BALTIMORE -- As he watched his Orioles knock Boston out of first place this week, Baltimore General Manager Roland Hemond, like all lifelong Red Sox fans, felt a profound guilt and complicity in the latest collapse of the bloody Hose. If you're one of the Red Sox, or just one of their fans, it's always ALL MY FAULT.

When he was 19 years old, Hemond was sitting in the first row of the box seats near the left field foul pole in Yankee Stadium on the last day of the 1949 season as his beloved Bosox and the miserable Yankees played one game with the entire year at stake.

Phil Rizzuto slapped a hit down the left field line -- right at Hemond, who reached over the railing to scoop it up. "A policeman next to me yelled, 'Get away,' " said Hemond. "I let the ball go. Ted Williams misplayed it into a triple. The Sox played the infield back and Rizzuto scored on a groundout."

That was the only run of the game until the eighth inning, when the Red Sox pinch-hit for Ellis Kinder. "If it'd still been scoreless," said Hemond, "they'd have left Kinder in." The Yankees got four runs off Kinder's relief. Then the Red Sox scored three in the ninth.

"If I had touched that ball," said Hemond, "it would have been a ground-rule double. The Yanks might not have scored. Kinder would've stayed in the game and those three runs would have won the pennant. You can't be sure. But I have felt guilty. I've had to live with that the rest of my life."

Hemond is half-kidding. But he wasn't laughing decades later when he related the story to Rizzuto.

"I got worked up as I told it until Phil said, 'Look at Roland. He's still mad,' and he started flashing his Series ring in my face."

As Hemond retold the tale this week, he watched Boston's Luis Rivera miss a three-run homer, foul by inches. The next inning, Sam Horn, acquired by Hemond after the Red Sox gave up on him, hit a three-run homer, fair by a yard, to break a 2-2 tie and knock Boston into second place.

"Strange things do happen to the Red Sox. I grew up in that atmosphere," said Hemond, who is from Hartford. "But it's a shame their fans always have to live in dread, fear and apprehension. They can never enjoy a pennant race like they should. It's sad.

"This should be such a time of fun for them. Last year we and our fans so thoroughly enjoyed our pennant race, even though we lost. It was a wonderful experience. Because the Oriole tradition is 'We'll get the job done,' it's assumed here that losing last year was part of learning to win in the future.

"But with the Red Sox, you can't seem to do anything right until you get away from there. When I was {general manager} with the White Sox in 1970, I sat in the first row of box seats at the Series and two foul balls were hit just past Brooks Robinson. Both times, I fielded them. The Chicago Sun Times wrote that 'Brooks Robinson and Roland Hemond were the fielding stars of the Series.' I know I could have grabbed that ball Rizzuto hit. But I was a Red Sox fan then."

So Hemond choked?

If you don't think the Red Sox are jinxed, remember that in '86 when they were one out from a world title, the Shea Stadium scoreboard operator (a New Englander) accidentally hit a button prematurely and, for a split second, the words "Congratulations World Champion Red Sox" flashed on the board.

Until this year, the '78 Red Sox were the only team since divisional play to have blown a 6 1/2-game lead on Sept. 1. Now the '90 Red Sox seem about to duplicate the feat. Fifteen days ago they were 6 1/2 games ahead. Now, having lost six of seven and 12 of 17, they are one behind.

This spring, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy published a book called "The Curse of the Bambino." The premise (an old New England legend) is that the Red Sox are being punished because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 so owner Harry Frazee could finance a lightweight Broadway musical called "No, No, Nanette."

Says the grateful New England-raised Shaughnessy: "The Red Sox are doing for 'Curse of the Bambino' what the Ayatollah did for 'Satanic Verses.' My book was dead. Now they can't print them fast enough."

The Red Sox were in rare form this week in Baltimore, losing back-to-back to Jose Mesa and Anthony Telford, two marginal rookies with two career wins apiece. After Tuesday's loss, catcher Tony Pena screamed at his mates that they were "a bunch of quitters." Then Pena heaved a chair across the locker room -- a folding chair, of course. By Wednesday the Red Sox were busy firing back at Pena. Mike Greenwell said the team deserved an apology (which Pena gave) and Dwight Evans said, "We can't allow ourselves to come apart at the seams like that."

After falling from first place, Manager Joe Morgan said: "No need to panic yet, gentlemen, if ever. . . . When you're going bad, like we are, there are no breaks to be had. At least tomorrow is a day off. It can't hurt. We'll be undefeated."

In defeat, losing pitcher Greg Harris may have uttered the ultimate Red Sox quote. It combined tension, guilt, self-flagellation and a complete loss of any sense of proportion.

"I was just a stupid idiot," said Harris. "To let Sam Horn beat me in a game that means as much as this is ridiculous. I let everybody down. I didn't do what I was supposed to do. It will take a while to live this one down. No way I should be beat by this man. That's a guy I wanted to pitch to -- a guy who's never touched me. . . . I deserved it. I'm the one who lost that game. It was really dumb."

The Red Sox pitcher's heinous crime? He threw a fastball a few inches from where he aimed it and a hot slugger hit it 309 1/2 feet for a home run.

These are the facts: The Red Sox were not expected to do anything this year and have far surpassed themselves. They have no speed (last in the league in steals), no power (next-to-last in home runs), a comic collection of buffoon base runners, a mediocre defense, an injured bullpen and a collection of starting pitchers -- after Roger Clemens and Mike Boddicker -- that nobody in baseball thought could hold a starting job, much less win a division pennant.

It is amazing they still have an 81-68 record, especially with Clemens (who has been given medical clearance and will pitch Sunday) missing his last three starts. It is the gifted but fundamentally atrocious Blue Jays who should have to explain themselves. In the last 15 years, it is doubtful that any contender has consistently made as many mental errors as the Blue Jays.

Yet it is the Red Sox, with their hunt-and-peck line-drive hitters and their gritty makeshift pitching staff, who are in purgatory -- as usual.

"This month we couldn't have played worse and Toronto couldn't have played better," said Evans. Yet "we're only one game behind and we have 12 games to play. This can still be the greatest thrill of our lifetime. The next few weeks could be wonderful."

Of course, he's right. If only the rest of the Red Sox could believe it.