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1989 Orioles Proved Quick Turnaround Is Possible

December 27, 2018
"Why not?"

That was the slogan of the 1989 Baltimore Orioles. 

In 1988, the club endured the infamous 0-21 start en route to a 54-107 finish. 

The next season, though, the resurgent Orioles, consisting mainly of the same players, were in the playoff hunt until the final weekend series, finishing at 87-75. 

So, as the 2019 Orioles look to rebound from 115 losses -- the worst performance in franchise history -- the precedent of a quick turnaround offers some hope.

Billy Ripken was a second baseman on those late 1980s squads. While he cannot pinpoint a specific formula for the success in 1989, he remembers the Orioles played exceptional defense and managed to win the majority of their series. 

"Things started going our way early," he said. "I remember winning a series and going, 'This is pretty cool.' And then we won another one, and I said again, 'This is pretty cool.' I don't think we put together an unbelievably long winning streak. But we won series after series after series and that compiled us into a pretty good spot."

The Orioles' longest winning streak in 1989 was eight games from May 29-June 5. Baltimore had a corresponding losing streak of eight games from July 19-27.

Ripken said there was no hangover following the 100-plus losses the previous year. The players didn't give much thought to those struggles.  

"I don't remember going into spring training and saying woe is us," Ripken said. "We went into spring training with a clean slate. Everybody welcomed that."

On July 18, 1989, the Orioles beat the Mariners, 4-3, improving to 53-38 and moving the club to 7.5 games atop the American League East. From there, Baltimore hit a skid and lost 13 of the next 14 games.

A turning point came during a game against the Red Sox Aug. 2. Ripken remembers his father and third base coach, Cal Ripken Sr., imploring the players to get back into a groove. The Orioles heeded his advice and rallied from a six-run deficit to earn a 9-8 victory.  

"I remember [my father] had some pretty choice words for the dugout," Ripken said. "He said, 'Kick yourselves in the ass and do something about this.' Everybody kind of looked at each other and we came back to win."

With the win, Baltimore improved to 55-51 and remained in first place by two games. A potential spot in the postseason came down to the final series of the year in Toronto against the Blue Jays. The winner of that three-game set would take the American League East.

In the first game, a single by outfielder Lloyd Moseby with two outs in the ninth gave the Blue Jays a 2-1 victory. The following day, Toronto scored three runs in the eighth inning to earn a 4-3 win and clinch a spot in the postseason. 

"Damn it!" Ripken exclaimed when reminded of those outcomes. "We pretty much had everything there. When I look back at that squad heading into that final series, I don't think any of us really thought that we measured up to Toronto's talent on paper. But we thought we were pretty good and had a chance to go up to Toronto and win. Things could have been different if we held those leads late in the game." 

The Orioles won the finale, 7-5. Baltimore also won the season series against the Blue Jays (7-6) and Yankees (8-5), but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs. 

Designated hitter Larry Sheets was also a member of the 1988 and 1989 teams. He said the problems for the 1988 squad were compounded when Cal Ripken Sr. was fired as manager after six games.

"We never, ever lose 21 games in a row if they don't fire Cal Sr.," Sheets said. "If Cal Sr. was the manager, we lose six or seven in a row, but we get on track. I mean we weren't great, but we weren't 0-21. It just disrupted everything. Everybody loved Cal Sr., and we would have been fine. It was just overwhelming to a lot of us that Cal Sr. would be let go." 

In 1989, the Orioles got a boost from several pitchers who took another big step in their development. For example, lefty Jeff Ballard went 18-8 and right-hander Gregg Olson finished with 27 saves. 

"That's typically the way it works. You need pitching to win baseball games," Sheets said. 

Right-hander Dave Johnson was also a key contributor for the 1989 squad after he was promoted from Triple-A Rochester. He was thrown into the middle of that pennant race as a starting pitcher. Johnson had spent the prior year in the Houston Astros organization, so he did not know too much about the struggles of the 1988 Orioles. 

"Man, I'm with my hometown team, I'm in the big leagues and I am doing everything I can to prove I belong here," Johnson remembered saying to himself. "I knew one bad game and I could be back down in Triple-A. My head was basically spinning." 

Johnson caught a flight to Boston to make his first start with the club Aug. 1. The cab driver got lost trying to find Fenway Park. 

"How in the hell do I get the one cab driver in Boston that can't find Fenway Park?" Johnson said. 

Johnson still managed to pitch the second game of a doubleheader and allowed five runs and eight hits in 6.2 innings during the Orioles' 6-2 loss.

During the final series against the Blue Jays, Johnson was forced into action when Pete Harnisch could not start the second game of the series because he stepped on a nail going back to the team hotel. Johnson took Harnisch's spot and allowed just two runs and two hits during seven innings on three days rest. Right-hander Mark Williamson took the loss after allowing a pair of hits and a sacrifice fly in the eighth. 

"I didn't know if we were in first place or last place," said Johnson, who finished the season 4-7 with a 4.23 ERA with 26 strikeouts during 14 starts (89.1 innings). "It didn't matter to me. I was fighting for my baseball life. It was just crazy. I remember sitting in the dugout in Texas that year and we were scoreboard watching. It was the only time I remember doing that. It seems like every time we won, Toronto won. We just couldn't get that game or two ahead for that final weekend. In the end, we came up a little bit short. "

The economics of baseball are much different today than in the late 1980s. Teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have the revenue to reload each season to stay atop the standings. The Orioles, however, own the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft, so they can at least begin to acquire the necessary players to become a future contender.  

"The competition level is different," Johnson said. "You're talking about two really good teams in the Yankees and Red Sox inside the division. The Rays have a pretty good pitching staff. The good thing is the Orioles have said what they're going to do and it's not going to be a patchwork thing. Rebuilds don't have to be three to five years, but you have to get lucky."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles

Issue 249: November 2018 

Originally published Nov. 15, 2018