What newspapermen do after a Yankee baseball game, win or lose, is go into the clubhouse to ask the players a few civil questions about base hits, curve balls and the Faulkerian vision of the Old South.

Three or four minutes after the Orioles handed the New Yorkers their hat tonight, 6-1, the men and women with notebooks and microphones moved silently into the pin stripes' lair.

Bobby Murcer, a Yankee outfielder, welcomed the visitors with a snarl that must have sprained his lip.

"Unprintable vultures," he said, sort of.

Enough said of the state of the Yankees, for if so dedicated an ornithologist as Murcer sees vultures circling, that means somewhere there is carrion.

The Yankees are not dead. But they are lost in the desert of this pennant race, crawling on their hands and knees, hoping with each gasp of suffocating air that over the next hill there will lay an oasis of base hits.

Once master of nothing more than haute cuisine, Steve Stone suddenly owns the Yankees. The Orioles' right-hander gave up only two hits tonight. He is 3-0 against the Once Bombers, who in 24 innings of trying have made only 14 hits against Stone and scored but six runs.

The Yankees' manager, Dick Howser, would love to see in Stone the reincarnation of Walter Johnson. When the Big Train shut down the Yankees, it was one thing. But Steve Stone? A 78-79 pitcher before this astonishing season in which he now is 19-4?

"I'd like to give Stone credit," Howser said, which would be a good thing for anyone to do when the best pitcher in the bigs give you two hits.

"But I don't know if anybody's that good."

Howser was befuddled.

Where once these Yankees were so mighty they could build an 11-game lead in the American League East, they now are reduced by poor hitting to a mediocrity that has won barely half its games lately. With tonight's loss -- the Yankees' fourth straight to the Orioles in seven days, with four more to play here by Monday evening -- the New Yorkers are 18-17 since the All-Star-Game.

Signs of panic are visible.

Why else has George Steinbrenner done what he always does when the situation calls for baseball experience and judgment? A pennant races heat up, the Yankees' owner traditionally tests his genius against the rest of the world's inventiveness. Yes, once again the guy with the big ships has -- whipped out his checkbook.

Craig Nettles gets sick. Cleverly Steinbrenner buys a third baseman, Aurelio Rodriguez.

Despearate for another starting pitcher, the Yankess check their AAA team in Columbus.

Seeing nothing down on the farm, Steinbrenner decides then to look in the old folks home Welcome to Gotham, Gaylord Perry.

Only on the Yankees, where senior citizens play catch with Father Time, would Perry, 42, Sept. 15 feel younger than the graying, disappearing hair and expanding waistline mark him.

Only on this team could Perry reach over to the guy in the next locker today and say, "Hi, Pops." For in that locker sits another big-bucks antique, pitcher Luis Tiant, who insists to a disbelieving world that he is 39. So was Jack Benny for 40 years.

What money can't buy is a base hit.

Look at the Orioles' four victories in these seven days, four victories that have transformed August from a Yankee stroll in the park into an on-their-belly crawl toward a Steptember desert. Now the Yankees are only 2 1/2 games ahead of the flying Orioles, 2 1/2 games that will be gone by Monday night if the big men in the Yankees' lineup don't come out of their collective coma soon.

In the four losses to Baltimore, the Yankees' 5-6-7 men in the batting order have had 47 at-bats with 34 men on base.

They have driven in no one.

"I don't know what to do," said Howser, the manager. "If I did, I'd be doing it. We're not swinging the bat. I don't know what to do right now."

Only Reggie Jackson is hitting. Likely the most valuable player in the league, he hit his 32nd home run tonight. He made a diving catch to save a run when the issue was yet in doubt. The World Series atmosphere here tonight, when 49,952 customers showed Edward Bennett Williams that they didn't care about his plaint of slow "egress" from the stadium, was never more clear than when Jackson, not seeing a foul tip, went flying head first into second base trying to beat a force-out with the score 2-1.

"Reggie's been carrying you," one of the vultures said to Howser.

A month ago, with that 11-game lead, Howser could have been expansive on the subject of Jackson. Tonight, the best he could do was a wry smile.

"I hope his back doesn't get sore," the manager said.