Nothing in baseball is quite so depressing as losing a long, hard pennant race. A club bleeds to death collectively, one tiny nick of fallibility after another, watching its chances drain away, until, finally, the last cut feels more like a decapitation than a scratch.
The Baltimore Orioles' executioner for 1982 probably will go down as John Wockenfuss of the Detroit Tigers, a swarthy, hairy fellow who would look perfectly at home with an axe in his hand and a black hood over his head.
If the Orioles sought a metaphor for their exciting, yet infuriating season -- something they were hardly in a mood to do after this evening's water torture of a 3-2 loss to the Tigers which shoved them four games behind Milwaukee -- then they might select Wockenfuss' home run in the bottom of the ninth tonight.
With one swing, the player with perhaps the worst-looking stance in baseball not only brought a sudden-death end to this game but, in all probability, to the Orioles' gritty six-week comeback. Moments before the Detroit journeyman stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth, the Orioles were giddy with pleasure at one of their most romantic rallies -- an apparent game-saving run in the top of the ninth on a one-out, two-strike RBI double by Jim Dwyer.
As Wockenfuss' pinch-hit liner left the yard, drilling its way in the orange-and-blue bleachers of Tiger Stadium, the man on the mound -- Tippy Martinez, the gopher of record -- fell into a crouch, a symbol of dashed Oriole hopes. While Wockenfuss rounded the bases, then was engulfed by the brazen Tigers who celebrated their fourth straight victory over Baltimore in eight days, Martinez remained, unmoving, a small man suddenly shrunk to toadstool size.
This loss, in all likelihood, is the point to mark as the end of the Orioles' 29-10 sprint toward the top since Aug. 20 and the beginning of their acceptance of a dignified but somehow hollow second-place fate. Even if the season's last four games are meetings with Milwaukee in Baltimore, an Oriole pennant at this juncture would go beyond the description "miracle."
"In the time I've been here, nobody has gotten more big hits -- I mean big hits -- off us than Wockenfuss," lamented Orioles Manager Earl Weaver, who, for years, called the obscure Tiger "Wochenfutch," but, with the years, has learned the correct pronunciation the hard way. In the past four years, Wockenfuss has nine homers off Baltimore, three in the last week.
In a crowded cubby-hole office, Weaver muttered to General Manager Hank Peters, "To come all this way and then lose four to the Tigers." And, Weaver might have added, to watch the rollover Red Sox, the only team that can choke in a pennant race after it's mathematically eliminated, lose four of five to Milwaukee.
For the Orioles, the long, dignified, but finally futile pursuit always seems to end just this way. Against a mediocre team in a drab city, often in an old peeling ballpark, beaten by rookie pitchers and old, cagey hitters. In 1977, when they trailed the Yankees by 1 1/2 games with 10 to play, it was in Municipal Stadium in Cleveland that the two unhinging defeats came. In 1980, a season that could hardly parallel this one more completely, the killing loses came in Seattle and Toronto.
This game was a Baltimore torment in all respects. Jim Palmer worked 6 1/3 determined innings, allowing long homers to rookie Mike Laga (third-deck facade in right) and Chet Lemon (upper deck in left). However, Palmer also battled out of four tight spots with runners in scoring position.
"Too many jams and not enough runs," said Palmer, whose ERA since Aug. 20 is 1.72. "That's the pitcher's lament."
Naturally, it was a rookie pitcher, Jerry Ujdur, who baffled the Birds all night, although Dave Tobik was the winner for getting two outs in the ninth. Cal Ripken blistered a line-drive homer to left (his 26th), and six other times Orioles drove Tiger outfielders to the warning track for catches.
In particular, one towering, 110-foot high blast by Eddie Murray perplexed the Orioles; the ball looked like a two-run, upper-deck homer when it left the bat, yet a flag-crackling wind from right to left drove the ball to deeper portions of the park and knocked it down at the fence.
"It just got above the stadium, where the wind was, that's all," said a disconsolate Murray, who had three warning-track outs.
In defeat, the Orioles went through their rituals in silence. "We're gonna have to trade for Wockenfuss. That's the only solution," said John Lowenstein. "He's an Oriole kind of player. He sits on his butt for nine innings and then comes up and hits a home run. He's an outstanding professional athlete."
As the Orioles left the field, Boston and Milwaukee were tied. "Somebody told us Boston went ahead by two," said Weaver. "Maybe they were just tryin' to make us feel better."
"I pray they were right," said Peters.
This wasn't a night for the answering of prayers, nor the season, probably.
In his tiny, packed-with-coaches office, Weaver pondered "how Wockenfuss can always kill us."
Just one clubhouse away, Wockenfuss was explaining the reason. He's from Wilmington, Del., you see, and his relatives all watch the games in person in Baltimore or on TV from Detroit. So, Wockenfuss said, he just wanted his folks and all his old friends to see him hit a home run.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, nobody had bothered to tell him that tonight's game wasn't televised in Baltimore. This game was blacked out, like the Orioles' rapidly darkening season.