Forget about that snow lying all over the ground. I hear spring’s on the way, and the playing of baseball games. I hear this from the folks who run the Major League Baseball TV network, who telephoned here a few hours ago.
They want to talk about … 1988.
Some of us are still trying to forget that painful year, whose 30th anniversary the baseball network wishes to memorialize now by doing a whole show about that season’s Baltimore Orioles. They’re sending a crew down here in the next week or so to interview some of us who were around back then and wrote about it, and lived to tell the remarkable tale.
For those lucky enough to have forgotten, I leave you with a couple of numbers – zero and 21.
That’s how the Orioles of ’88 opened that season – 21 consecutive losses before they finally won. To say it was the worst opening record of any team in the entire history of Major League Baseball is to understate the sheer, bumbling, once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) tragicomedy of it all.
On Opening Day, they lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 12-0. When the losing streak went to six games, they fired their manager, Cal Ripken Sr. When they lost their 15th straight game, again to the Brewers, the broadcaster (and Milwaukee native) Bob Uecker cracked, “When [the Orioles] finally win, they’ll get a phone call from the president. Only it’ll be the president of some other country.”
A few days later, the president – the right one, Ronald Reagan – called to wish the O’s good luck as they took the field against the Kansas City Royals, who promptly scored nine first-inning runs before the Orioles recorded a single out. (Thanks Dutch)
In the midst of the losing streak, I bumped into the retired outfielder Ken Singleton. He’d played for the fiery manager Earl Weaver, back when the Orioles were the most consistent winners in baseball.
“How would Earl have handled this Orioles team?” I asked.
“Oh,” Singleton said, “Earl would be dead by now.”
By that time, we had a local disc jockey named Bob Rivers who vowed to stay on the air until the Orioles won. He figured, “How long could it last?” Before it was over, there were doctors checking Rivers’ blood pressure every hour and people wearing “Free Bob Rivers” T-shirts.
At first, nobody knew what to make of the losing streak. After all, these were the Orioles who’d once boasted of World Series championships, of Frank and Brooks, of Palmer and Boog, Cuellar and McNally. From 1965 to 1983, they had the most wins of any team in baseball.
The ’88 losing was depressing at first. But then, some other emotion kicked in. We realized we were witnessing something that had taken on a life of its own, something otherworldly, something no one else on the planet had ever seen – and so, rather than let it depress us, we could sit back, gaze upon the damned thing, and think of it as some curse cast by a vengeful god of baseball which would soon pass.
Of course, in the ensuing 30 years, we still haven’t found our way back to another World Series. When the TV people do their show, maybe they could keep mum about that little fact.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “The Colts’ Baltimore.” His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.