As Earl Weaver sits in the Baltimore Oriole dugout these lousy April evenings, he chain smokes.
"Collect 10,000 Raleigh coupons," he growls, "and get a brass coffin."
The coffin that really has Weaver worried is the one his Birds are trying to climb into with their 6-10 record after the first 10th of the season. It could have been worse if tonight's 4-1 dficit to the New York Yankees after four innings had not been washed out by rain.
The official O's line is that bad Aprils are a team tradition and, therefore, nothing to fret about.
After all, the current team, whose club personally first coalesced in the nine-rookie year of '77, has ripped off consecutive April starts of 1-4, 0-5, 3-8, and now 6-10.
From every nest come the same bird chirps.
"We're not a good cold-weather team . . . too many Californians." says Ken Singleton.
"This is almost a hot streak compared to the last couple of years," Rich Dauer tries to joke.
"This team is too good to fold," says Rick Dempsey.
"It's way too soon to panic,c says Weaver.
This is the only possible brand of rhetoric, but if it truly represents the O's inner thinking, then it's totally backwards.
The o's if they know baseball history -- both their own and other defending champions -- better face the fact that the next three to four weeks probably will define their whole year.
When a high-quality team flops and loses contact with the pennant race, it usually flops early, rather than late.
Ask the '76 Boston Red Sox, who went from the World Series to 15 1/2 games behind. Ask the '77 Cincinnati Reds, who went from world champs to 10 games behind. Ask the '78 Orioles, who went from 97 wins to falling 12 1/2 games off the pace by June 1. And ask last year's New York Yanks, who went from word titlists to oblivion by June.
Almost every spring one of the previous season's 100-win-level teams blows itself out of real pennant contention while the season still has more than 100 games left to run.
Coming off a great year, Baltimore started 5-11 with 5.15 team ERA at the 16-game junction. Those Birds were outscored, 97-61, at the point, and already were seven games behind.
Once such a hole has been dug, it is almost impossible to climb out of it without help.Those '78 Birds ran off a blitz of 17 wins in 18 games to get to .600 (39-26); noble, but useless. Ten days later, they'd lost eight straight and were 12 1/2 games out.
That's always the way with early folds -- they haunt. No winning streak quite undoes the damage, and one bad skid thereafter kills the whole year.
The current O's, whose 4.00 team ERA actually is better than at this time in either '78 (5.15) or '79 (4.14), have one major disadvantage and one big plus.
The disadvantage is that they may by overconfident because they were lucky enough and good enough to overcome sick starts in '77 and '79. In fact, last year's Birds earased their 3-8 start by ripping off a 15-1 streak. But how often can that happen?
The good news -- probably the most significant fact of the season so far for the Birds -- is that while they have invited a knockout punch, their foes -- Milwaukee, New York and Boston -- have given them love taps in the form of 6-8, 7-8 and 8-8 starts, respectively.
Even if all the AL East powers are slightly weaker -- and that appears to be the case -- how long can such dumb luck hold?
For the past three seasons, where the O's have in mid-May -- both in the standings and in state mind -- is where they have spent the rest of the year.
There's no evidence to think it will be different this time. The Birds are a streaky, emotional team -- one of the most hot-and-cold gangs in years.They are either utterly confident or else they go through periods of extreme skittishness.
Some dramatic statistics bear out this Bird trend.
Gamblers always have had a simple system for betting on baseball: as soon as a team wins two in a row bet on it to keep winning, and as soon as it loses two in a row bet on it to keep losing.
As a way to make money, it's no better or worse than any other gimmick. But, as a measure of whether teams tend to be streaky or stable, hot and cold or blandly consistent, it's a good test.
Had a person bet on the Orioles in this fashion -- picking them to keep winning, or keep losing, as soon as they either won or lost two in a row -- he'd have gone 45-38 in '77 50-36 in '78, 56-34 in '79 and 7-3 so in '80.
Or 158-111 overall.
In other words, the Birds have tended to get streakier every year. Pittsburgh and Kansas City show similar tendencies. Most clubs are near or below 500.
The message for the Orioles is simple: get very hot very soon or else run the definite risk of staying very cold until you're way behind.
The Birds have done considerable alibiing for their six one-run losses in the last 10 days. The Orioles really, however, have very few valid excuses at present.
It's true that the Bird shortstops are hopeless -- hitting .150. But they were very weak last year. Also , Lee May is hitting .167, but the team carried him most of last year, too. In fact, May's per-at-bat production for '79 was eyelash-close to his home run, RBI and runs-produced stats of his whole career. Weaver probably is correct that, awful as he looks, May shouldn't be buried until, at least, June.
The worst Bird scare -- the sore arms of Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor -- may have passed. Both looked decent in their last starts. It must be assumed that Oriole pitching, like Red Sox and Brewer hitting, is too deep and well-proven not to reach its normal form when sensible weather arrives.
What is far, far less certain -- and concerns the Birds most -- is whether their deep depth bench can even approach '79. Then, John Lowenstein, Pat Kelly, Bennie Ayala, Terry Crowley and Billy Smith -- all career mediocrities -- had 588 at-bats (none more than 197) among them.
They combined for (hold your hats): 33 homers, 38 doubles, seven triples, 113 RBI, 99 runs, 40 total bases, 21 steals and 85 walks. This quintet of unknowns made the offensive contributions of a million-dollar a-year player like Dave Winfield or Dave Parker.
That same group (with Floyd Rayford replacing Smith) now is hitting .167 with zero homers and four RBI in 48 at-bats.
These Bird problems are balanced off against equally important plusses.
Jim Palmer (2-1) is temporarily healthy, and that's worth a lot of ayalas. The four most important offensive players -- Al Bumbry (300 average, .583 slugging), Eddie Murray (four homers, 13 RBI), Ken Singleton (four homers. .204), and Doug DeCinces (three homers, 10 RBI) -- are, as a group, on schedule.
Not one Oriole has a major injury, though minor ones abound.
Fans hate to forestall judgment. They never accept the plea of insufficient evidence. Give us prediction and palmistry, they plead.
With the Orioles, a team of proven talent, but always upredictable team chemistry and streaky emotion, it is too early for conclusions.
Contrary to the Orioles' protestations, however, it is not too early for the folks in Section 34 to start to worry.