Calling the Pen: Eight hasn't been enough in Orioles' history - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Eight hasn’t been enough in Orioles’ history

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

Years ending in “8” for the Baltimore Orioles tend not to go all that well. Their aftershocks have fared better.

In 1968, the team underachieved enough for the front office to send manager Hank Bauer packing at the All-Star Break, two seasons removed from the 1966 World Series championship, and appoint an obscure, scrappy, occasionally vulgar first base coach named Earl Weaver to right the course. It seemed to work out well.

Before the 1978 season, Weaver’s longtime pitching coach George Bamberger had left for his first managerial opportunity in Milwaukee. And when esteemed pitching coach Ray Miller succeeded Bamberger, Oriole starters during the first week gave up what seemed like nine earned runs per game. These days you’d delight in a 90-win season like the ’78 Orioles put together. But between the champion Yankees and strong Red Sox and Brewers seasons, the Orioles finished fourth.

We all know what 1988 was about. More on that memory in a moment …

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Even 1998 and 2008 had their places in relative Orioles infamy. When I was reporting on the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, a Baltimore-Washington columnist I’ve long admired was rightfully saying during a media-center lull that the Orioles should be unstoppable. It looked that way, on paper. Offseason veteran acquisitions offered real promise that they’d push their way to a World Series after two straight American League Championship Series misses.

Things never came together. Some blamed the new manager, Ray Miller. Some blamed the owner, for the reality that Miller was manager in the first place. It was the first of 14 straight losing seasons that carried through 2008 (a blur), and beyond.

The recent run of non-waiver trade deadline deals for this year’s club, ending minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline on July 31, brings back memories of the ’88 season that started with the statistically near-impossible notion of 21 straight losses and 107 overall. I experienced it from the perspective of both a longtime fan and a quasi-regular young reporter with a daily newspaper in York, Pa., where fans have followed the Orioles closely since Brooks Robinson’s professional debut there in the early 1950s.

If it’s any consolation, you sense the region, its fan base, and the team have been down this road before. That’s true even if the all-out rebuild launch exceeded almost anyone’s expectations, especially those of Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop.

The city nurses its wounds again. Baltimore today continues to recover on multiple levels from the late-April 2015 Freddie Gray riots. The riots and their aftermath remain a significant socioeconomic and safety challenge for the region. The empty seats at Camden Yards speak in part to those concerns. There were plenty of empty seats when the 2016 team made the playoffs.

Remember, though, there were wounds in 1988, too. They were just different.

In ’88, the city’s psyche wasn’t far removed from pain, in the form of abandonment. The Baltimore Colts had left for Indianapolis in March 1984. Memorial Stadium, a great place to watch a ballgame if you were hearty and old-school — or a Colts game, if you had those same dispositions — was in decay and decline.

Boring, symmetrical, cookie-cutter stadiums were all over. What those stadiums lacked in charm they possessed in relative cleanliness. And spacious corporate skyboxes. Just about everyone feared the Orioles would leave the city for good.

With the Colts gone, nearly every move the Orioles made took on heightened importance. A trade for a utility infielder in the offseason could understandably be prominent on newspaper pages — Baltimore itself had two excellent dailies — and the sports radio talk shows.

In the winter of ’88, there was a glimmer of hope the NFL would return when then-St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill was moving the team and visited Baltimore to consider relocating here. Maybe 10 people today still have one of those white “Baltimore Cardinals” sweatshirts tucked away somewhere. Alas, the Bidwill family settled on Phoenix (and not the Baltimore County suburb), consistent with a strong NFL tilt that ultimately steered its early 1990s expansion process to Sun Belt or revived-South locales.

The 1988 losses weren’t just in sports economics or on the Memorial Stadium diamond. One vivid memory was the powerful pregame tribute to longtime trainer Ralph Salvon, who in early July died suddenly at age 60 of complications from heart bypass surgery. Later, owner Edward Bennett Williams died. His death came roughly three months after May’s reassuring announcement that a new baseball-only stadium at Camden Yards would open in time for the 1992 season.

The town’s collective fuzzy memory could have a field day, should a radio host one night this winter raise the question of which felt more barren — the waning baseball months of 1988 or 2018.

Of course, two months remain before all the evidence is in. Again, there are similarities. The ’88 Orioles had drafted reliever Gregg Olson, traded Mike Boddicker to Boston for Brady Anderson and a right-handed pitcher with some upside, Curt Schilling. Some observers dismissed the Orioles’ return for Fred Lynn in a deal with Detroit. But of the three prospects acquired, catcher Chris Hoiles had a longtime impact. Eddie Murray’s status was essentially akin to the Manny Machado-trade-in-waiting. Both times, the Dodgers were dancing partners.

The ’88 club played close to .500 baseball that August. The gleam in manager Frank Robinson’s eye at the time was more about Frank’s great sense of humor, his sense of having seen it all despite a number of active baseball years ahead of him. Odds are the gleam in Frank’s eye was not that he knew Steve Finley would “pop” out of 1989 spring training as a Class A prospect ready to shine on the big-league level. Or that a group of swifter, younger fielders in ’89 would seemingly catch every ball in sight on the team’s way to surprising everyone with arguably the most enjoyable non-championship season here since the 1960s.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing to have a major league team around that frustrates, inspires, brings us down, lifts us up. It’s a bumpy ride sometimes. Like the ’88 Orioles, the 2018 Orioles reached a point where — as a whole– players of great talent and pedigree no longer had much to offer.

The sum was worse than its parts. The product wasn’t just bad. It was boring.

The losses will mount in the short term. Most likely, the changes will make the Orioles more entertaining. Odds are, it won’t take them 14 straight years to get back to winning.

Mike Lurie was a sports reporter for 17 years, starting as part of the production team when Home Team Sports launched Orioles coverage in 1984 and through print reporting jobs with York (Orioles), New Haven (Conn.) Register (Yankees/Mets and Yale University athletics) and CBS Sports.com (NFL, MLB, pro tennis), and has been contributing occasional radio pieces for National Public Radio affiliates in Maryland since 2004. On a full-time basis, he serves as press spokesman on academic and administrative issues for the University System of Maryland.

Editor’s Note: As sports editor of The Evening Sun, I attended the April 4, 1988 opener on crutches after spraining my ankle. As awkward as I felt, the Orioles looked even more uncomfortable, losing to the Milwaukee Brewers, 12-0. The ankle was much better on April 29, when the Orioles won their first game after 21 consecutive losses. After the first six losses, the Orioles fired Cal Ripken Sr. as manager and replaced him with Frank Robinson. The surprising move was announced at an afternoon news conference by general manager Roland Hemond. I remember working with our beat writer, Ken Rosenthal, late into the night on that story. “All I remember about the firing of Senior is getting off a plane at BWI and jumping on a pay phone,” said Ken, now a senior writer for The Athletic. “Either you guys at the office or the Orioles told me what was going on, I can’t exactly remember. The late nights all sort of run together, as you know!”

Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.

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