Decade after decade, managers mumble the same mush about how to win a pennant. Be consistent, they say. Don't get too high or too low. Play 'em one at a time.
And, every year, none of it bears the least relationship to how almost all great seasons actually are built.
The paradoxical baseball reality is that two or three fabulous, irrational hot streaks, each lasting a couple of brief, crazy weeks, are far more vital to victory than drab consistency.
No team illustrates this better than the Orioles in recent years. That's why the current Baltimore binge -- eight victories in nine games, including a 13-4 win over the Oakland unathletics Sunday -- is so important to their weary fans.
"Eight out of nine is good," says Orioles Manager Earl Weaver. "But I'd like to win eight out of the next nine. That's when you're hot."
As usual, Weaver is exactly right about the distinction between what is merely good and what is essential to greatness. A team that goes 8-1 may sleep well at night, but one that keeps pushing and goes 16-2 is the sort that plays in the World Series.
In the last seven years, the Orioles have had four exciting seasons and three drab ones. Streaks, or the lack of them, have been the difference.
In 1983, the world champion Orioles had runs of 14-4, 17-4 and 12-2. That's only counting the eruptions in which they were 10 or more games above .500. Forget the little 8-1 dash they also had. In their three best streaks, Baltimore was 43-10. The rest of the year: 55-54.
That's typical of almost every 95-plus win team in baseball every year.
The 1982 Orioles, who almost won the division on the last day of the season, had streaks of 15-5, 17-1 and 16-6. That's 48-12. The rest of the summer -- a humble 46-56.
The 100-win year of 1980 had runs of 13-3, 14-1 and 19-6. That's a scalding 46-10. The rest of the season was ho-hum: 54-52.
The way to win a pennant is to play fiercely for two weeks, cruise for a month, then get it in gear again. Do that twice and you're a contender. Hit the gas three times and the flag probably is yours. Go to the afterburners four times and you're really special. Like the 1979 Orioles, who had spells of 15-1, 22-3, 17-3 and 14-3 (total 68-10). The rest of the time, they were 34-47. But who cares?
"In '79, it seemed like we were hot half the time. It was incredible," said Mike Flanagan. "It's good to get some of that feeling back because we haven't been able to string them together the last couple of years."
Only once in the past two seasons have the Orioles had a plus-10 streak -- an 11-1 in 1984. On the other hand, in those two years, the Orioles had three slumps when they were eight or more games under .500. The Orioles did not have a single slump that bad in any of their prime seasons (1979, '80, '82 or '83).
"You don't like to admit how important the streaks are, because how can you tell a team to go out and win 10 in a row," says coach Frank Robinson. "So you try to play consistently and let the streaks take care of themselves.
"We're still not functioning on all cylinders. When we start playing good solid baseball, when Cal Ripken, Mike Young and Fred Lynn start hitting, then we will take off.
"In a streak, you're more alert, more revved up and more confident. It's contagious. Guys who aren't that good think, 'Maybe I'll be the hero today.' "
The irony of streaks is the frequency with which they are followed instantly by slumps.
The moral? When you get warm, pay attention. Your whole season is on the line.
It's just human nature that 24 men can't arrive at work with fever-pitch intensity every day for six months. But as soon as a team wins three or four straight, a special buzz goes through the clubhouse. As long as the streak lasts, everybody's on the same page, playing with football fierceness.
That kind of adrenaline rush usually can last two to three weeks for a talented club.
"Everything clicks during streaks," says Orioles coach Terry Crowley. "You feel good. Every pitch you look for is the one you get. Whatever break you need, it happens. I like what I see. We're coming."
Sunday afternoon's game-winning come-from-behind two-run double by Larry Sheets was perhaps an example of streak luck. His game-turning hit was just a grounder that hit chalk three times, yet somehow never spun foul.
When you're hot, that's the deal. But you better take advantage.
For the past fun-filled week, the Orioles have been making science jokes. Weaver doesn't believe that "team chemistry" exists and wrote a sarcastic "equation" on his blackboard.
"That means," says Prof. Weaver, "Three-run homer, plus a good-pitched game, equals another win. That's all the damn chemistry I know."
Today, the blackboard struck again. "Physics: (R b)+(R ba)+H2 =450 HR," Weaver had written.
"That means," said Weaver, "you take a round ball and a round bat and you hit it square and you get a 450-foot home run. That's the kind of physics that wins games."
Veteran Lee Lacy, on his own mini-blackboard, has taken up the theme. "Chemistry isn't it. Physics is," said Lacy's message to his teammates.
That's the Orioles' way of reminding themselves that when you're 8-1, but want to be 16-2, you don't talk about it. You have to go out and do it.