Call it the curse of the Baltimore Orioles' left-handers. Are Scott McGregor, Tippy Martinez and Mike Flanagan -- the cornerstones of the Orioles' pitching staff since 1977 -- just having a run of bad luck or, with a combined age of 98, are they starting to wear out?
As the team's full squad reports to spring training Thursday, that may be the most crucial question for Baltimore.
Left-handed pitching has always been the rarest and, perhaps, the most coveted commodity in baseball. And for years the Orioles have been blessed with more of it than any team in the game.
McGregor: baseball's best winning percentage the past six years (93-50, .650). Flanagan: third in the American League in wins and first in starts over the past eight years. Martinez: most wins-plus-saves (138) for a league left-hander the past eight years.
Now, that southpaw superiority is in jeopardy.
Aside from this trio, the Orioles have no left-handed pitchers in their organization worth mentioning. Zero.
And the last six months have brought spooky, left-handed fears to the team.
First, McGregor reached for a routine ground ball late last August, missed it, and, almost without knowing anything had happened, broke the ring finger on his pitching hand so badly it required surgery. His knuckle is still misshapen, he has a pin in his finger and his left forearm is visibly smaller and measurably weaker than his right.
Next, Martinez gradually found it more and more painful to warm up until, despite team prodding to keep pitching, he simply called it quits for the season's final month. Offseason tests showed, to his shock, that tendinitis and muscle atrophy had cut the strength in his left shoulder to 50 percent of normal.
Martinez still tests 20 percent weaker in his left shoulder, although he has done so much conditioning that his upper body has so much new muscle that that might be a problem. He hasn't thrown his first curve of spring yet and says, "If I had it to do over, I'd have called it quits much earlier. I've got to learn to say 'No' for my own sake and the team's. Now I understand what Jim Palmer meant about knowing your body and stopping before you're hurt."
Privately, the Orioles were so worried about Martinez that they made the acquisition of free agent Don Aase (who has had a tendon transplant from left wrist to right elbow), an offseason must-do, even though it cost millions.
Finally, during an offseason charity basketball game, Flanagan ruptured his Achilles' tendon in a fluke accident when a player barely flicked his ankle running past. Flanagan won't pitch until August at the earliest and could easily, and perhaps wisely, miss the whole season. The larger question with such an injury is whether he will ever be effective again.
Flanagan, who isn't in camp, is a problem for the remote future but McGregor and Martinez are Item One on the spring agenda. Everything they do in the next five weeks will either send waves of confidence through their mates or shudders of apprehension.
If McGregor comes back strong, then a rotation that includes Mike Boddicker and Storm Davis might be good enough to contend in the toughest division in history. If he doesn't, forget '85. If Martinez is his old self, then the three-man bullpen of Martinez, Aase and Sammy Stewart could easily be the best in Orioles history and one of the best in the game.
With McGregor and Martinez still functional in August, the Orioles looked like they'd finish second. Without them, they fell to fifth like a rock.
If high spirits were infield pops, McGregor and Martinez would already be home free. Far from sounding like injured veterans on the comeback trail, both are even more cheerful and revved up than usual.
Both see their abbreviated '84 seasons as the perfect antedote to '83 campaigns that brought the biggest workload of their lives.
McGregor, never a workhorse, labored 285 innings in '83, only 196 in '84. "And those last few weeks are the ones that really take it out of your arm when you're already tired," he said. "I feel fantastic right now. I can tell I'm stronger because I didn't have to pitch in September and October."
Says Martinez, who pitched only once after Sept. 8, "If we hadn't been coming off a World Series year and been so far behind the Tigers, I'd never have pitched as much as I did. I was in a lot of pain from midseason on . . .
"People assume I should be upset because we got Don Aase. The team called me the day they signed him to make sure I understood that I still fitted in their plans. I guess they thought I might be mad . . . Heck, I'm going to love it.
"It's going to save my arm. Actually, it's perfect. He's had arm problems and so have I. We'll both stay strong."
Nothing makes a pitcher's convalesence more pleasant than an occasional bouquet of runs.
"The mood of the whole pitching staff is better already because we signed (free agents Fred) Lynn and (Lee) Lacy. We know we're going to score this year," said Martinez. "Last season, it got to the point where we knew it was just a matter of time before we gave up a run and lost."
Since Florida is for optimism, both McGregor and Martinez assume that it's just a matter of time until they start making hitters lunge at changeups and fall to their knees chopping at curves again. The frustrations of an old year become the grist for a new year's jokes.
This week, McGregor looked at the two gloves in his locker and asked them soberly, "Which one of you guys let my finger get broken last year? Speak up.
"I think it was you," he said, picking up one glove and hurling it back into his locker. "You're benched."
"Why don't you wear two gloves -- one on each hand?" said Cal Ripken Jr. "Then we'd all feel safe."
Only when and if the Baltimore southpaws kick their curse and return to form will the Orioles really feel safe once more.