By June 7, followers of the Baltimore Orioles will be doing penance for losing faith in their wayward flock. Lines of penitents will be seen outside Memorial Stadium apologizing to the Orioles for pronouncing them dead after their eight-game losing streak in April.
By that date, the Orioles will be safely over .500 and in the thick of a pennant race. In fact, they'll be one of the hottest teams in baseball then, having played somewhere between .600 and .700 ball for the previous five weeks.
This is neither fantasy nor wishful Birdlike thinking doing the talking.
It's just the voice of history, and the balance of probability.
The Orioles--the worst team in baseball, to date--moan that they haven't been able to get a break all season. Now they're about to get a whopper. Just when they needed it most, a rescuer has come to their aid.
The schedule maker.
For the next six weeks, the Orioles play one of the softest, ready-for-the-pickings schedules ever cooked up. If they can't beat the people they play in the next 41 games between now and June 7, then they really are a franchise in profound trouble.
The Orioles have only to survive the next week--one of true team crisis.
Beginning on the last day of April, the Orioles' schedule starts turning to mush. In the 35 games beginning then, the Orioles play 25 games against the four teams that had the worst records in the league in '81.
In particular, 19 of those games are against Seattle, Toronto and Minnesota, probably the worst teams in either league. This is the soft underbelly of the season and it couldn't come at a luckier time.
The only scary series in the whole five weeks is one three-game stop in Oakland; and that's part of the annual (11-game) spring West Coast swing during which the Orioles, in recent years, have (for reasons as inexplicable as their April flops) been spectacularly successful.
However, getting to that chance-of-a-season period before the whole year is lost is a genuine Oriole problem. Who's coming to Baltimore next but Chicago and Oakland, probably the two toughest teams in the AL West.
Baseball, in the short run, is a game of streaks. Hot teams tend to stay very hot, until they begin to cool, at which point they often tend to get very cold very fast. The same, sad to say for the Orioles, is also true in reverse. The Orioles will be enormously vulnerable until their current collapse--and it's a brutally ugly one--has run its course.
"We can't let this go on much longer," said Dennis Martinez after losing on Wednesday night. "We better start winning soon."
The Orioles' 2-9 record, like the hideous records that are haunting other perennial contenders--Philadelphia (3-9), Cincinnati (3-10), Houston (5-10)--isn't terminal yet. But, if the Orioles, like the '81 Kansas City Royals, let themselves fall 10 to 12 games below .500, the point may quickly come when the club simply stops believing in its ability to come back.
As Sammy Stewart said in Boston, "We're a club with no speed whatsoever, a knuckleheaded catcher and an aging pitching staff. We better never forget we gotta stick together to win." Comes a point, fast approaching, where that bond of mutual belief comes unglued.
In the course of The Streak, the Orioles have been outscored, 49-22.
They have also mastered the losers' familiar laments.
Dan Ford on a missed fly ball: "I should have gotten help."
Martinez on his walks: "The ball was slippery and my hand was numb . . . "
Bennie Ayala, after being chewed out by Manager Earl Weaver in a team meeting for failing to run out two flies on Tuesday, said of one high fly off The Wall on which he only got a single, "I thought it would either be a home run or an out."
General Manager Hank Peters: "Every (umpiring) decision has gone the other way all year. Maybe the day will come when we get one called our way . . . "
Weaver and coach Ray Miller are especially angry at their pitchers' recent deficiencies from the neck up. Despite being eight- and nine-year pro players, Stewart and Martinez still make pitches so amateurishly contrary to longstanding Oriole theories that, on Wednesday, Weaver jerked them both within minutes, his face as red as one of his tomatoes.
As for Jim Palmer, ERA 11.57, Weaver says, almost despondently, "Palmer's going to win another 60 games, but I don't know if he'll win them here (in Baltimore)."
Weaver has used both his emotional trump cards: patience and anger. In the team meeting, he showed long-range patience, telling the club he had faith in them and planned no trades or shake-ups. Then, in the short run, he proved on Wednesday night that he still had a temper and could make dugout life uncomfortable for underachievers.
Just a few weeks ago, Weaver was rhapsodizing about the joys of retirement. "I want to watch the afternoon turn into dusk without the stadium lights coming on," he said.
"Earl's really mellowed the last two years," said Stewart, before Wednesday's clubhouse storms. "You used to be scared to death of him, didn't know what kind of mean little person he was. Now, where he used to glare at guys, he gets this funny little smile and shakes his head . . . Hell, nobody wants him to retire. He hasn't built enough rooms on his house in Miami yet for us all to come down and live with him."
After Weaver's "Now Hear This" performance in Boston, Stewart changed his tune. "Let's say," said Stewart, "that Earl hasn't completely mellowed."
For the Orioles, as they enter a week that will probably be the beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning of their season, it's probably a good thing that the obnoxious version of Weaver has reappeared.