If history is an accurate barometer, the next two weeks will be the toughest of the year for the Orioles. No matter how long or short this season becomes, the games between now and the scheduled Aug. 12 strike date represent a stern test.
The only other time baseball had a prolonged in-season work stoppage, 1981, the Orioles did not respond during the two weeks leading up to the strike. Two members of that team, Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan, don't recall many of the details, only that the results weren't favorable.
"I only remember what went on during the strike, not before," said Palmer. "But there's no doubt it's a major distraction.
"I mean this [last night's first game against the Cleveland Indians] wasn't a walk in the park and Mike [Mussina] had other things to think about."
Palmer was referring to the fact that Mussina, a 7-2 loser to the Indians, is the Orioles' player representative and has been heavily involved in what has passed for negotiations thus far.
However, Mussina did not participate in yesterday afternoon's conference call. Jim Poole represented the Orioles in discussion about the strike date. Mussina wouldn't blame labor problems for last night's performance, but he admitted there was a degree of distraction.
"It's not just myself, the whole team's a little out of it right now," he said. "There's a lot of things flying around and a lot of guys are thinking about a lot of stuff."
It is a natural reaction. In 1981, the Orioles were in first place with a three-game lead and a 28-14 record on May 29. The strike was postponed for a week, which ultimately cost the Orioles a playoff spot, and they lost nine of the next 12 games to fall into second place, two games behind the New York Yankees.
"I remember that we seemed to go flat," said Flanagan. "We had some big games on the West Coast and didn't play very good."
The Orioles never recovered from that midseason slump and, after the 50-day strike, their play leveled off noticeably. Nobody will ever know how much effect, if any, the strike had -- but some individual performances dropped considerably and several players said they didn't expect the season to be resumed.
It is that same fear of the unknown that threatens the Orioles now. While everyone seems intent on securing a playoff spot before the strike hits, there are no guarantees. Of more importance, it would seem, is maintaining a contending position.
In 1981, a two-week lapse kept the Orioles out of the playoffs. But there won't be any split season this time. If there is to be a postseason, the teams will be determined by overall records and it will be a lot easier to make up one or two games than five or six.
Which is why the next two weeks will be the most important of the season -- if it can be salvaged.