The Baltimore Orioles, already eight games behind the New York Yankees, don't need too many more performances like their galling 5-2 loss to Boston before 29,502 disgruntled fans this evening.
The Birds started getting the message early. When they arrived at Memorial Stadium, they discovered vandals had defaced their infield, by burning an obscenity critical of the Red Sox into the grass in 10-feet letters.
When Earl Weaver tried to light a match for his cigarette as he was writing out the lineup card, the entire pack -- with "Orioles" written on the cover -- caught fire and burned his hand.
This had figured to be a pleasant Oriole evening against a decimated Red Sox team that was without Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. After just nine pitches, the Bostonians were also without their starting pitcher and staff ace, Chuck Rainey (8-4), who injured his elbow.
On top of that, the Birds had to spend the evening being taunted by a scoreboard that said the Yankees were being beaten convincingly (7-0) by Cleveland.
Catch us if you can, said that score. And, tonight, the Orioles couldn't as this club that had won 13 of its previous 16 games -- and thought it was back on the championship track -- made the final 19 outs on 19 batters.
The crowning Oriole indignity was the identity of the desperation relief pitcher whom the Sox summoned in the first inning -- Wilhelmus Abraham Remmerswall -- owner of one major league victory before tonight.
"When the phone rang, I was out under the stands buying peanuts for the bullpen," said the rookie, a native of Holland who had pitched 26 career big league innings before his two-hit, six-inning stint tonight.
Appropriately, the right-hander's nickname is "Last Call Remmerswaal" because at Pawtucket this season, before being called up, he missed four of the team's first five plane flights.
When Don Zimmer made the "last call" this evening, reaching to the bottom of a beleaguered staff with a collective 4.86 ERA, he came up with a 26-year-old rook who was right on time, before giving way to Tom Burgmeier who worked the final three shutout innings.
"Everything the Red Sox hit found a place to fall in," fumed Weaver, who watched his hot southpaw, Scott McGregor, winner of seven of his previous eight games, give up nine hits in the first five innings -- six of them the flare variety off jamming fastballs.
"The Sox just lost three in a row against the damn Yankees and I bet they hit the tar out of the ball and it went right at somebody. Then they come in here and beat us with quails," groused Weaver. "We gotta win. It's that simple."
Other Orioles were less upset. But Weaver was in a fine lather. Perhaps, after all his years of pennant race observation, he was the only one with a sense of how typical this game was of the defeats that afflict ill-omened defending champions.
The O's major problem for the remainder of this season was summarzed in the late innings of the game, after a three-run Sox fifth had turned a 2-1 Baltimore lead into a 4-2 deficit.
Last year, at this Fourth of July date, the Birds were in first place by five games and every victory -- every late-inning comeback -- was gravy. Pressure hardly existed, or, at least, not the grinding, exhausting kind.
This night, trailing narrowly to an unknown rookie and staring at a near-certain New York loss, the O's felt a new kind of strain that will soon become all too familiar.
A year ago, a late-inning deficit was an opportunity for glory, led by trumpets and the chanted spellings of their name by the crowd. Tonight, it looked more like a tough and onerous job.
When bad luck comes calling, it is an omnipresent guest.
This four-game series was marred from the start as the infield graffiti seemed to hang over this game, a sad manifestation of an age that can turn an emerald ballpark into a subway wall.
Green paint may erase the damage, but not the disquieting thought of the minds behind it.
The man muttering unprintables after this game ought to have been McGregor, whose control was razor sharp.
McGregor, 23-9 since June 1, 1979, has been the perfect symbol of Baltimore's splendid pitching streak in its last 16 games as the four starters have had a 2.13 ERA. His 43 strikes in 60 pitches were a typical effort. "He only made one bad pitch," said coach Ray Miller.
But the Sox, with plenty of pluck and some luck, were not in a cooperative mood. Carlton Fisk and Tony Perez fought off tough pitches on the fists for soft hits that produced a run in the first inning.
In the fifth, Glenn Hoffman started the rally with a clean, but hardly clouted, humpbacker to left, followed by whistling line drive hits to center past McGregor by two sharp-looking Sox rookies, Garry Hancock and Dave Stapleton.
Fisk and Perez then duplicated their back-to-back hits, each an RBI single, on balls that looked like they had simply tossed the ball over the infield. The first knocked out McGregor, while the second greeted Sammy Stewart's first pitch.
Stewart's only other mistake in 4 1/3 strong innings was a leadoff insurance homer in the ninth by Carl Yastrzemski -- his 415th -- on a liner into the Sox bullpen.
The Birds were left with plenty to nag themselves about. Pat Kelly killed a first-inning rally by trying to go from second to third on John Lowenstein's bases-loaded sacrifice fly. "Just dumb base running," said Weaver. "We should still be at bat."
The Sox' three-run fifth all began after Eddie Murray had failed to catch a Hoffman foul popo which came too close to one of those nasty box seat sailings that he is so judiciously allergic to.
How things can change in a year.
"The main thing," said Doug DeCinces, "is that our starting pitching is straightened out and that's absolutely our key.
"We'll be all right if we get out of this series and into the All-Star break in the shape we came into it -- eight games over .500," said Weaver. "Two years ago, we got too far behind (13 games) and could never make it a race. We'll be in the race this year . . . we'll get there . . . I'm almost positive of that."
But to get into that race will be an exhausting and nerve-wracking experience, far different from the glad times of the Oriole summer '79. A different type of team character will be examined and demanded.
And nights like this, when an innocent pack of matches with your team's name on it ignites in your hands and a rookie who has been sent out for peanuts beats you, will take a brutal toll that will make September that much tougher when it comes.