we made after a crummy start. I'm getting of that. If you finish 2 1/2 games behind, it's still a lot of horse feathers."
The Orioles' most alarming ailment is not Ken Singleton's still-sore right elbow that kept him from batting righty, nor the stiff shoulder that cost Palmer two starts, nor even the apple the Rich Dauer (2 for 23) can't get out of his throat in April.
The Orioles are playing like a team with a psychic virus. Their characteristic scrappiness of '77 has diminished. This team mental error is suddenly falling asleep at the switch repeatedly.
Peters, the man has pointed fingers at others may hear some responsibility there. Many close to the O's feel that Palmer could have driven himself and his tender shoulder into ready for opening day if he had not been totally steamed at Peters for taking him to arbitration over a $15,000 "significant contribution" bonus clause in last year's contract.
Peters is also fighting Ken Singleton and Flanagan over the same relatively penny-ante issue.
"Only Palmer knows how his shoulder really felt," Weaver, eyes alive. "But I will say that over a few thousand dollars . . . Well, Jim has convictions and Jim's also a little stubborn. Even if it contributes to him being unhappy, it unwise.
Where would damaged team morale reveal itself in statistics? Probably in poor fielding, careless home run pitches, wild pitches and poor base running.
In 16 games the Birds have 19 errors, 18 unearned runs, 20 gopher balls, nine wild pitches and have run the bases caustiously.
"The time to worry isn't until the players start to worry, says Singleton. "Do we look worried?"
Pitching Coach Rabbit Miller tries to reach Stanhouse by walkie-talkie in the other corner of the locker room.
"This is earth to Penthouse Stan," said Miller. "Come in. Penthouse. Speak to mother earth."
What does rookie coach Miller think of the awful things that have happened to his pitchers?
"Talk about your auspicious debuts as pitching coach," he said. "They've grilled me so much on TV I'm going to be up for an Emmy."
A few feet away Lee May is explaining how he is devoting his declining years to becoming an all-fields place hitter.
"Old Mo's commin' up with new tricks in the cage every day," he says of himself. "When you're 35 and they make you the DH, it's time to become a compleat hitter. DH is the last job in town. There's no place lower."
"Oh, no. That's not right, roomie," crowed Pat Kelly. "I hear they're hiring down at the Post Office every day."
"I don't want to carry no mail," answered May. "I'd rather learn to hit to right."
The Orioles know that a simple prescription is all they need to cure treir ills: a dose of decent defense, coupled with creditable pitching from Martinez and McGregor.
The doctor who prays for that recovery most fervently is Peters. He is hand-picked for the heavy's roll, and knows it. Peters is the sobersided fellow who must implement ownership's admantly tight-fisted policy toward free agents. He is the traditionalist who has feuded with free-wheeling agent Jerry Kapstein until nine of the 10 Orioles that Kapstein represented have left the club. Only Al Bumbry remains and he is expected to play out his option this year." I gotta figure Al'll be gone." said Weaver.
Peters is the sometimes stiff-necked man who had a chance to sign Reggie Jackson to a four-year contract for less than a million dollars just two Aprils ago and said that Jackson's demand was far too much.
And Peters is the man who has said that Palmer's 20 victories, Singleton's .328 average and Flanagan's 15 rookies wins were not his idea of a significant contribution.
"I can't stop people from picking me as a scrapegoat if they want to said the GM. "I can't concern myself with that. I like to think of myself as a thick-skinned person and I'm getting to use it now."
This April's trauma has been daubly annoying because the Peters-Weaver team thought the Birds looked solid for years. The Martinez-McGregord trio helped them sleep at night. Eddie Murray and Andres Mora overweight and farmed out) looked like sluggers for a decade. Kiko Garcia would replace Mark Belanger in due time. Larry Harlow (.335 at Rochester) could supplant Bumbry. Rich Dauer was a cinch .280-hitter at second.
'This bad start is like an insult to your baseball judgment, and that's an insult that galls you," said Weaver. "People think the club we have now is some kinda desperation, miracle lineup. They don't know beans.
"The team we have on the field is almost entirely the team of our choice. That's what hurts."