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Baltimore's fascinating losers

AMERICANS love a winner, or so the saying goes. But sports fans in the United States also have a place in their hearts for a loser. Why else would so many people have been so fascinated by this year's Baltimore Orioles? Last week, the hapless Orioles completed a streak of 21 straight losses, an American League record. Only the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies had done better - or is it worse? Baltimore's proud ballplayers hadn't tasted victory since the first ball was tossed in. They'd glimpsed it a few times, but somehow the men always remained on second or third.

That all changed Friday when the Orioles steamed out of the doldrums with a 9-0 win over the Chicago White Sox. Still, baseball's pundits couldn't really fathom the team's losing ways. This isn't that bad a club, they'd say - nothing like the ragtag Mets of yore. Despite the big bats of Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Fred Lynn, the Orioles appeared to have a negative ``big mo.''

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Meanwhile, people who usually gave little thought to baseball until October were casting a glance toward Baltimore. How long will it last? they wondered. What must it feel like? Memories of lost high school baseball games, even of lost weekend tennis matches, returned. It takes determination, a kind of tight-faced optimism, to keep playing regardless. Empathy reached out to the Orioles.

As baseball analysts love to say, the percentages were with the team. But when that first victory came, statistics nuts everywhere - maybe even a couple in Baltimore - probably felt a twinge of disappointment. A streak of historic proportions, even in reverse, doesn't come every year. Whatever else happens during the long, hot summer season ahead, the Orioles have already put 1988 firmly in the record book.

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