Luckily, the Orioles' bullpen only throws baseballs for a living. Think of the damage the relievers could do if they had regular jobs.

If Mike Timlin were a fireman, he would save the cat and overlook the old lady. If Jesse Orosco were a surgeon, he'd be so off-target he'd take out the wrong kidney. If Arthur Rhodes were a cop, he could only catch bank robbers if he had two days' rest. If Rocky Coppinger were a lawyer, he'd blame the judge when he lost.

These days, the Orioles feel like they are trapped in the movie "Groundhog Day." Every game, they get a lead or come from behind to grab one. And every time, it seems, the bullpen invents new and incredible ways to blow the game. Seven times in the past two weeks, the Orioles have blown a save or lost in extra innings when matched with a rival bullpen.

Who does the damage? Juan Gonzalez? Derek Jeter? Oh, no. It's Darrin Fletcher, Shane Spencer, Scott Brosius and Willie Greene (twice). If there were a Winthrope Fotheringfill Smythe in the American League, the Orioles' bullpen would find a way to make him a ninth-inning hero.

Sometimes, we don't recognize history when it's staring us in the face. Right now, the Orioles' bullpen has a chance to be the worst ever. They're the Sosas and McGwires of relief incompetence. They've been so bad that, no matter what you say about them, you're not being mean.

The envelope with the earned run averages, please: 9.00, 7.77, 7.71, 6.55, 5.51 and 5.35.

"I have never, in 40 years in baseball, spent so many restless nights," says bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "I know the quality that I see going out through the bullpen door. But I don't always see it when it gets on the mound. . . . Once they get out there, their whole demeanor changes."

Two years ago, when the Orioles almost reached the World Series, Armando Benitez held 46 of 47 leads in the eighth inning. Randy Myers converted 47 of 48 save opportunities. The Orioles won 98 games.

So far, the Orioles have blown 20 saves. It's not even the all-star break yet. "What's the record?" asks coach Sam Perlozzo. Only 31, by the '96 Cards, Sam. Your boys are a virtual lock. Maybe they'll set a record that will last longer than DiMaggio's hitting streak.

"If we'd won 15 of those games or even 12," says Perlozzo, "we'd be right in the hunt [for the playoffs]. We all know it."

One Orioles veteran said he would tell me the truth about this team if I swore not to divulge his identity. "We," he said softly, "have a very good team."

That's what's sad. The Orioles are on pace to hit an amazing 230 homers and score almost 900 runs. Over the last month, their starters have formed a first-rate rotation. The defense is adequate. But the bullpen has killed 'em.

In the '80s, statisticians studied which events, if any, had a carry-over effect to the next game. Basically, there were none. Each game starts fresh. Except for blown saves. Teams tended to play markedly worse after just one ninth-inning blown save.

That must truly make the '99 Orioles explorers into some psychological unknown. Before Thursday's game, the public address system played, "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted." We may find out.

"We're an aberration. We continue to come back, come back, and put ourselves in a position to win late. It's absolutely amazed me," says Perlozzo, adding ominously, "but I don't think that'll last all season."

If only the bullpen were not made up of real people, several of whom have had fine long careers, we could just enjoy them as slapstick.

"Everything will be thrown on us. I don't blame 'em. It's like a black cloud is over us. But we're doing the best we can," said Orosco, who, at 42, has pitched more games in relief than anybody else in history. "We're not trying to walk people and give up home runs. We care very much. It hurts us. We know we're not helping the team. But we're not out there twiddling our thumbs and giving up."

They're not getting the job done either. That points the finger straight at General Manager Frank Wren, who assembled this mess, especially the disastrous $16 million contract for Timlin. Ray Miller shares the blame equally for his overmanaging. He has changed roles in desperation, virtually held open auditions for the closer job and, by his comments, generally contributed to an atmosphere -- justified, but also unproductive -- of No Confidence.

At least Thursday he started to share some blame. "Getting the bullpen to work -- that's my job. It just hasn't been getting done," Miller said. "But it's my job to figure it out. And I'm trying."

What can the Orioles do? Could this have been avoided?

Long ago, Earl Weaver had a bunch of lousy relievers who couldn't get the team to its closer. Yet he kept each one in his role no matter how often he failed. "That's his job. That's what we got him for," Weaver would say. Then, he'd usually add, "I gave [pitcher] Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife." That Earl -- sure sticks with his guys, doesn't he?

Off the record, Weaver would snort, "I'm going to keep running these guys out there with the game on the line until the front office gets so sick of looking at them that they get me somebody better."

Finally, that's the juncture Miller seems to have reached. Thursday, he announced that every reliever will, henceforth, be used in the role for which the baseball gods clearly created him.

Rhodes will go back to the fifth and sixth innings where he prospered for years -- though he'll hate it because that's not where the big bucks are. Timlin will be the closer, come heck or high water. Orosco will be expected to get lefties out, even though lefties are slugging .631 against him, as opposed to .301 last season. Coppinger will be mop-up man even if he gives up three homers in three innings, as he did in Thursday's 11-6 loss.

At the least, watching this bullpen should provide morbid fascination. They've tried everything else. Hats have been worn at every angle. The relievers cheer for each other so much -- since nobody else will -- that Hendricks sometimes has to quiet them down.

Long ago, Orioles reliever Dave Schmidt seemed cursed by bloop hits. So, Hendricks told him, "Go in there and make somebody hit a line drive. We'll catch it for a double play." That's what happened. His slump was broken.

"I may start telling 'em to go in and see how far they can make 'em hit it," said Hendricks, "because there's no way we could be this bad even if we tried."

CAPTION: Mike Timlin and Orioles' bullpen have 20 blown saves this season, 11 short of record.