A good baseball team is never so fascinating as when it's suffering.
If that's true, then the Baltimore Orioles have seldom, if ever, been as interesting as they are at this moment. The Orioles have never been in so many kinds of pain at the same time.
The team on 33rd Street that seemed hexed in May and jinxed in June, now appears to be in the grip of a full-scale July plague. This club should be quarantined.
In the first three days after the All-Star break Sammy Stewart was charged with drunk driving and Tippy Martinez was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy; the club issued one press release denying that team members are the target of an FBI drug investigation, and another contradicting local newspaper headlines that said Jim Palmer was a free agent.
"It's almost incredible," said General Manager Hank Peters today. "Oh, yes, it's the worst period we've ever been through since I've been here (1975). People are just falling by the wayside, body after body."
At last count, one-fifth of the team was on the disabled list: Palmer, Martinez, Dan Ford, Mike Flanagan and Joe Nolan. And, despite the fact that the team's key hitters are apparently fit, the Orioles have a .216 average in their last 18 games and have scored only 18 runs in their last 12 defeats.
This afternoon in Memorial Stadium, as the Orioles entered the seventh inning with no runs and only one hit, a wry public address announcer intoned, "Will Ted Williams please report to the Oriole offices."
"And Stan Musial, too," yelled an Oriole official in the press box.
An unusually kinetic, anything-could-happen atmosphere hangs over this normally placid ball club. Nobody can call the Orioles dull anymore; these days, they're the Yankees South.
On the surface, the Orioles try to maintain their usual banter.
For instance, this morning, Stewart bumped into Earl Weaver, who's been in and out of Baltimore in recent days, offering his scouting and consulting wisdom, then skipping out of the park before he's noticed by the media and the masses.
Weaver had two famous drunk-driving incidents. "As soon as he saw me," said Stewart, "Earl said, 'Welcome to the club.' "
Peters chuckled at this, and said of the right-hander who's had the plate moving on him all year, "Sammy was driving straight but they kept moving the lane markers on him."
Then Peters added, "That's not the kind of 'club' you want to belong to."
Underneath the quips, real anger and genuine confusion is closer to the surface than ever before in memory.
As an example, word filtered back to the Orioles today that Palmer says he has been in agony for the last five days in the aftermath of a rotator-cuff test he took on Tuesday. Doctors pumped air and dye into his shoulder and found no trace of a tear.
However, Palmer said today, "I literally can't lift it. To raise it above my head, I have to use my left arm. It's the worst pain I've ever had in my arm . . . All of this has me confused."
"What has Palmer got to be confused about?" stormed Rick Dempsey, standing in the middle of the clubhouse with many other Orioles listening. "After all the stuff he's dumped on us over the years, we're the ones who should be confused. That guy never knows what's wrong with him."
As the normally even-tempered Orioles trooped through their tunnel to the field before the game, Jim Dwyer spotted a barrel of bats and smashed it with his fist, yelling, "Come on, you (cursing) bats."
Other players followed his example, pummeling the traitorous ash until the tunnel echoed like thunder with curses ostensibly directed at the bat rack, but really aimed at the fates.
The hair on the back of many an Oriole's neck is ready to bristle. The astoundingly ineffective Tim Stoddard (ERA 5.18), who was on the mound when the Orioles lost Saturday night, looks like he's ready to start breaking furniture.
"I think I'm throwin' good, but I don't think anybody else thinks so," said Stoddard, who will, out of desperation, have to anchor the bullpen for three weeks until Martinez returns. "I got knocked out (Saturday) by a checked swing. That's life. My confidence ain't bothering me none."
Manager Joe Altobelli and Peters are trying to give a sense of leadership, but they seem stunned by events. Too much has come too fast. Of the drug-probe rumors this past week, Altobelli says, "I don't know anything about it and, frankly, I don't want to. I'm very ignorant in that area . . .
"I just want to react to all this like a professional myself. We're supposed to be able to play under adversity. As human beings, we feel sorry for ourselves. As professional athletes, we're not allowed to make excuses."
"From adversity, draw strength," says Ray Miller, the pitching coach.
But it's easier said than done.
For the time being, the club has adopted a lifeboat mentality--stay above water until help arrives. Starting this week, one player is expected back from the disabled list in the lineup each week for the next five; the expected order of return is: Nolan, Ford, Palmer, Martinez, Flanagan.
"I was walking through the clubhouse Friday night," said Flanagan today, "and they told me, 'You can come back any time now.' "
Palmer, whose judgment has always been so much keener when applied to others than to himself, said today, "This club has always had remarkable resiliency. They've never quit, even when they were a lot worse off in the standings than they are now . . . Sure, you've got to wonder what Earl would do. He could put on a great front. Weaver was at his best when things were worst."
But things were never this bad for Weaver. In fact, the Orioles' mood is so bleak they some suspect Weaver's absence has been a curse.
"Maybe," said Flanagan today, "Earl has miniature dolls of the whole team down in Florida and he's sticking long voodoo needles in us."