BALTIMORE—On Friday, the Orioles honored a team that didn’t win a division. In fact, the 1989 Orioles had only the fifth-best record of the 13 teams in the American League.
A year removed from the then worst record in franchise history, the Orioles of three decades ago contended with the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East title until the season’s penultimate day, but fell short.
That achievement, or perhaps overachievement, was why that team is so fondly remembered. The biggest star of that team, Cal Ripken Jr., remarked that gatherings like the team held on Friday had gotten him to change his feelings about reunions.
There weren’t many huge names on that team, but three of the team’s pitchers — Dave Johnson, Ben McDonald and Gregg Olson — have made names as Oriole broadcasters.
Others had the best year that season. Left-handed pitcher Jeff Ballard went 18-8 and won only 23 games in his other six big league season. Reliever Mark Williamson won 10 games and saved nine others, but his quiet effectiveness over an eight-year career was eclipsed by Olson, whose time with the team nearly paralleled.
Many of the 1989 Orioles had been with the team that set a baseball record for futility by starting the 1988 season 0-21 and finishing 54-107, the worst mark for an Orioles team until last season’s 47-115.
“Going into spring training, you looked at our team on paper, the thought was, ‘All right, how are we going to even play .500?’ Williamson said.
“We lost a game, and it was like, ‘Let’s come out tomorrow.’ Guys stepped up the entire year.”
Outfielder Phil Bradley, who was traded to the Orioles in December 1988, thought the Orioles were going to be dreadful.
“On paper, that was probably the worst team I ever played on,” Bradley said. “It turned out to be the best team I ever played with.”
Frank Robinson, who died in February, was the team’s manager. He had taken over as Orioles’ manager after Cal Ripken Sr. was fired following six losses to start 1988.
Robinson wasn’t always an easy man to play for, but he had some inexperienced players who didn’t put up big numbers, including outfielders Brady Anderson and Steve Finley, and pitchers Curt Schilling and McDonald.
“We had a lot of young guys who turned out to be very good players, but at the time they were just starting,” Bradley said.
Centerfielder Mike Devereaux became a regular for the first time in 1989. Devereaux was responsible for perhaps one of the signature moments in team history.
On July 15, 1989, Devereaux hit a long fly ball down the left-field line in the bottom of the ninth that was ruled a home run, and it won an 11-9 game for the Orioles.
Years before replay, Devereaux’s home run is fondly remembered in Baltimore, but the call so incensed California Angels manager Doug Rader that he was ejected from the next day’s game as lineup cards were exchanged.
“Still fair today,” Deveraux said, smiling. “That was a great moment. I was a rookie, and there’s nothing better than a walk-off home run.”
Some players had mixed feelings about Robinson, but as a young African-American player whose manager was the first black man to manage in the majors, the experience was unforgettable.
“He wanted you to do well,” Deveraux said. “It was definitely an honor to be able to play for him.”
Ripken played on a World Series championship team in 1983, and teams that made the postseason in 1996 and 1997, but he loved playing for the ‘Why Not?’ team.
“We all hung out. We liked each other,” Ripken said “And it was really great seeing a bunch of the guys back again, so I think I like reunions.”
Ripken and his brother Billy, who also was present for the celebration, lived through the firing of their father the year before. In some ways, 1989 was a time to forget that.
“The guys that experienced that had to become better teammates and support each other a little bit better,” Ripken said. “The expectations were kind of low in ’89, but we had a new influx of talent, some rabbits running around the outfield catching everything that was hit. We had some enthusiasm and hope with winning on Opening Day.”
By July 20, the Orioles led the American League East by 7 ½ games but didn’t play .500 ball for the rest of the season.
On September 29, they were in second place, trailing the Blue Jays by a game, and had a final three-game series in Toronto.
They lost Friday night, and Pete Harnisch, who was to start the next day, stepped on a nail and couldn’t start. Johnson stepped in, pitched valiantly, but for the second straight game, the Blue Jays won a one-run game with Williamson taking the loss.
“Very tough to get over,” Harnisch said. “But the way D.J. pitched when I couldn’t take the post was unbelievable.
“Baltimore took to us that entire year. To kind of let the community and the fans down … even though it was a magical ride, tough to get over.”