In the second inning Sunday afternoon, the well-meaning Bird, mascot of the Baltimore Orioles, tried to initiate some innocent badinage with Alex Grammas, the Detroit Tigers' third base coach.
As the Sunday afternoon full-house crowd prepared to snicker, the Bird attempted to loop arms with Grammas in an impromptu polka whirl. Grammas jerked his right arm away. The Bird tried circling in the opposite direction, but Grammas, neither a right- nor left-handed dancer, gave the mascot an even ruder brushoff.
Finally, the orange and black mascot, not a bad fellow as such obnoxious baseball creatures go, merely extended his hand to Grammas for a shake. Grammas jerked his thumb up in the universal "Get lost, Buster" signal.
The Bird walked away, holding his nose. Perhaps he'd have had more pity had he realized that Grammas' Tigers were in the process of losing their 13th game in 14, this time by 13-1.
In two weeks, Detroit has gone from pennant contender to nolo contendere, now five games behind Boston but sinking quickly. The Tigers, playing worse than many an AA team, made enough mental mistakes and fundamental blunders Sunday to unnerve them for weeks. Maybe months.
In the first inning, Manager Sparky Anderson set the tone of disaster. With men on second and third with one out, he ordered an intentional walk to Eddie Murray--a perfect prescription for opening up a big inning. Ancient baseball wisdom tells us that one or two runs in the first inning usually doesn't beat you, but four or five are crippling. Stop the big inning, don't abet it.
Naturally, Cal Ripken Jr. ruined the strategy with a two-run double.
Following an out, Anderson faced an almost identical strategic situation--men on second and third with two outs. Now, the walk to lefty Joe Nolan, to bring up righty Lenn Sakata, was the only proper percentage move. Why? Because Detroit had to prevent the Orioles from pushing their lead to a genuinely significant 4-0.
Even when the count went to 3-1 on Nolan, who had 16 RBI in 79 at bats, Anderson wouldn't walk him to get to Sakata, with 11 RBI in 182 at bats.
The baseball deities, ever alert, always find an appropriate punishment. Nolan hit the chalk down the right-field line for a two-run double as starter Jack Morris--no one will ever know why--threw a slop curve down the pipe.
All this mismanagement merely established precedent for more, and better, snafus.
With two on and one out in the third, Detroit had a chance for a vital rally. Twice, Jim Palmer tried to pick young Kirk Gibson off second. Once, Gibson barely got back. Surely, even so inexperienced and air-headed a phenom as the football-trained Gibson must realize that, of all conceivable possibilities, the only truly unthinkable one would be to get caught napping.
Not so. Palmer picked him off on the third try.
Thereafter, the Tigers simply continued in their effort to complete the perfect no-brain game. His team behind, 11-0, Enos Cabell hit a liner off the left-field wall for a routine stand-up double. Except that he forgot to touch first base. The Orioles remembered to watch. Out on the appeal. No hit.
Hard as it is to believe, Chet Lemon managed to surpass this. When a teammate failed to tag up and try to score on his short fly to right field--a perfectly correct cautious play with his team behind, 11-0, Lemon became so mad at his loss of an RBI that he punted his batting helmet from the coach's box to the edge of the Tigers' dugout.
To harbor such selfish feelings when your team is dying is bad enough, but to show your backward priorities in front of 43,938 people compounds the felony.
You never know a team, or a player's full character until you've seen them play their absolute worst. Every club, even the best, has a dark underside of lost confidence and potential panic.
In April, the Orioles showed their worst in a nine-game losing streak. Their outfielders were a comedy, their middle infielders didn't take command on complicated cutoffs and relays, their bullpen collapsed and their manager occasionally outgeniused himself.
However, the Orioles, because of their tradition of patience and, perhaps, because of pure good luck, did not make desperation trades in April. As Manager Earl Weaver said before Sunday's game, "I'm glad as hell that we didn't lose a 10th or an 11th in a row. Somewhere in a streak like that, there comes a point where you just can't wait any longer and you make some (personnel) moves.
"If we had, some of the players who are making us look so good now wouldn't even be here now."
Now, Anderson's Tigers are having their trial. And it's a beauty.
"This is hard to believe," said Anderson. "Nothing's worse for a ballclub, tires them out more mentally, than a long losing streak. You come to the park everyday just battling your brains out to win one little game . . . The easiest things become hard . . .
"What you really need is a stopper who'll just go out there and slam the door hard," continued Anderson. "Our stopper's been Morris, but, the last few times out, they're just hittin' him all over the park."
In his last 11 innings, Morris, who started the All-Star Game for the American League last summer, has allowed 27 hits and 22 runs.
For the Tigers, that's as bad as baseball life can get. Now, like every team that wants to call itself excellent, the Tigers must begin the taxing process of facing and accepting all their limitations.
And then, slowly, overcoming them.