0-and-21: Five Years Later

April 18, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

The end. Chicago's old Comiskey Park on a chilly evening, April 29, 1988.

Fourteen thousand fifty-nine fans in the stands. Hundreds of reporters filling the press box and taking up nearly every inch of space in the cramped, dimly lit visitors clubhouse.

Local. Network. Americans. Japanese.

Japanese?

The story is big.

For nearly a month, the Orioles have riveted the nation and a good chunk of the world that pays attention to sports. Oh-and-21. A national joke of the American pastime.

The players are sullen, humiliated.

And then, normalcy. The Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox, 9-0. Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray hit home runs. Mark Williamson, a second-year pitcher, wins. Baseball's official traveling circus closes with a whimper.

"Maybe we won't be a household name anymore," Williamson says.

Bottles of champagne are set in ice. The interviews drone on. When the clubhouse clears, the bottles remain, unopened, untouched.

4 The moral is this: Losers don't drink champagne.

The 0-21 Baltimore Orioles.

They were the clowns of baseball, symbols of athletic futility. No baseball team ever had begun a season with so many losses.

Everyone wanted a piece of this strange bit of history.

Everyone but the Orioles.

"Five years? That's all?" said Fred Lynn, the center fielder.

Yeah. Five years.

The Streak is a line of demarcation in the franchise's history. All that happened before is one era. All that happened after another. And in between is a self-contained period of woe.

Remember April 1988?

Jeff Stone dropping line drives. Bill Scherrer giving up gargantuan home runs. Scott McGregor throwing fastballs-turned-changeups and finally calling it a career.

It wasn't just a sports story -- it was a cultural event.

In Baltimore, drivers put on their headlights during the day to show support for the Orioles.

A self-described gonzo radio disc jockey named Bob Rivers vowed to remain on the air until the Orioles won a game. He figured the broadcast would last a day. Maybe two. It dragged on for 258 1/2 hours.

"Every day, you expected to win, and, every day, you lost," McGregor said. "It got to be crazy."

In baseball, the sport built on failure, players are accustomed to losing streaks. Five games. Six. Seven. Sometimes even nine.

But this was different.

Nothing worked.

They set a modern record for quickest firing of a manager, replacing Cal Ripken Sr. with Frank Robinson after six games.

They used six different left fielders and six different leadoff hitters.

They inaugurated a player shuttle between Baltimore and Triple-A Rochester.

Still, no wins.

A week passed. Then two. Then three.

"Ten losses borders on 'What is going on?' " said second baseman Bill Ripken. "Fifteen is getting ridiculous. Twenty-one is absurd."

Everything that the Orioles once were -- three-time World Series champions, baseball's winningest franchise from 1957 to 1987 -- was shattered during the opening month of 1988.

They had future Hall of Famers at shortstop, Cal Ripken, and at first, Murray, and a once wondrous player in center field, Lynn.

And yet the Orioles were horrid.

Slow on the bases. Thin in the bullpen. Inept in fundamentals.

"Worst outfield I ever saw," said catcher Terry Kennedy.

Men who were born to be designated hitters, Jim Traber and Larry Sheets, vainly chased fly balls in the outfield.

The infield was presentable with the Ripken brothers up the middle and Murray at first. But Rick Schu, who opened the season as the team's 31st third baseman since Brooks Robinson's retirement, had a slight problem. He couldn't throw hard or accurately because of an injured elbow.

The starting pitching rotation of Mike Boddicker, McGregor, Mike Morgan, Mark Thurmond and Oswald Peraza won a combined 24 major-league games the previous year.

They would go Oh-for-April in 1988.

But, for all their faults, for all the holes in their lineup, the Orioles had a more serious problem.

The franchise was in a state of denial, still living off the last World Series title of 1983.

Despite an 18-60 record against American League East teams in 1987, despite losing their final five exhibition games in spring 1988, the Orioles talked as if they would be in the race for a ## divisional title.

"Damn right we're contenders," Ripken, the manager, had said in Florida.

Contenders?

For a time, the Orioles would make a run at the 1962 New York Mets for the undisputed title of worst team in major-league history.

"It seems like it didn't happen," Cal Ripken Jr. said. "It's like a story you read. It doesn't feel like you even went through it."

But he did. They all did.

The beginning

Game 1: Milwaukee 12, Baltimore 0.

There are 52,395 fans in Memorial Stadium, a regular-season record. The temperature is 67 degrees. Opening Day is a celebration. Unfortunately, the loudest cheer is for a fan who throws a paper airplane that floats from the upper deck to the pitcher's mound. The Orioles' pitchers should have such aim. Four of them, starting with Boddicker, allow 16 hits.

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