The crowd around Steve Stone's locker is gone.
"Things are back to normal," he said. "All my new-found friends from last year are off somewhere else now, finding a new friend."
Except for 107 days of his life -- from May 9 to Aug. 23 of last season -- Stone has been an 88-92 major league pitcher.
However, during that short, magical span, Stone was 19-1 and became the midsummer toast of baseball 1980 with a 25-7 season record.
Now, Stone, reigning AL Cy Young winner, is back on more familiar ground.
His record is 4-7 with a 4.47 ERA. He's consigned to the bullpen, working on his suntan and "just staying on ready alert for the last week of the season."
His elbow has just recovered from "irritation of the medial epicondial tendon." His arm still is weak, undependable and, this week, an orthopedist told him, "either rebuild this arm with weights or forget playing baseball."
The Orioles aren't completely in love with him. They remain miffed that Stone, after recovering from that minor injury, did no serious throwing to a catcher throughout the 50-day baseball strike. His non-comeback in the second season is a prime exhibit in the front office's explanation of what went wrong.
"It would not be a tremendous jolt to me, or even a surprise, if I were in another uniform next year," he said.
"We have a logjam here with six potential starting pitchers and a four-man rotation. We could start '82 with four Cy Young winners, another past 20-game winner, plus the current ERA champion. In that group, I'm back at the end of the line, which is really where I've always been here. Even at the high point last year, I always knew I was in the rotation on a pass. I came to spring training this year as the Cy Young winner and the No. 5 starter.
"I like it here. I'm not saying, 'Free Steve Stone.' But I recognize that this is a team that demands revamping this winter . . . my situation here becomes very tenuous . . . trading me could unstick that logjam. A decision has to be made. Getting rid of me could be the solution."
The solution for Baltimore. Not necessarily for Stone, who said, "This is the place I'm most comfortable. I've been treated exceptionally well. They went on the line for a four-year contract (for $800,000). No bitterness from me."
If Stone has pitched his last game for Baltimore, at least it was memorable.
On Saturday in New York, he faced only one batter and got him to hit a routine grounder, then watched in horror as the third baseman booted the ball, the manager hooked him from the game and the next pitcher gave up a sudden-death game-losing home run.
Losing pitcher: Stone.
"That perfectly illustrates my season," he said. "I face one batter, get him out and lose the game."
Then, Stone snickered.
None of this particularly bothers him.
"Hey, I've been HERE," he said, meaning in the lower half of the pitching apple barrel. "Last year, I was fully aware of where I had been. I never forgot. That's why I loved it so much, ate it up. I totally enjoyed every day of that eight-month period from May, when I got hot, right through spring training this year.
"When you work 12 years for something and it happens, you savor it."
Every season, restaurateur Stone is the major league leader in savoring, whether it be fine wines, gourmet food, or just tasting the tang of the baseball life around him.
"Every year you play, you realize more strongly what a wonderful life this (major league baseball) is. My first goal throughout my whole career, and it's still my goal, is just to be here. The moral of my career is that if you stay around, keep putting yourself in the path of opportunity, you never know what will happen. You're liable to go 25-7 one year."
Since the days of Dusty Rhodes and Johnny Podres, and probably long before, baseball's fates have, each year, produced one or two capriciously chosen journeymen who suddenly were granted a hot hand. When that hot hand cooled, many suffered real-life damage that more than undid the benefits of their temporary glory.
Stone, however, has painstakingly sifted through the rubble of his fame. Within the last week, he thinks a doctor has explained to him where he went wrong. And he knows where he stands.
"I only made one mistake. But it was a big mistake," he said. "I didn't fall into the trap of resting on my laurels. I stayed away from banquets over the winter and stayed in shape. I thought my arm, and my whole system, needed rest and regeneration. So, I rested.
"I knew my arm had taken a tremendous beating. I'd never pitched 251 innings before (previous high 214). More than that, I'd never pitched those innings in a pennant race. When I beat the Yankees twice (within five days, the second time on a two-hitter), I threw 73 and 75 curve balls back to back in those games. Nobody in baseball throws that many curves.
"What I didn't realize is that, because I had torn my arm, resting it wasn't enough. I should have spent the winter rebuilding it. I came to spring training in '81 with pretty much the same arm I had ended '80 -- a weak arm. It didn't take much to hurt it."
Even this August, coming back from his tendinitis, Stone made a similar misjudgment. "I mistook absence of pain for arm strength. I came back, pitched three times and just got weaker and weaker until I was useless."
Like the Birds' other Cy Young-to-sayonara pitcher -- Mike Flanagan (22-22 since '79) -- Stone, whose shoulder and elbow both are remarkably "clean" for a 34-year-old, now is convinced that constant workouts with a light weight in the offseason are the only way back to the pinnacle.
The biggest question in Stone's mind now is where his rebuilt arm will be in '82.
"If they feel I can help the club as a starting pitcher, I'd love to stay," said Stone, knowing that Manager Earl Weaver prefers a four-man rotation and that, in '80, when Stone pitched on the fourth day, he was at his sharpest -- 14-2.
However, he also knows that "every weakness on this team was classically illustrated in our last 2-4 homestand. A baseball man as astute as (General Manager) Hank Peters isn't going to be fooled. Frankly, we need some of everything -- offense, pitching and defense . . . maybe just a little of each in the right places.
"You begin with our starting pitching. You don't trade (Scott) McGregor, Dennis Martinez or Sammy Stewart. They're all young and you can build the future around them. You don't trade Tippy (Martinez), either. If Mike (Flanagan) were signed, I'd include him, too. But he's in his free agent year."
Does Stone, who is signed through '82, want to talk contract ?
"We aren't going to have to talk contract. We have to talk intentions . . . Can I do the job they're asking me to do?" said Stone. "I don't need a zillion dollars. It's years (length of contract) that's important."
Stone is wriggling against his baseball fate. He knows that "they couldn't get a front-line, everyday player in trade for me." And he also acknowledges, "I'm not a nine-inning pitcher. I can keep you in the game for seven. That's my part of the bargain."
So, putting the puzzle together, what have you got?
Not what Stone wants.
He probably won't be traded, because, after arm trouble at his age and entering his free agent year, his market value isn't high. He probably won't be promised a spot in the Oriole rotation because, despite those marvelous 107 days, there just isn't enough evidence that he merits it.
His greatest value to the Orioles is as a stop-gap fifth starter. The guy who gets his chance only when somebody else fails. For a man approaching his one potential windfall free agent year, that's cold comfort.
These days, Steve Stone sits in the Baltimore bullpen, the odd man out, just as he was the day in '79 when he arrived: a journeyman waiting for a break.
Like the man said, "I've been HERE before."