Awe-struck fans rolled with O's that fabled year

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 04, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The way everybody heard the story, John Schidlovsky was walking down this street in Beijing five years ago, wearing his Orioles baseball cap and assuming it meant nothing to anyone within a few thousand miles.

He didn't understand the magnitude of this thing that was happening back home.

Five years ago.

Do the numbers 0-and-21 ring a bell?

Schidlovsky was this newspaper's Beijing bureau chief back then. Beijing is a Chinese city 12,000 miles from Baltimore, and here was Schidlovsky walking down the street with his Orioles cap on his head and a ferocious sandstorm blowing all about him, when a motorist spotted his cap, rolled down his window, and shouted these words across the street.

"Oh and 14."

And then drove on.

Schidlovsky immediately understood. The whole wide world understood. And this thing that was happening, this losing streak that started on Opening Day five years ago and did not end through 21 straight games, was still another week from playing itself out.

With the Orioles opening their new season tomorrow, full of high hopes, it might be useful -- or, in any event, a relief to realize we survived it -- to relive a few of those moments from five years ago, unequaled in the entire history of the business of baseball.

Remember?

"Remember?" Orioles general manager Roland Hemond asked Friday. "Of course I remember. It was my first year here. I'd never seen anything like it in baseball. Nobody ever had, and I hope I never will."

The Orioles lost to Milwaukee on Opening Day, 12-to-0. When the streak went to six games, they fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. and hired Frank Robinson to take over. The losing went on. When it reached 11 straight, a radio disc jockey named Bob Rivers, angling for some easy publicity, vowed to stay on the air until the Orioles won. He figured, how long could it take?

Ten days later, there were doctors checking Rivers' blood pressure every hour, and florists sending him bouquets, and "Free Bob Rivers" T-shirts being worn around the city.

And the losing continued. When they lost their 15th straight, again to Milwaukee, Brewers' broadcaster Bob Uecker quipped, "When they finally win, they'll get a phone call from the president. Only it'll be the president of some other country."

A few days later, still winless, Robinson got a cheer-up call from Ronald Reagan. The club promptly went out and lost again. They gave up nine first-inning runs to Kansas City before getting a batter out.

Now the thing was taking on a life of its own. There were motorists traveling the streets with their lights on during daylight hours, in a show of support that looked eerily funereal. A local bookmaker, checking the odds, declared that somebody who'd bet $100 for the Orioles to lose on Opening Day, and then parlayed his winnings with each successive loss, would have been up $13 million by the middle of the streak.

And still it went on. A psychic healer in Glen Burnie blamed the whole thing on a kind of collective team guilt. In Emmitsburg, 20 nuns at Villa St. Michael said special prayers. Sister Mary Kevin Gallaghan sent the Orioles a letter, saying the nuns had seen many "new beginnings" in their years of service.

But no one had ever seen the likes of the Orioles five years ago.

And yet, there was also this: When they returned from a road trip, still winless, the town threw a parade for them, and then filled the ballpark, and finally, inevitably, the streak came to an end.

Nobody knew what to make of it while it was here, nor can quite evaluate it in retrospect. Here we were, a town accustomed to winning. A few years earlier, we'd been world champs. We'd spent decades cheering the Robinsons, and Boog and Blair and Palmer. This thing blindsided us.

And the mind does back flips, to an evening in the midst of the streak, where the former Orioles outfielder Ken Singleton stood nursing a beer at Wurlitzer's, the Hunt Valley dance club. The name of Earl Weaver, and the glory days, came up.

"Earl," Singleton remembered, "was never satisfied. We could be leading 12 to nothing, and he's in the dugout screaming, 'We need more runs. Can't anybody hit the damned baseball?' "

"In that case," Singleton was asked now, "how do you think Weaver would handle this streak?"

"Oh," Singleton said, without a hint of a smile, "Earl would be dead by now."

Point of Fact: The Streak is not known to have actually killed anyone. Nor even, after a while, depressed us. It was beyond depression. It was more like awe. Something like this only comes along once in a lifetime (everybody hopes) and all you can do is sit back and admire the damned thing.

And, five years later, be happy everybody survived it.

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