Thursday, June 17, 2004

Back in 1942, after his hapless Boston Braves lost a doubleheader, future managerial genius Casey Stengel walked into a barbershop saying, “A shave please and don’t bother cutting my throat. I’ll tend to that myself later.”

That story was summoned from distant memory after Lee Mazzilli’s fast-sinking Baltimore Orioles were nipped 14-0 by the Indians on Monday in a visit to Cleveland even more depressing than usual. Asked a question involving the word “tomorrow” by a Baltimore Sun reporter, Mazzilli replied, “I’m not certain I’m going to be alive tomorrow.”

Fortunately, Mazzilli was indeed alive if not quite kicking when the Orioles turned up in Los Angeles, of all places, to play the Dodgers again last night. But the same probably couldn’t be said of his ballclub.

To the surprise of no one except possibly eternal optimist Mazzilli, the Orioles’ season appears to be coming down around their noggins. No, I take that back. Lee has been around baseball long enough to know you don’t go nowhere, putting it emphatically if not quite grammatically, without strong pitching.

And how bad has Baltimore’s pitching been? So bad it might be overly charitable to call it weak. Nonexistent is more like it, as illustrated neatly when the Indians’ batch of banjo hitters scored the most runs by a Cleveland team in three years.

After allowing six runs in 12/3 innings — an effort as abysmal as starter Eric DuBose’s yield of eight in 22/3 — reliever Rick Bauer said unnecessarily, “I stink right now.” This opinion was shared by Mazzilli, who booted him to the bushes two days later. Still, too many of the O’s toeplated stiffs remain on the scene.

As they queued up last night at Chavez Ravine, the Orioles had lost seven of 10 and 17 of 24 to fall six games under .500 (27-33) for the first time this season. If you care to take a longer, more discouraging view, the O’s had dropped 572 of 1,031 — a nonwinning percentage of .445 — since Davey Johnson departed the scene following Baltimore’s wire-to-wire American League East run of 1997.

What we have here is a chronic loser like so many teams fielded by the original and expansion Washington Senators in the 1950s and 1960s. Which means that a lot of area fans who switched their loyalties to the O’s after the nation’s capital became bereft of major league baseball in 1972 should feel right at home.

And they also should feel right at home if the former Montreal Expos materialize at RFK Stadium next spring with the “M” on their caps upended to read “W.” After all, the homeless Expos are a very dead last in the National League East these days. Heck, considering their peripatetic ways, it’s a wonder they aren’t sixth in a five-team division.

Our own little club in Washington or Northern Virginia? It has been an elusive dream for so many months, years and decades that I’ve promised myself — perhaps you have, too — to put it out of mind. Yet Major League Baseball has said it intends to announce a decision on the Expos’ destination when the owners meet during next month’s All-Star break.

Of course, that doesn’t mean MLB will announce a decision, because what’s the harm in one more postponement? But the prospect is enough to leave us tingling like a kid waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

And — the analogy is inescapable — will our long-nurtured baseball hopes turn out to be just as ethereal as Santa? Or perhaps he’ll appear and rip off his whiskers to reveal … Peter Angelos?

If Sports Illustrated were to publish an anniversary salute to the District, as it is doing with each of the 50 states, surely its “Enemy of the State/City” would be Angelos. Compared to King Peter’s efforts to keep baseball out of our area since buying the Orioles in 1993, old foes like Tom Landry and Calvin Griffith seem almost friendly.

Yet when Angelos indicated to the Associated Press last week that he was resigned to the Washington area getting a team, he sounded as if he were giving up the fight. Is this true, or is barrister Angelos merely up to another legal trick? Your guess is as valid as mine.

If we indeed are anointed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Angelos sell the Orioles faster than you could say now where did he go? Maybe Eli Jacobs, his New York-based predecessor as proprietor, would like to buy back the team. As presently constituted, the O’s look like rummage sale refugees anyway.

Meanwhile, those who still care can hope Lee Mazzilli turns out to be Earl Weaver II, Rick Bauer commences pitching like Jim Palmer and Miguel Tejada turns out to be Cal Junior Junior. Compared to these possibilities, that of the reborn Washington Nationals taking the field in 2005 seems virtually assured.

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