Everywhere they go, the Baltimore Orioles are met by the same perplexing and infuriating question.
How are you guys doing it?
And at every stop, the Birds answer with their bats and arms and gloves, giving demonstrations of the baseball art that are so sweet and subtle that the locals think they have been flamdoodled by a shell game. They don't want to believe. Yet.
If any of New England's diehard Boston Red Sox fans wanted one final demonstration of why their heroes are hopelessly behind the O's -- 12 1/2 games, in fact, they got it tonight in Baltimore's 2-1 win in Fenway Park before 33,222 silent and suddenly respectful cognoseente.
Gary Roenicke's seventh-inning home run broke up a 1-1 game.
The O's, their record now 92.46 with 12 wins in 16 games and five victories in a row, are built on frightening depth in pitching, home run power throughout the lineup, an improved outfield defense and the adroit managing of Earl Weaver.
All the ingredients in the Oriole potion were present tonight.
Starter Jim Palmer took himself out after five strong innings (and 78 pitches), because his right forearm stiffened. "Not serious," he grinned. "But I'm not taking any chances."
The Birds then opened the doors to one of the deepest bullpens in modern days. Long reliever Sammy Stewart picked up the victory with 3 1/3 innings of shutout work. When he tired in the ninth, Don Stanhouse retired the last two batters, for his 17th save, with the tying run at second base.
"And they wanna know how we're winnin' the pennant," said Weaver with a mock snarl. "I got kids like Stewart who hasn't pitched in 11 days and is dying to get in there.
"I got Stanhouse, who hasn't pitched in a week because all my starters insist on pitching complete games.
"I got a 6-foot-7 relief pitcher (Tim Stoddard), who throws the ball 100 miles an hour. I can't get him in a game.
"I got Scotty McGregor who's won 10 of his last 11 -- he might be the hottest pitcher in baseball. He's rested but I can't find a place to use him in this series.
"Think some guys around this league could use some of what I've got?" asked Weaver. "And they ask me why we win.
"Stewart is just another pitcher that Baltimore's got to make room for someday," beamed Weaver. "I may be retired by the time some of these kids get a fair chance."
The Birds, their lead now up to double figures for the first time -- 10 1/2 games -- scored both their runs on monster homers -- Eddie Murray's 22nd to center in the fourth and Roenicke's 24th deep into the screen three innings later, both off hardluck rookie loser Chuck Rainey.
The homers bored through a steady inward wind. Murray's hit just inches to the home-run side of the yellow stripe on the monster wall beside the center field flagpole. The Sox, who have lost 13 of their last 17 games, argued futilely that the blast should have been ruled "in play" off the wall.
Boston may have had the night's grand-daddy homer -- Jim Rice's 35th roundtripper, a launch into Lansdowne Street off Palmer in the fourth, but the Birds had the Sox outnumbered.
If pitching and homers are the Birds' conspicuous virtues, it was Baltimore's improved outfield work that saved the victory.
Weaver switched Ken Singleton and Roenicke to left and right field, respectively, tonight so Singleton could use his experience in playing the wall. Talk about prescience.
Carl Yastrzemski opened the bottom of the ninth with a liner off the monster -- his third hit of the game, giving him 2,998 for his career. But when Yaz slid into second base, Singleton's on-the-fly peg was waiting for him.
When Bob Watson doubled off the wall on Stewart's next pitch, Singleton's throw was magnified. Stanhouse entered and retired Butch Hobson on a fly and Dwight Evans on an unchecked-swing whiff.
At present, the O's have blessings beyond tabulation, while the defunct Bosox seem just as chin-deep in sorrows. After his work tonight, Palmer -- thought to be one Oriole who was having an off-season -- is in the thick of the chase for the ERA title.
Palmer (2.99) trails New York's Ron Guidry (2.84) and Tommy John 2.96) and needs only 26 2/3 innings in his last four or perhaps five) starts to get the 162 innings necessary to qualify for the title.
The Birds are so loose that this series, once such a potential pressure cooker, is almost a party. After light-hitting Mark Belanger bashed a batting practice homer, he announced in a loud voice, "Mark Belanger will be in the interview room immediately following batting practice."
Rich Dauer and Rick Dempsey then gave an imitation of two 300-pound football linemen in the movie "North Dallas Forty" as they pretended to beat on each other and scream to reach a maximum psyche.
"What is it," roared Dempsey, pointing to the wall.
"The Monster," yelled Dauer as they began bashing their fists together.
"The what?" insisted Dempsey.
"The Green Monster . . . the big hard nasty Green Monster."
"And what are we gonna do to it?" asked Dempsey.
"Tear it down," growled Dauer.
While the O's joked, the Bosox could only cry -- especially about the rumors piled as high as the Prudential Center that Manager Don Zimmer will be fired now, or at season's end.
"You can't let it ruin your mind," said Zimmer. "If I leave, I'll leave with my head high. I have nothing to be ashamed of."
"Zimmer would be eight games in front in the AL West . . . ." said Weaver, primed for Boston's No. 1 topic. "When you're playing .593 baseball, you're running a pretty good ship . . .
"He's handled the Red Sox as well as anybody could. But he'll be kept or fired on fan sentiment, not baseball judgment. That's always the way it is for every manager. The fans dictate."