"This is a good team. It's hard to understand why it isn't better. We win the ones we should lose and we lose the ones we should win." -- Earl Weaver
Outside Manager Earl Weaver's office Thursday, the Orioles locker room was a ribald bedlam of celebration in the wake of a three-run sudden-death home run by Fred Lynn. A frustrated fourth-place team, equal parts gaudy talent and raw anxiety, was blowing off steam.
Down three runs with two out and none on in the ninth, they won with a minor baseball miracle. Of course, one night before, ahead, 1-0, in the ninth, they'd blown a game just as emotionally destructive as this one was inspirational.
The whole scene, like this entire season, was strange to those who have grown accustomed to the cerebral, excuse-us-while-we-win-again style of the modest and excellent Orioles.
For 25 years, the Orioles were long on brains, short on bravado. They made victory seem routine, defeat painless.
Now? Well, now nobody quite knows who or what the Orioles are. They're figuring it out themselves on the fly.
Beyond Weaver's door, Coach Frank Robinson had turned his hands into six-shooters and was firing on Lee Lacy as Eddie Murray laughed and agitated.
"Check the (record) book," said Lacy, pretending to glare at the Hall of Famers of the past and future. "I'm the .300 hitter around here. Neither of you hit .300 (for your) career."
Everywhere you looked, this team 8 1/2 games out of first and a mediocre 13-13 under Weaver, was having a bash rowdier than some of their past division-clinching parties.
"Hittin' .325," boasted Lacy, who'd just gotten four hits to maintain a 14-game streak of .474 batting. "Gotta look back 50 points to find you, Murray."
"Is Lacy still talking?" teased Rick Dempsey. "I never knew a singles hitter had so much to say."
"I'm settin' those pitchers up and knocking 'em down like rubber ducks," said Lacy. "They can't out-think me. I haven't even started bunting yet. One bunt hit. I usually have 15. The way I'm hitting, you know the sad thing? I'm not gonna stop."
"That's not sad," said Lynn. "You're going to get 100 RBI in spite of myself."
Lynn sat looking at a gash on his thigh, recalling a tumbling catch he'd made. "How do you spike yourself?" he said, grinning.
These days in Birdland, the jokes are broader, the voices louder, the confidence more visible. On the inside, however, the doubts are deeper.
"There's been good spirit on the club, maybe too good," said Weaver, as perplexed by his team's play as he is titillated by its potential. "We finally got the red rear a little tonight and I hope we keep it, 'cause we're too good to be where we are.
"Damn it, we should be closer than this," blurted Weaver, whose squad is scoring runs at a faster pace than any Orioles team ever. "I thought we'd be three or four games out at the All-Star break, then maybe we'd get rolling and pull away.
"But we're seven back in the loss column and that's a little perilous. You got to watch yourself. I feel good about this team. But we got to do it . . . I told 'em, 'We gotta win more 3-2 games.' So, we go out and lose, 2-1. Maybe I shoulda' mentioned those, too."
The more old-school Orioles feel ambivalent about their new nature. Once, they were more than the sum of their parts. Now, they're less. At least so far.
Once, they were picked to finish third or fourth on talent, but always snickered as they ended up first or second while other clubs scratched their heads. Now, as Scott McGregor says, "We should be kicking people . . . Every club we play says, 'You're the best team we've seen this year.'
"But we're so inconsistent."
Owner Edward Bennent Williams says, "It seems like we probably have a better team on paper right now than we did in either '79 or '83, when we won the pennant. Don't we?"
Lynn says, "Now that we have Wiggins and Lacy batting one-two, we have a tremendous lineup, really an offensive machine. We can play any kind of game on any surface."
The Orioles' problem is simple: an atrocious 4.33 team ERA and a bullpen with arson on its mind.
"Some veterans retired," says Dempsey. "Now, the younger guys like Dennis Martinez and Storm Davis have to take their turn . . . They're forgetting how good they are. (Jim) Palmer's not here to set the example and pep them up. It's their time to handle the workload . . . Maybe the trip to Japan (last fall) took something out of them. They don't seem strong enough beyond five or six innings. That puts too much load on Sammy (Stewart in middle relief)."
Williams says, "I thought Japan was a really good idea, that it would be what spring practice is to a college football team -- a time to sort out some of your new players. And it did help us make decisions about (rookies Larry) Sheets, (Nate) Snell and (Ken) Dixon, who have helped us. Also, we were very careful over there with the (pitchers') arms."
Nonetheless, the great lawyer admits the jury's still out on Japan.
For the moment, the Orioles seem determined to keep adding to their formidable load of unpolished, unintegrated talent. Texas third baseman Buddy Bell is much coveted, with Stewart and immobile third baseman Wayne Gross as sensible bait.
Gross, who currently leads the AL in fielding balls with his face (with two, one throw from the catcher between the eyes, one routine hopper with his forehead) is hardly in favor in high places.
"Can you really loose a ground ball in the lights?" asked Williams of Gross' most recent mishap. "Actually, I'm not concerned about the balls he touches. It's the ones he doesn't touch that interest me.
"You know, the Washington Senators once had a first baseman named Zeke Bonura (in 1938) who led the league in fielding percentage despite the fact that everyone knew he was the worst fielder in the league. Soon, the Henry J. Bonura Principle infected the entire city of Washington. People realized that if you never touch the ball, you can't make an error.
"And they've been doing it on Capitol Hill ever since."