Opening Day is a given. It’s the official holiday of hope, when baseball’s anything-can-happen ethos is at its strongest. Absolutely nothing has happened. Of course anything can happen. Literally anything. Sure, when you put it like that. Opening Day, baby.
There’s less written about opening week. There’s nothing about opening fortnight, or opening month. It’s still an absolute right, though. April is when no problem is too great, when no obstacle is too daunting. It’s the first month of the season, after all.
The Baltimore Orioles opened their 1988 season by getting thumped by the Brewers, 12-0, in front of the largest regular-season crowd in team history, and it made for a disappointing Opening Day. But opening week was still very much underway. Opening month had just started. And there was still room for the gloriously irrational optimism that fans squirrel away all winter.
“They’re going to be in there all year. They may not be first, but they’re not going to be at the bottom. No way,” one fan told the Baltimore Sun after the loss.
“If they can finish .500, that will be respectable. If Eddie and Cal can produce, that’ll be good,” said another.
There were boos toward the end of Opening Day, but that was lingering resentment from the previous season. There wasn’t despair. Not yet.
Opening Day wasn’t ruined when the 1988 Orioles lost, a loss that began their 21-game losing streak. The larger crime was committed against opening week, opening fortnight, and the entire opening month of April. The Orioles opened the season by setting an awful record that was so unbreakable, the universe rewarded them with a much better unbreakable record just a few years later.
We don’t remember the ‘88 Orioles for the second-longest losing streak in major-league history, and we don’t remember them for the longest losing streak in American League history. We remember them for just how thoroughly they crushed the suspension of disbelief that fans are owed every year. We remember that this was a losing streak that started a season.
The 1988 Orioles started their season by losing 21 games in a row. They won their first game of the season 30 years ago today, which is nearly impossible to fathom. Only one team has stepped on as many rakes in a major league season.
No team will ever step on as many rakes to begin a season again.
There were early warning signs that the 1988 Orioles might have been born under a bad sign.
The Orioles’ basketball team opened a 20-game schedule that will run until a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Among those expected to play on a regular basis are Cal Ripken Jr., Bill Ripken, Larry Sheets, Ken Gerhart, Mike Boddicker, Jim Traber, and coach Terry Crowley.
— The Sporting News, 1/11/88
Hmm, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to have a semi-official Orioles basketball team that plays 20 games right before spring training.
Ken Gerhart’s projected move from left to center in the Baltimore Orioles’ outfield was delayed by an ankle injury he suffered while playing basketball in the off-season.
— The Sporting News, 3/21/88
See, this is just what I was talking about, and ...
Because of a clerical error, Orioles outfielder Ken Gerhart inadvertently was placed on the 21-day disabled list by the Orioles — not the 15-day list — and is not eligible to be activated until Saturday instead of today.
— Baltimore Sun, 4/10/88
After the second loss of the season — a calm, reasonable 3-1 loss to the Brewers — reliever Tom Niedenfuer said, “We need a good start so we don’t get buried.” This was both reasonable at the time and hilarious in retrospect.
The third straight loss to open the season was another close game, and Orioles players were still capable of feeling a sense of indignation. After getting shut out and held to one run over their first 27 innings, outfielder Larry Sheets told an assembled pack of reporters, “Somebody is going to pay for this. Someone is going to get shellacked. I don’t know where or when, but it’s going to happen — preferably tomorrow.”
He wasn’t wrong, but it sure didn’t happen in the next game, which was a blowout. Tim Kurkjian’s lede for the Baltimore Sun the next morning was crushing:
And you thought Opening Day was bad.
The headline was ominous:
Orioles plunge to new depths in 12-1 defeat
The previous Orioles record for a losing streak to start a season was five games. Soon they were at six. This wasn’t just a bad start. This was a record-setting bad start.
It just wasn’t that strange yet. Not in baseball terms.
With another team, it might have been hard to pinpoint where the tipping point was from strange to surreal. With the 1988 Orioles, it’s pretty easy: It was when the team fired the manager, who was also the father of their superstar shortstop and starting second baseman, after six games. Of all the awkward, preventable situations, that seems like the most awkward and preventable.
To be fair, there were on-field questions about Ripken, Sr. After the team mowed down by future all-star lefty Greg Swindell, it was certainly noticeable that more than half of the O’s lineup was left-handed, especially toward the bottom of the order, where you would think more of the replaceable players would have been.
There were also extenuating circumstances. Ripken, Sr. had been arrested in February for driving under the influence of alcohol, and he pled guilty a few hours before being fired. It’s hard to know just how much that incident played into it.
Still, it’s always, always, always weird when an awful team fires its manager after a week of being awful. Nobody was projecting the Orioles to win the AL East, and nobody was projecting them to get close. To fire a manager after six games — a manager who had been with the organization since 1957 and happened to be the father of the best player in franchise history — was bizarre at the time and just as bizarre in retrospect. What was different in April 1988 that wasn’t true in November 1987? Why upend the leadership after a week instead of at any point during the offseason, when there would have been time to prepare?
Let’s just assume there had to be a reason.
Which is placing a lot of trust in the team that screwed up their DL paperwork and eventually lost 21 straight games.
Whatever the reason, suddenly you had a shellshocked team that felt responsible for a baseball lifer getting fired. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson moved from the front office to the open managerial spot, and his reputation was as a no-nonsense manager, to the point where the Giants once based an ad campaign around it. But for the ‘88 Orioles, he decided to be jocular and jovial. He was going to joke with the reporters before the game, and he was going to take the heat after the game. It was a sound strategy with a team in a losing streak.
But they kept losing.
By the time the Orioles were 0-10, reporters fanned out for different angles on the same story that every baseball writer in America started covering. Someone got in touch with former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who wasn’t keen on inserting himself in the conversation. It would have been a bad look to start giving advice from a 1,000 miles away, and he knew it. But after some badgering, he said, “You know what I did to end a losing streak? I gave the ball to Dave McNally and said, ‘Pitch a shutout.’”
That same night, Mike Morgan pitched nine shutout innings for the Orioles.
They still couldn’t win. The Orioles were 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and they lost 1-0 in 11 innings.
This is the kind of wholesale collapse that is needed to lose 11 games in a row. It can’t be one player struggling. It has to be the entire team. It has to be a Powerball-level flukishness across the whole roster. Now the record for the all-time worst start was looming. The previous record for losses to open a season was 13, and it was shared by the 1904 Washington Senators and 1920 Detroit Tigers.
It had been 68 years since another team had a start to the season this futile. The Orioles had a new manager and a bad team, but it was really hard to lose 13 games in a row to start the season.
They were probably fine.
A bizarre incident happened in the parking lot at Memorial Stadium last night. Someone left a dog in his car. The dog jumped around, putting the car in gear. It rolled into two other cars, causing major damage.
— Baltimore Sun, 4/13/88
While the Orioles’ streak was going on, the Atlanta Braves had also lost their first nine games. Orioles play-by-play announcer Jon Miller was given a respite from calling all the losses, and he was sent by NBC to call the back end of a Game of the Week doubleheader ... between the Braves and Dodgers.
As Braves manager Chuck Tanner saw Miller walking on the field, he muttered, “We’ve had the famine ... now here comes the pestilence.” There it was, the reason all these teams kept losing. It was the announcer, right? He’d brought his pestilence all the way from Baltimore.
The Braves lost that night, their 10th in a row.
The Braves won the next night, though, because, seriously, it’s incredibly hard for even the worst team in history to lose 11 games in a row. It’s not just an announcer with a pretend dark cloud following him. It’s just so difficult.
It’s inconceivably difficult to lose 11 games in a row. For any team, no matter how bad they are.
It’s just so incredibly difficult.
Last night, moments after the Orioles had lost their ninth straight game, 4-3, to the Royals, general manager Roland Hemond, farm director Doug Melvin, and seven others were trapped in an elevator at Memorial Stadium for 73 minutes.
The Orioles had planned to make a roster move after last night’s game, but it had to be delayed until today because Hemond was trapped.
— Baltimore Sun, 4/15/88
Here’s how difficult it is to lose 11 games in a row: The 2003 Tigers were the worst team of our current century. They lost 119 games, which translated to a .265 winning percentage. If you assume that the other team had a 73.5-percent chance of winning every game, that still meant the Tigers had just a three-percent chance of a losing streak that lasted as long as 11 games.
To get a losing streak as long as 11 games, a bad team needs freakishness. It needs something approaching a curse. It needs two inner-circle Hall of Famers both slumping worse than they ever had. Twelve games into the season, Cal Ripken was hitting .047, and Nolan Ryan had driven in more runs. Eddie Murray was hitting below .200 until the 20th game of the season.
A cursed team needs something out of your control. 1988 was the year of the balk, when the umpires were supposed to follow the letter of the law instead of the spirit. Mike Boddicker was a fine pitcher who finished the season with a 3.39 ERA in 35 starts, and in the ninth game of the season, he threw a complete game with 10 strikeouts. But he balked in the first run of the game, and he balked a runner to second that eventually scored the second run of the game on a sac fly. The Orioles lost to the Royals, 4-3.
A cursed team needs balls lost in the lights. In that game, it took an error to set up that sac fly, and it took another error in the ninth to get the Royals their fourth run.
A cursed team needs to start gripping their bats a little too tightly. The Orioles had 177 plate appearances with runners in scoring position in April 1988. There were just 33 runs scored in those plate appearances, and none of them led to a win. Just look at their futility with runners in scoring position in high-leverage situations. The one time they did score a run in one of those situations, it was at the very end of the month, and the game ended in the next at-bat.
The Orioles weren’t literally cursed, but to lose 11 games in a row, they needed to do more than play horribly. They needed a monkey to bite them right on the spine and hang around for a couple weeks.
There’s no way the monkey had enough stamina to hang around longer than that.
“First, to answer your questions ... I don’t know.”
Frank Robinson, after the Orioles’ 12th loss.
Those screw-ups up mentioned above were plays on the field. Swings and misses, baseballs falling between two outfielders. We can understand those moments. But eventually the luck has to turn for a team. Sometimes it will be the other team that loses a ball in the lights.
It was different for the ‘88 Orioles, though. Their opponent never seemed to swallow their keys. The Orioles’ broken-bat hits never fell, and the line drives were always caught.
For the 13th game of the season, the national media started pouring in. CNN was there, and so was the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Billy Ripken said, “I want to win this game so I can see all the disappointed faces.” Orioles catcher Terry Kennedy complained that he couldn’t even find his way to the shower because of all the media, and Ripken retorted, “Anyone got a no-pest strip?”
After every loss, the same unfamiliar reporters are in the locker room, asking 25 lost souls for details about the road map they’d collectively swallowed a week ago. Picture a team filled with players thinking, “try not to suck try not to suck try not to suck,” who, after they suck, are asked, “So, what’s the deal with you sucking?” by reporters who were flown in to report on them sucking.
There has to be science behind that kind of pressure, even if we can’t quantify it just yet. This pressure would build and repeat every day, with every loss.
After the 14th loss, Kennedy told beat writers that “In 30 years or so, some team will be creeping up on 12 or 13 losses in a row. And by that point, we’ll be laughing. But we can’t laugh now. This is definitely a downer. One day we’ll win.”
Thirty years later, no team has come close to the Orioles’ record. The 1997 Cubs lost 14, and maybe if the Orioles hadn’t been so unlucky, Kennedy would have been there to laugh. As is, the national media wasn’t going to sniff around the Cubs until the 18th loss or so.
Thanks to the 1988 Orioles, no one will pay too much attention to a team that starts their season with 10 straight losses again. One of the reasons this record is so unbreakable is even if another team loses 15 straight, they won’t have a clubhouse filled with ambulance chasers looking for a story. Those questions will come from familiar beat writers, not people with a big-picture story to sell to a national audience that needs to be told why it should care.
Without that feeling of the garbage compactor slowly crushing them, the odds go down that there will be another team that approaches what the Orioles accomplished. By the 16th loss, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun used the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the ‘88 Orioles, which is never a good sign, so it’s not like it would be entirely pressure-free. But if the national guys can stay away for as long as possible, the pressure will always pale in comparison.
In 17th game of the season, with the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Royals outfielder Bo Jackson hit a routine fly ball to left ... that the wind kept blowing and blowing and blowing, until Fred Lynn smashed against the Royals Stadium wall, and Jackson raced around to third. After an intentional walk, the next pitch was driven into center field to end the game.
The Orioles were 0-17. They would lose the next game and the next game.
Imagine finding this in your mailbox and strolling to the ballpark later that afternoon:
Perhaps you’re gripping the bat a little tighter in your next at-bat, too.
Perhaps all you’re thinking about is not screwing up.
Which, just possibly, makes you screw up even more.
At some point in 1988, Billy Ripken posed for the “Fuck Face card,” and I’d like to think it was earlier in the season, during this streak.
It was probably later, though, when the team was a little freer, a little sillier, and a little more comfortable in their own skin. You don’t get curse words on bats during a 21-game losing streak, see.
Which is proof that losing streaks are bad.
Let’s take a quick break to appreciate just how great Tim Kurkjian was at covering the Orioles beat for the Baltimore Sun. Here’s what he wrote after their 19th game:
MINNEAPOLIS — Fred Lynn hit leadoff last night.
“What the hell,” manager Frank Robinson said before the game.
Lynn hit a leadoff home run. The Orioles still lost.
A salesman from Chicago named “Traveling Mike” called (manager Frank) Robinson in the Orioles’ clubhouse before yesterday’s game. The conversation went like this: “Frank, this is Traveling Mike. The Orioles have lost 19 games in a row.”
— Baltimore Sun, 4/28/88
The first recorded attempt to break the slump through superstition came after the 10th straight loss. Mustachioed outfielder Larry Sheets — who had been a mustachioed outfielder for over a decade — decided that his mustache was filled with loss resin. Get rid of the mustache, and you get rid of the loss resin.
It was a glorious mustache, of course.
Yet it had to go. Gone. The mustache was sacrificed to the baseball gods, who were horrified to find Larry Sheets’ mustache floating in their soup. This affront made them extend the Orioles’ losing streak by another 11 games.
But Sheets couldn’t have known. He was trying.
At this point, grown adults both inside and outside of the clubhouse are deciding to wear dirty underwear on consecutive days. Around that 10th loss, a Baltimore-area DJ told fans to drive around with their headlights on to show their support for the Orioles. It was the least they could do, right?
Except there was almost certainly at least one fan who drove around with their headlights on, forgot, and came out to a dead battery. Now your car won’t move, your undies are filthy, and your baseball team is unfathomably shitty. Good job. Idiot. There had to be at least five of those fans, actually.
It was that same DJ, though, who tapped into something while searching for free publicity. Bob Rivers of WIYY decided to stay on the air until the Orioles won a game, starting after the 11th-straight loss. He would sleep in the studio for a couple hours at a time, but other than that, he was tethered to the success of the 1988 Orioles. The previous record for losses to start a season was just 13 games, so what was the risk?
The risk was 258 hours in a cube, which isn’t ideal.
But he stuck with it. Along the way, Rivers interviewed the Amazing Kreskin, who asked for Baltimore-area listeners to send “collective positive thoughts.” It didn’t work. Rivers became a regular correspondent for the Arsenio Hall Show during the streak. At the start of one appearance, there was a newspaper covering the camera, leading to confusion from both the host and audience. It was pulled away to reveal Rivers with a noose around his neck after yet another Orioles’ loss, to tremendous applause and laughter. It was literal gallows humor for a national audience. Every day, Rivers went on and begged for the Orioles to win. Every day, he was disappointed.
Around this time, GM Roland Hemond was wearing a champagne-soaked suit from his days with the White Sox, dry-cleaned and sent to him by Jerry Reinsdorf — until the Orioles won.
Ken Gerhart decorated his locker with roses, calling it the “Garden of Eden.”
“They smell like a victory,” he said.
They ... didn’t smell like a victory. Nothing worked. President Ronald Reagan called and asked Robinson to win one for the Gipper. Nope. More appearances from DJ Rivers on the Arsenio Hall Show. Nope. The sports segments of local newscasts from Portland to Portland were leading with the Orioles losing, and no amount of shaved ‘staches, unwashed undies, roses, headlights, or DJ prayers could help them win.
And then one day, it stopped.
The Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox, 9-0. They scored more runs than the other team. Imagine that.
The only thing you need to know about the end of the Orioles’ losing streak is that there wasn’t a celebration. There wasn’t a dogpile on the middle of the middle of the mound after they won, moving their record to 1-21. There was just a ... heck, nobody knows what it was, and hopefully, they won’t need to know again.
Former Orioles play-by-play announcer Jon Miller compared the feeling in a recent interview to the survivors of the RMS Titanic.
There were the survivors being taken out of the lifeboats, on to the Carpathia, the ship that came to rescue them. They were distressed, and they were not thrilled, perhaps, about being saved, even. They were just survivors.
‘’I’m not in a celebrating-type mood,’’ Cal Ripken, Jr. said.
’I don’t know how happy I am,’’ said Robinson.
Before the Orioles’ first win of the season, Miller was in the middle of a media scrum around the manager, who guaranteed a win that night. Robinson turned to him and asked what the call was going to be when the Orioles won. Miller deadpanned ...
‘’There’s a pop-up ... Ripken’s under it, and he makes the catch. The Orioles have taken the first of the three-game series. We’ll be back with the wrap-up in a minute.’’
After the gag, though, he offered that he wanted to pay homage to Russ Hodges and The Shot Heard ‘Round the World by shouting, “The Orioles have broken the losing streak! The Orioles have broken the losing streak! The Orioles have broken the losing streak! harrraarrrrrrssshhhczxhhhhh [extended crowd noise] harrrscchchhhhhshhhhhh They’re going crazy, they’re going crazy!”
Robinson laughed. He liked that idea.
Two down in the ninth inning. The Orioles with a lead this late for the first time this year. Here’s the stretch, the 1-1 pitch: Ground ball to second. Over to his right, fielding it, Stanicek. Plenty of time, and he throws him out.
The Orioles have won it, and many in the crowd at Chicago applaud their efforts. And the Orioles now, many coming out of the dugout to form a line of congratulations for the first time in 1988.
The Orioles won, 9-0, and it was never in doubt. Except it was the whole time. The Orioles scored two in the first, one in the fifth, and four in the seventh, but nobody in the dugout felt comfortable. I’m guessing every member of the Orioles organization is at home, right now, still not feeling comfortable about that win.
In the seventh inning of the game, Billy Ripken was beaned in the helmet and left on a stretcher. X-rays were negative and he was back in the lineup two days later, but it was still an incredibly Orioles’ moment. Even in the moment of their relative triumph, there was someone leaving on a stretcher. It was more likely that someone in the dugout would eat an entire champagne bottle than take a sip.
The Orioles were 1-21. Finally, they were 1 (win) and 21 (not-wins). It’s all they had ever wanted.
They lost the next day.
In the middle of the losing streak, around game 11 or 17 or 20, or, heck, it doesn’t matter, Bob Rivers kept hearing the same thing, over and over again. It went something like this: We need to let these Orioles know we support them.
Remember, this is a fan base that had watched its NFL team move to Indianapolis just five years before. More than that, the Orioles’ lease was up for Memorial Stadium, and there were whispers. Tampa. Phoenix. Miami. Washington. It was almost selfish for the fans to suggest that they were OK with the abject sucking. They wanted more chances to be OK with it.
So Rivers suggested a night to support the Orioles. It became known as a “Fantastic Fans Night,” and the team eventually got involved, but it was a grassroots effort at first. It was nothing but Orioles fans determined to be proud that they were Orioles fans. They’d had enough of the national pokes and jabs.
Fans are encouraged to wear orange. Memorial Stadium will be decorated. There will be marching bands and a magician.
— Baltimore Sun, 4/23/88
I mean, hell yeah, let it all hang out. It was a celebration of suck, which is by default a celebration of the idea that things will get better. Even though the Orioles were 1-23, the stands were packed for first pitch. Jon Miller described it as “the most exciting game (he’d) ever broadcast,” which doesn’t seem like hyperbole he dishes out regularly.
The fans were there to tell the Orioles they still loved them and were behind them, but they were going to do everything in their power to help them win.
Before the game started, the governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer, announced a stadium agreement had been reached, which would keep the Orioles in Baltimore for at least 15 years. The owner, Edward Bennett Williams, was terminally ill, and the expectation was he would leave the franchise for his heirs to sell. Instead, there was a dramatic announcement that the team would stay in Baltimore, which meant work on a new, modern ballpark would continue in earnest.
Out of the ashes, there was a sprout.
Also, Morganna the Kissing Bandit jumped out of the stands and kissed Cal Ripken in the first inning of this game, and I have nowhere else to put this, so please note that it’s just as beautiful as the Orioles staying put.
The Orioles had two inner-circle Hall of Famers, players who can define a franchise for a century. They had power up and down the lineup, and they had a pitching staff with at least a little experience. They were not a good team. But they probably weren’t the worst team. Maybe they were the worst team of 1988, sure, but they weren’t the worst team ever.
And they knew it, which was the worst part. They were a garden-variety bad team that was sucked into a whirlpool that was narrated by Rod Serling. There were balls lost in the lights, balks, Hall of Famers who forgot how to baseball, blown saves, wind-aided triples, and general malaise. There was a national horde that descended upon the roster and made everything worse, even as they were just trying to understand.
The bad news is that 30 years later, we still don’t understand. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. The Orioles lost a bunch. There were no oases. It will never happen quite like this again.
The beginning of the season is when teams can at least pretend to hope. The 1988 Orioles sure fixed that.
Thirty years later, as someone who wasn’t emotionally invested in them, goodness, am I impressed with just how profoundly they fixed that. Murphy’s Law was a team in Baltimore, except even after all that, they scored a beautiful, iconic ballpark to enjoy this horrid, beautiful sport indefinitely. They lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost and lost again, but the baseball endured. It’s still enduring now, for better and for worse,
When the ‘88 Orioles were on fire, writhing in a puddle of kerosene, that wasn’t a given. But it’s enduring. And no matter how many they’ll lose in the seasons ahead, they’ll never lose that many again.
Because no one will.
“Some fan asked me if he could throw a beer on me,” (GM Roland) Hemond said, smiling. “I said, ‘Ah, go ahead.’”
— Baltimore Sun, 4/30/88, after the Orioles won their first game of the season