The celebration was brief last night at Camden Yards, appreciative applause before the game for Cal Ripken, his 32nd birthday and, most significantly, the signing of his new contract.
Though the game took more than 3 1/2 hours to finish, it didn't take long for the cheers to turn into boos for Ripken and the Orioles during the course of an ugly, 5-2 loss to the California Angels.
The loss was the third straight and fifth in seven games on the current homestand for the Orioles, who managed to stay three games behind the equally stumbling Toronto Blue Jays and remained a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
"We're just not playing, we didn't do anything right," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "The other team did everything better than we did."
Fortunately for the Orioles, the other teams in contention in the American League East were just as bad last night. It was another evening of losing games, not ground.
In what is clearly not a division of power, the first-place Jays lost to the Chicago White Sox, 8-4, and the Brewers erased an early three-run deficit to take a three-run lead on the New York Yankees, only to lose, 9-8.
"They could have buried us by now, they could be seven games ahead," said Oates, whose team has lost seven of its past nine games but only dropped one game to Toronto. "We've got to say thank-you Toronto, and thank-you Milwaukee."
It was also the fourth straight defeat for rookie pitcher Arthur Rhodes (4-4), who continued to struggle after his impressive start. California knocked out Rhodes in the midst of a three-run fifth that gave the Angels a 4-1 lead.
Of the 116 pitches thrown by Rhodes, only 61 were for strikes. Alan Mills took over for Rhodes with one out and two runs already in, and could have escaped unscathed, but Ripken booted a potential double-play ball and the Angels pushed another run in on a sacrifice fly.
"We threw 196 pitches tonight, and 105 of them were out of the strike zone," Oates said. "You can't win doing that."
Ripken's boot of Gary Gaetti's routine grounder, his ninth error this season, didn't bring the boos from a crowd of 44,285 -- the 50th sellout of the season and the 42nd straight -- but his at-bat in the bottom of the
When Ripken grounded meekly to short to start a double play and end the inning, it marked the first time since the 1990 season that the Orioles' longtime, home-grown shortstop had been booed loudly at home.
Ripken heard a few more boos in his final at-bat, when he grounded out to finish the night 0-for-4. He is 7-for-51 in his past 13 games, and has watched his batting average drop to .245.
Asked about the boos, Ripken said: "I don't take anything personally. Booing is just a reaction to something that's not good."
California, the second-worst fielding team in the American League, made several sparkling defensive plays to hold that lead for starting pitcher Jim Abbott (6-12).
Back-to-back backhanded stops by third baseman Damion Easley and shortstop Gary DiSarcina, two of four rookies who started for the Angels last night, cut off a potential big inning for the Orioles after they tied the game at 1 in the fourth.
"I wish I could say I pitched great," said Abbott, who has gotten little support from his teammates for most of the season. "I was the beneficiary of great defense tonight. I just tried to throw strikes and hang on as long as I could."
Abbott, who took a five-hitter into the ninth, hung on until the Orioles brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth in Randy Milligan. Brady Anderson had singled in a run with two out to make it 5-2.
That's when Abbott came out and Joe Grahe came in. But after going 2-0 on Milligan, and with Mike Devereaux on deck, Grahe evened the count and induced Milligan into a long fly to center to end the game.
"We're struggling a little offensively," Anderson said. "Actually, we're struggling everywhere. Our defense and our pitching haven't been that great. We've definitely hit a lull."
But the Orioles are mindful of their good fortune.
"We're playing as bad as we can and we're still in it," Oates said. "Whoever gets hot is going to win it."