Rick Burleson, still in his Boston Red Sox uniform, stared down into his locker as though he wished it were the edge of a cliff. Sitting on a stool, elbows on knees, he kneeded a wad of tape into an ever smaller ball, as though it were a memory he wished to crush out of existence.
"This was the icing on the cake," said the Sox shortstop, the leadoff man they call Rooster for his pluck. "It's like we're destined to blow this thing. I don't see how we can win now . . . God. I don't know how we're ever going to live this down."
The Sox, who had lost their previous five games to the New York Yankees by a combined score of 45-9, had their souls twisted by a 3-2 bottom-of-the-ninth defeat yesterday in Yankee Stadium.
"This was the one," lamented catcher Carlton Fisk. "If we'd won today, then Dennis Eckersley had beaten 'em tomorrow, we'd have been only half a game behind and maybe . . . maybe . . . we could still have turned this tidal wave around.
"Now, winning just one important game seems almost unattainable."
This Sox defeat, their 14th in 17 games to drive them 3 1/2 games behind the Yanks with 15 to play, was quintessential torment.
With the game only three batters old, the Sox had a 2-0 lead on Jim Rice's 41st homer, a 420-foot opposite-field clout off Catfish Hunter.
"Jeez, I thought we finally had it going," said Sox starter and lower Mike Torrez, the battling bear of a right-hander.
But the Sox, hitting 184 for September, never got another man past second base against the nibbling Catfish.
"My slider showed up in the third inning," Hunter, now 8-2 since returning from the land of the disabled, said with a grin. "Then my fast ball got to sailing and sinkin' like I wanted it to. Bout the seventh, I said to myself, I flat got 'em Church is out.' That's the way I used to feel."
Meanwhile, Torrez, who waged war in pinstripes last year, was at his combative best.
Reggie Jackson, who saves his best for the national TV cameras, singled home a Yankee run in the first. In the fifth, Jackson tried to grab a Thurman Munson foul ball as he knelt in the on-deck circle. The foul cut his thumb and bruised it so badly that he may lose the finger nail.
After a delay for bandaging, Jackson trudged to the plate, a seemingly wounded sure out. Naturally, he crashed an 0-2 pitch over the right field fence by inches to tie the game, 2-2.
"I only know one way to pitch," said Torrez teeth clenched, "and that's to come after 'em."
So, with that 0-2 pitch disaster still fresh in mind. Torrez challenged Mickey Rivers with an 0-2 strike to lead off the ninth. Rivers smashed the hanging curve into Yankee Stadium's Death Valley for a triple.
The Sox, draws in, waited for the death blow to fail. Willie Randolph grounded out, but Thurmen Munson; Mr. Bat Control, lashed a fast ball on the fist to right-center. Rice made a tumbling catch that meant nothing. Rivers trotted home with the sudden-victory run on the sacrifice fly.
This was the game that finally broke the Sox-s emotional dam. After other defeats they have swigged beer, talked bravely, and even cheered Muhammed Ali's TV boxing victory minutes after losing themselves.
Yesterday, the Sex stopped averting their eyes from their personal monster. Can that in itself will release them from their 26-34 slump?
"We can't buy a clutch hit," said Burleson. "I'm as guilty as anyone. Two men on in the ninth. Catfish hangs me a breaking ball . . . a pitch I should smoke. . . and I pop it up.
"Maybe we're not as good as people think. Maybe we've only get nine good players and we need all of them healthy to win.
"I told a friend last night, 'Nobody can tell me that I've quit.' And he said to me. 'People can say whatever they want to say. And my friend is right. Who's going to believe that were still screaming on the bench and bustin our butts? But we are."
"This is the damndest sport I've ever seen," said Torrez. "I can't believe we've hit .235 for two months."
On the last two Saturdays manager Don Zimmer has called for six sacrifice bunts after leadoff hits. The subsequent batters have gone 0 for 12. "It ain't the pitching, boys," said Zimmer. "It ain't nothin' but the hitting."
"Knowing the problem . . . even that doesn't help," said Fisk. "You wake up in the morning thinking about it. But even that's not so bad.
"It's the nights that are worst," said Fisk. "It's the nights."