Orioles' plight recalls early Mets - but there are differences

The 1988 Baltimore Orioles aren't a team, they are a play by William Shakespeare (``The Comedy of Errors''); a painting by Salvador Dali (any of his works will do); Abbott and Costello doing ``Who's on First?'' And so for the first time since those lovable New York Mets teams of a quarter-century ago, baseball fans have a group of hapless losers to empathize with.

Of course these Orioles are a far cry on paper from the stiff-legged, all-thumbs, when-in-doubt-throw-to-the- wrong-base Mets of the early '60s. But so far this spring their futility on the field has been just as great.

A week ago they broke the major league record of 13 consecutive losses at the beginning of a season, which had been held jointly by the 1904 Washington Senators and the 1920 Detroit Tigers. And it didn't stop there.

Five more losses dropped them to 0-19 heading into Wednesday night's game against the Twins in Minnesota - a mark too close for comfort to the American League record for consecutive losses at any time (20) and the major league high of 23.

And now as in the '60s, the sorry performance of a baseball team seems to have touched a wellspring of interest and identification among the general public.

Anybody can win. Any team and its manager can look good when its pitchers are throwing shutouts, its hitters are depositing balls into the bleachers, and its infield is sucking up grounders like a vacuum cleaner.

But the plight of the O's has made it clear that we should all applaud a team that can arouse genuine sympathy.

If I may quote G.K. Chesterton in ``Varied Types'' (and who is going to stop me?): ``It is not the man of pleasure who has pleasure; it is not the man of the world who appreciates the world. The man who has learned to do all conventional things perfectly has at the same time learned to do them prosaically.

``It is the awkward man, whose evening dress does not fit him, whose gloves will not go on, whose compliments will not come off, who is really full of the ancient ecstasies of youth. He is frightened enough of society actually to enjoy his triumph. He has that element of fear which is one of the eternal ingredients of joy.''

So far this year, Baltimore has lost in conventional ways and unconventional ways. The Orioles may even have invented a couple of ways that the still-remembered Mets failed to explore.

But there is a difference.

This Baltimore team, though it has fallen off from its glory days of the recent past and was a last-place club in 1987, still has some outstanding players. And they are properly remunerated by today's standards, creating a payroll that could easily be used to run a country the size of Liechtenstein. Eddie Murray, who is paid in excess of $2.2 million to swing like a blacksmith, hit 31 home runs last year. Shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., comfortable at $1.7 million, was the American League's Most Valuable Player as recently as 1983. Fred Lynn, making do this year at a little over $1.5 million, was considered a wonder boy as both Rookie of the Year and MVP with the 1975 Boston Red Sox and has had several other big seasons.

The Mets of the early '60s, on the other hand, were rejects assembled to stock an expansion team. And they too were paid accordingly, like honest workmen who carried their tools to the job: iron gloves, glass arms, and Styrofoam bats.

Six games (and thus six losses) into the current season, the Orioles fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. and replaced him with Frank Robinson. The move seemed a timely one, answering critics of baseball's poor minority hiring record for high-level jobs and at the same time giving an opportunity to a clearly deserving individual who had proved himself as a Hall of Fame player and in previous managerial stints with Cleveland and San Francisco.

It would have been a great story, of course, if Robinson had immediately turned the Orioles around, but it didn't happen; they kept on losing for him just as they had for Ripken.

What the Orioles probably can look forward to in the years ahead if they keep losing is the same kind of worldwide recognition as the ultra-powerful 1927 New York Yankees, only in reverse.

The latest rumor is that the Soviets, who earlier this month entertained an American delegation at ground-breaking ceremonies for their first true baseball stadium in Moscow, are trying to get the Orioles on their schedule. No dummies, the Russians!

Of course Mr. Percentage may yet elbow his way into the picture and spoil everything.

What is meant by Mr. Percentage is the age-old belief among major league managers that any team, no matter how good or bad, should be able to win 50 to 60 games and will almost certainly lose a like amount. It's the other 50 or so games on the schedule, plus the playoffs, that actually decide who will play in the World Series.

Meanwhile, the guy who must breathe a sigh of relief every time he looks at the standings is Ripken Sr. No one will ever know if, under his continued direction, the team might have won its next game, or its next 13, or continued losing as it has. However, there is nothing to the rumor that Cal is now busy teaching his grandchildren the infield fly rule!

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