The Baltimore Orioles' best comedian has run out of jokes and can hardly manage a smile these days. Reliever Steve Kline, generally considered one of the best pranksters in baseball, sits slumped at his locker and hopes his dreadful year can turn positive as quickly as it has turned sour.
"I just get miserable," said Kline, 32, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason after four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. "I'm just a grumpy old man. I don't want to socialize. I'll come and say something stupid to some people and have some fun, but they can still tell I'm not doing well. I'm a fun type of guy and I've lost that."
Before this season, left-handed batters had hit just .215 against Kline; last season they hit .143 with one home run. This season, lefties are hitting .339 against him with four home runs.
Last year Kline allowed a run in only eight of his 67 games and did not allow an earned run at Busch Stadium. This year he's allowed a run in 11 of 41 appearances and has a 6.35 ERA at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The home run Kline allowed to New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi -- a left-handed hitter -- on Monday helped send Baltimore to a 13-8 loss.
"As an athlete, when you have pride in yourself and you don't live up to what you're capable of doing, you get a little frustrated," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "But the only thing he can do is battle back. Nobody is going to feel sorry for him. He's been there before and he's going to have to just come back and do it again. You have to dig a little deeper and find a different way of getting somebody out. You have to make an adjustment."
Despite his struggles, Kline is on pace to pitch in 78 games, an indication of his importance to the team. His signing this offseason to a two-year deal worth $5.5 million was Baltimore's biggest free agent addition. Baltimore is willing to listen to trade offers for Kline, preferably to a National League team, but no serious talks appear to have taken place.
"My mechanics are off," Kline said. "Sometimes I go out there and you pitch four, five, six days out of eight and my stuff isn't as lively. I used to be able to hit my spots. Now everything I throw is the same speed up in the zone. My mistakes I used to make that they popped up, now they're hitting them out of the ballpark."
Kline quickly alienated himself with teammates and fans by telling a St. Louis reporter in late April he wasn't happy in Baltimore and wished he was back with the Cardinals.
"The whole St. Louis thing got blown way out of proportion," Kline said. "I was just trying to say goodbye to people who were nice to me. Some people [in Baltimore] took it the wrong way, but I can't blame them."
Kline soon became the subject of criticism on local talk radio. Last week Kline confronted a radio talk show host who repeatedly calls him "Steve Clown" on the air. Kline is not well received at Camden Yards.
"I hear the echoes and the little pot shots that kind of hurt you but you just have to keep going," Kline said. "I really didn't get a chance to know the people [in Baltimore]. I feel bad. Because I'm usually the one who likes to talk to the people and having a good time. But I've been just hiding out. It's just a bad year so far. But it could change. We could go to the World Series and I can get an important guy out."
Shortly after the 2004 World Series, in which St. Louis was swept by the Boston Red Sox, Kline was presented with a contract offer by the Cardinals, who knew he would not accept it. Baltimore seemed to be a logical destination because of its proximity to Lewisburg, Pa., where Kline lives. Being close to home would allow Kline's 3-year-old daughter Audrey to visit her grandparents often. But even that has not worked out well.
"It's good for my family," Kline said. "They can talk to grandma and grandpa. I can have all my friends come out. But that's added pressure there, too. If I screw up, it's magnified. I always stress more when my family is around because I want to do well. Because they'll always hear the boos and that hurts them. Nobody wants their 3-year-old to hear their dad getting booed. But that's what I've gotten myself into and I just have to keep pitching."
Kline's wife, Martine, apparently has grown weary of her husband's melancholy.
"She just keeps telling me to go out and play," Kline said. "Show these people what you really have."