- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2003

As midnight loomed on April 29, 1988, a man playing hooky at a religious retreat in Leonardtown, Md., hunched over the radio in his immobile car. The signal from a Washington station kept fading a divine reminder perhaps that we should not mix divine and sporting matters? so he kept moving the car to hear the ballgame better.
Finally, the astonishing word came from old Comiskey Park that the Baltimore Orioles had defeated the properly embarrassed Chicago White Sox 9-0. I don't recall that broadcaster Jon Miller said, "O's win! O's win!" but he might have. No cry of relief at that moment could have been inappropriate.
O's win?
Holy mackerel!
The worst start in baseball history had taken a timeout. After losing their first 21 games, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles knew what it was to win. For one night, the Woes as media folks across the nation were calling them were on top of the world, if still at the bottom of the American League East standings.
But the victory did not exactly produce great joy. After Dave Schmidt retired Harold Baines on a grounder in the bottom of the ninth inning to preserve the victory for starter Mark Williamson (six innings, three hits), the Orioles merely shook hands on the field and walked quietly to their clubhouse.
"I'm not in a celebrating mood," said shortstop Cal Ripken over the end of the Orioles' most notable streak until he turned Lou Gehrig into a consecutive-games runner-up seven years later. "One-and-21? That's not a reason to be jumping around and celebrating."
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who had replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as manager six games into the streak, was similarly restrained as waves of reporters crowded into his office. "I feel good," he conceded. "I don't know how happy I am. We knew we'd win sometime, but we didn't think it would take 22 games. Now we can show what kind of club we have."
Well, yes. After that glorious first win, the Orioles went 53-86 for a 54-107 finish that left them 34 games behind AL East champion Boston and 23 behind sixth-place Cleveland.
And even on that bittersweet night in the city of big shoulders, harsh reality refused to vanish. Said one understandably anonymous Oriole: "We got a bunch of old guys who are over the hill … and a bunch of young guys who can't play baseball. We're trying. We just don't have any talent."
That was not strictly accurate. The Orioles still had Ripken and slugging first baseman Eddie Murray, who had carried them to a World Series triumph just five years earlier. True to form, the two stars joined Williamson, customarily a reliever, on the night of April29. Cal had four hits and scored three runs. Eddie got the O's started with a two-run homer in the first inning off White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell.
Even in lopsided victory, though, the Orioles experienced a fearful moment. During Baltimore's four-run seventh inning, a pitch by White Sox reliever John Davis hit second baseman Billy Ripken on the helmet. With brother Cal leaning over him, Billy lay motionless for several minutes before being carted off on a stretcher. He escaped with only a mild concussion.
By winning, the Orioles left undisturbed several longer losing streaks. The 1961 Phillies held the modern record of 23. Retreating to the game's dark ages, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders of the National League dropped 24 straight and the 1889 Louisville team of the then-major league American Association went belly-up 26 times in a row.
Baltimore also curtailed comparisons with the expansion New York Mets of 1962, whose 40-120 record caused manager Casey Stengel to inquire, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
After stumbling through spring training with a 9-19 record that must have seemed marvelous compared with what followed, the Orioles lost to Milwaukee 12-0 on Opening Day. When another defeat by the Brewers and four more by the Indians followed, owner Edward Bennett Williams dumped Cal Ripken Sr., a club employee for 33 years, and anointed the luckless Robinson as his successor.
Big deal. With F. Robby calling the shots, the Orioles lost six games each to Kansas City and Minnesota and three more to Cleveland as media vultures circled. The final loss to the Twins, 4-2 on April 28, made the record 0-21. At this point, ace Mike Boddicker was 0-5 and well-traveled Mike Morgan 0-4. Obviously, there was nothing to lose when Robinson handed Williamson the ball on April 29. And Williamson's sense of humor probably helped him survive the surreal situation.
"Everybody asked me about the pressure, but I really didn't feel any," he said afterward. "What was the pressure? The worst we could have done is lose one more."
Like the '62 Mets, the Orioles found inventive ways to lose. On Opening Day, a Milwaukee player stole home. When Murray turned to argue with an umpire in Game3, a run scored. Boddicker balked home two runs a day later. And outfielder Jeff "Hands of" Stone never saw a fly ball he couldn't muck up.
No observers had it tougher than Miller and Joe Angel, the team's groggy broadcasters. After each defeat, they were awakened early the next morning by radio personalties wanting an interview. Said Miller: "Joe and I have become curiosities, like Madame Tussaud's wax pieces."
On the day before the great breakthrough, Orioles general manager Roland Hemond thought he had found a way to bring the team good luck. He was dressed in the gray, champagne-soaked suit he had worn when his former team, the White Sox, won the 1983 AL West title. If the charm failed in Minnesota during loss No.21, it worked beautifully 24 hours later in Chicago. Ironically, the suit which had hung undisturbed and uncleaned in Comiskey Park for five years was sent to Hemond in Minnesota by sympathetic White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.
Gee, thanks, guys.
Despite the Orioles' dismal record, the season's other bright and shining moment awaited them three nights later at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. After losing the final two games in Chicago, the O's came home May 2 with a 1-23 record and were greeted by an unbelievable crowd of 50,402.
Against the Texas Rangers that night, the Orioles doubled their victory total by winning 9-4. That wasn't memorable. The cheering, weeping throng was and the fans got a big bonus in return for their loyalty.
Before the game, Gov. William Donald Schaefer went on the field to inform the crowd that the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority had agreed on a 15-year lease for a new ballpark to be built west of the Inner Harbor near the old Camden Yards train station. In their worst season since deserting St. Louis and moving to Baltimore in 1954, the Orioles were telling their fans they were here to stay. No longer would there be rumors that owner Williams, the big-shot Washington defense lawyer, planned to shift some or all of their games to RFK Stadium.
This was the last big night of 1988 for the Orioles and their collection of misfits. Unexpectedly, however, there were plenty more in '89, when a largely unchanged team (except for brilliant rookie closer Gregg Olson) inexplicably stayed in the AL East pennant race until the final weekend and finished 87-75. The mind-blowing improvement of 32 games seemed to prove that what goes down must come up, temporarily anyway.
Since then, the Orioles have careened up and down. They stunk in the early '90s, went to the AL Championship Series under Davey Johnson in 1996 and 1997, then turned bad again. Now they face a sixth straight losing season under an unpopular and autocratic owner, Peter Angelos, who reportedly wants to sell the club with attendance declining drastically and a rival team possible in the Washington area by next season.
One thing, at least, seems certain: The Orioles will never be any worse than on the night of April 29, 1988, when they struck a blow for downtrodden masses around the globe.


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