Steve Stone tried to act as if he is taking it all in stride, as if it is no big surprise to him that he won his 14th consecutive game tonight, moving within two of tying the American League record.
When you're the major league's leading winner at 16-3, when your record is 21-3 over the past 53 weeks, and when you're coming close to joining names like Walter (Big Train) Johnson, Lefty Grove, Schoolboy Rowe and Smokey Joe Wood in the record book, you're supposed to bigtime it; act blase.
But, when the crowds around him dispersed after his 4-1 success over Milwaukee tonight, the Baltimore Oriole pitcher couldn't hold himself any longer. The smile lines appeared around his mouth, his nose started to wrinkle in a sneeze of laughter and, suddenly, the hottest item in baseball had a full-scale case of the giggles.
"Today, they held an auction for charity," Stone said, shaking his head, "and a woman paid $1,300 to have a dinner date with me.
"What she doesn't know," said the laughing Stone, restaurant owner and student of fine foods and females, "is that I'm not that good.
"The only person I might spend that much money to have dinner with would probably surprise you: Woody Allen."
Don't tell the 31,610 spectators in Memorial Stadium on this muggy, draining night that Stone "isn't that good."
Of all his steak's wins, stretching back to May 5, his 7 1/3 inning, 107-pitch performance tonight may have been his most satisfying because it may have been his most difficult.
At usual, Stone received an abundance of help from his Oriole friends.
Rick Dempsey hit a first-inning home run, threw out two base stealers and picked a runner off third. Benny Ayala broke a 1-1 tie in the seventh with a two-run homer off loser Mike Caldwell. Doug DeCinces tagged an insurance homer in the eighth.
And Tim Stoddard got the save with five outs of shaky relief work fraught with two ninth-inning walks that brought the tying run to the plate. It was Stoddard's 13th save, eight of them for stone.
Despite all that, this evening was a demonstration of all that sets the current Steve Stone apart from the fellow who, as of July 22, 1979, had a career mark of 73-79.
"Then, I was hoping for luck instead of making it," Stone said. "I'd change my uniform number or shave my mustache before I pitched, as though I hoped they wouldn't realize it was me out there."
Good ol' gopher-ball Stone, the major league mediocrity.
"In the back of my mind, I assumed, 'Everything's going to go wrong.' I gave my 31 homers last year and it seemed like half of them barely cleared the fence."
Stone has made several changes in his pitching technique as an Oriole, yet he remains convinced that the biggest change is simply in attitude, a transformation of his outward manner and his inward expectations.
Before, he dawdled, afraid to let the ball go. Now, he seldom leaves the rubber, working quickly while the hitter is still doping out the previous pitch. Before, he nibbled. Now, he attacks getting ahead of batters with a good fast ball, a better curve and smart speed changes.
That is the fascination of Stone's late blossoming. He appeals to every person who ever looked in the mirror and said, "Maybe if I just got a different haircut and lost weight, I'd be a world-beater," then realized one day that the only meaningful changes are invisible, on the inside.
"I kidded myself," said Stone. "I 'paced' myself for the late innings that never came. I wound up being real strong in the shower.
"Now, I give it everything early. I just try to keep us ahead," said Stone, whose teammates had scored 79 runs for him in his last 10 starts before tonight.
And above all, Stone has learned to battle.
"I had a decent fast ball, but no curve at all tonight," he said after he allow 10 base runners, struck out but one man, yet allowed only one run -- lowering his earned run average in the 14 wins straight to 1.96. "but I didn't quite. They looked for the curve all night -- that's what Paul Molitor hit for a homer. But most of the time. I just wouldn't give it to them."
So, without his money pitch, Stone won anyway.
Early, Stone had some luck: two runners trapped off third, one on a grounder to the mound and the other on Dempsey's pickoff. Dempsey helped with two perfect pegs on steals; also, a ground rule double over the fence prevented a run since the man on first could have scored easily if the ball had only hit the fence.
But, in the sixth, with the score 1-1, Stone surmounted terrible luck as an error and another misplay, both by shortstop Kiko Garcia, staked the mighty Brewers to five outs. With two men on, Stone retired Ben Oglivie on a grounder and Dick Davis on a fly to keep the Orioles even.
When Earl Weaver came out to relieve Stone in the eighth with two on and one out, after Gorman Thomas had hit a titanic upper-deck foul ball, Stone greeted his manager by saying "I think you just made a wise decision."
Should Stone win two more games to tie Big Train, Lefty, Schoolboy and Smokey Joe for the AL record of 16 straight victories in a season -- the major league mark is 19 -- the 33-year-old righty may lack only one thing: a nickname as gaudy as his record.
"We call him 'Pebbles'", John Lowenstein said.