Color the Yankees gone. Eleven days ago, the pennant race was theirs to end. Had the once-Bombers won six of eight games with the Orioles, they would now be 10 1/2 games ahead of everybody, with 45 to play. Such victories, however earned, would have certified the improved quality of a team that finished fourth in its division a year ago.
Instead, Baltimore won the six of eight in 11 days. Only those without eyes cannot see what it means. We dismiss the Yankees as witnesses, of course, for the warrior's code of courage insists he deny defeat because, as Yogi (Confucius) Berra once said, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
"There are still 45 games to go," said Reggie Jackson, as noble a gladiator as the game has. "If we left here with a six-game lead, so what?You can lose six games in a week. What the Orioles did was pick up some ground and show us they came to play."
A man with a pencil insisted, though, that the Orioles' domination of the Yankees in two late-season series must mean something in the grand design of things. Come, November, when the melancholy chill of the winter is unrelieved by memories of a World Series paycheck, surely the honest among the Yankees will say that losing six of eight to the cursed Birds was sign certain that something was very wrong.
"What do you want me to say?" Jackson asked. "You want me to say they got the momentum? You want me to say, 'Gee, the poor Yankees?' I can't say that stuff and you know it."
Candor is kicked off the bench in a pennant race.
No, this is what Reggie finally said: "It was great baseball this weekend in Baltimore, all five games. There were no bonehead plays and there was the greatest defensive series I've ever seeen. And me, they just got me out, man. They handled me good. Thank God it's over."
The paying customers, all 253,636 who teamed up to set an all-time attendance record for one series, didn't want these five games to ever end. If the pennant didn't hang directly on the outcome -- technically, it hangs on silly games with Toronto, Cleveland and assorted mediocrities the rest of the way -- there yet was baseball unforgettable in its beauty.
What we needed last summer was Ruppert Jones, the Yankee center fielder. He could have caught Skylab on its way down. Not once but twice did Jones fly high over the outfield fence to pull down Oriole drives that would have been home runs. "The best outfielder I've ever seen," Jackson called him.
Doug DeCinces' backhand stab down the third base line once started a double play that in most cities would have been cause for poetry. But here Mark Belanger had gone in the hole to start a leaping/spinning/falling double play, the mechanics of which would have baffled Nureyev.
We saw 117 years' worth of good pitching from the Yankees' Sunshine Boys, Tommy John (37), Luis Tiant (39) and Gaylord Perry (41). But the series demonstrated convincingly that the Orioles' four best hurlers -- Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Steve Stone and Jim Palmer -- are the Yankees' superiors.
And who ever thought that could be said of a pitching staff that includes Ron Guidry? This is a time when the Yankees' left-hander normally is invincible. In the last half of the last four seasons, he has a 37-9 won-lost record.Now sadly, the little guy has lost it.
Aunt Sally might have hung a rope off Guidry today. Everyone else did. Before leaving the game, Guidry faced 22 batters and 11 reached base -- and four others hit screaming missiles that were hauled in by Oscar Gamble, leaping in left, and Jones, launching himself in center.
Add it up.
In a big series, Guidry did nothing.
In a big series, Reggie Jackson was 0 for his last 12.
In a big series, the Yankee manager was a cipher.
Earl Weaver, we know about. Earl Weaver is a genius in fool's livery. By doing his angry munchkin number Saturday, Weaver made everyone, including his players, forget the Yankees were threatening to blow open this series. His madcap tantrum was as carefully choreographed as a Belanger DP, and just as effective as a real move -- a move such as, say, bringing in right-handed pitcher Tim Stoddard for the ninth inning today.
Weaver waited, with his 6-5 lead, for Dick Howser to make the first move of the ninth inning. When the Yankee manager sent up right-handed hitter Bob Watson in place of lefty Jim Spencer, Weaver replaced lefty Tippy Martinez with Stoddard.
Genius. In a single thought, Weaver, this Einstein of a dummy, not only got his best reliever into the game, he also forced the Yankees to use up their two best hitters likely to come to the plate in the ninth inning. Eight men would have to hit before Oscar Gamble, nine before Reggie would arrive.
Then Howser froze at the wheel. It is enough here, to shorten the story, to say the Orioles wound up with their best fireman throwing a called third strike past the Yankees' ninth man in the order, a right-handed hitter who should have been on the bench watching a lefty drive in the runners on second and third.
Howser was so perplexed that 15 minutes after the game he still didn't know what had been done to him. Why not bunt? Why not steal a base? Why not use a pinch hitter for Bucky Dent, whose career's work shows he has earned that ninth spot in the order against right-handers?
"We were running short of infielders and we didn't have the luxury of all those moves," Howser said.
It is, of course, the first duty of a manager to tie up the game or go ahead in the ninth, however he might do it. Tie it up and let Aunt Sally, or Gaylord Perry, play second base. If somebody doesn't get a hit, the game is over and you don't need a second baseman, anyway.
"The Orioles still gotta win three more games than us the rest of the way for a tie," Reggie Jackson said bravely.
They will do that and more.