"How do you feel?" Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams asked disabled pitcher Steve Stone.
"How are YOU feeling?" answered Stone, cautiously.
"The way I feel is in direct relation to the fortunes of this ball club," said the renowned barrister.
"Then you must be feeling pretty good," ventured Stone, "because we've won three out of our last four."
"That," rebutted Williams, "is like a muscle twitch on a cadaver."
The Orioles returned to Memorial Stadium tonight, fresh from a road trip in which, as second baseman Rich Dauer put it, "We came from ahead to lose three more times."
In a brutally accurate microcosm of their 14-20 season, the Birds scored seven runs this evening, smashed three more homers and still managed to lose to the miserable Minnesota Twins, 8-7, thanks to abysmal pitching.
At present, the Birds--tormented by injuries, bereft of a dependable bullpen, inconsistent in starting pitching and shaky at shortstop--are a deeply worried, though not quite panicked team. Nobody's more anxious than the biggest Bird, Williams.
"We have a three-week period now, which is very, very significant," said Williams before tonight's game. "We have to win--have to win--13 of those 19."
Starting last Thursday, the O's began a span in which they play 23 straight games with the four teams with the worst records in the American League--Minnesota, Toronto, Seattle and Texas.
As Manager Earl Weaver says, "Now we're going to play the teams that Boston and Detroit got fat against while they play the people we've been playing. We gotta do as well against 'em as the Red Sox and Tigers did."
"I think they're coming out of their coma, but too slowly for my comfort," said Williams, speaking of his waywards. "I find that my state of emotional well-being is in absolute correspondence with the fortunes of this team. That's been making it kind of hard on my wife, family and friends.
"In football," said the Washington Redskins president, "you have a bad day once a week. Baseball gives you a chance to feel awful every day. I've been going through a psychic famine for over a month.
"I listen (on radio) when we're playing well," said Williams, "but when it's like this, I find myself abandoning ship, I'm sorry to say."
Williams has every right to turn his eyes away. So far in '82, he's paying quite a rogues gallery.
"That vaunted O's pitching staff is 13th (in the league) in ERA. It makes you very upset," said Williams of the grotesque 4.45 mark which has undone the work of a perfectly acceptable Baltimore offense that's fourth in the AL in runs per game and has 39 homers in 34 games (185-plus homer pace).
In fact, almost all the Birds' problems are pitching problems.
As Gary Roenicke said this evening, "Of all our losses, I can only think of two we couldn't have won. And I can't think of any we won that we shouldn't have won.
"We just have to score four or five every night and hope they can hold 'em," said Roenicke. "If they don't, it'll be a long season. You win by the pitching and you lose by it, too."
The worst culprits are relievers. This sign should hang in the Bird bullpen:
"Like to meet new people?
"Like a new job?
"Just foul up one more time."
So far in '82, the Birds' record, if all games had been halted after seven innings, would be a decent 16-14-4. Thanks largely to Tippy Martinez (6.16), Tim Stoddard (5.40), and Don Stanhouse (5.00), the O's are 2-8 in one-run games.
"So often, it's boiled down to the short man," said Weaver tonight.
Bird problems don't end there. Part-time shortstop Bobby Bonner--who's given birth to the expression "pulled a Bonner"--made 56 errors in 217 games during his (AAA) Rochester career. The O's thought a player with those credentials could replace Mark Belanger as a backup; so, they made no bid as Belanger went as a free agent to the Dodgers. Now, the Birds are paying for their penury.
Between Ken Singleton's continued failure to hit left-handed pitching and Eddie Murray's nagging hand injury and Mike Flanagan's pulled groin and on and on, the Birds are left to stew in their own juices, watching their confidence slowly, but inevitably erode.
"There's been so many (personnel) changes around here. A lot of roles have changed," says Singleton, as perplexed as any Bird. "Look at the Yankees. That's part of what's wrong with them."
The truth is the O's, from Williams to the bat boy, don't know what's wrong with them. Or if, in fact, anything is ultimately wrong--the '80 O's, after all, started 14-19 and ended 100-62.
"If we get Flanagan back, Murray gets healthy and Singleton starts hitting, we'll be all right," says Williams. "The hard thing is to retain your cool while you're waiting."
That's how it looks from the owner's box. From the fox holes, it's tougher.
"It's just sad," said the most enthusiastic of all Birds, Rick Dempsey, after this game. "It could be the end of an era."