1989 O's took it to wire Race: Season-ending series with Blue Jays came up short with losses in first two games.

September 17, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The memories of 1989 are bittersweet. The Orioles, fresh off one of the worst seasons in baseball history, made an unlikely bid for the American League East title, which culminated with a decisive weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome.

That was the last time the Orioles played in a series as important as the one they enter tonight at Yankee Stadium. That was the year that Orioles fans asked "Why not?" and got their answer only after a series of unlikely events in Toronto finally ended the dream season.

It may not seem that long ago, but only a handful of players remain from that team and only one member of the coaching staff -- bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks -- has any first-hand recollection of the events that transpired. The Orioles have changed ownership, moved to a new ballpark and played under three managers since then, but mention of that wild weekend still evokes conflicting emotions in the clubhouse.

One back with three to go. The team that opened the 1988 season with a record 21 consecutive losses and went on to lose more games (107) than any other Orioles club came back the next year to push the talented Blue Jays all the way to the final weekend of the regular season.

* Game 1: Arm-weary left-hander Jeff Ballard carried a 1-0 shutout through 7 1/3 innings, but the Blue Jays tied the score when a sharp-breaking curveball by reliever Gregg Olson bounced past catcher Jamie Quirk in the eighth to score Tom Lawless, and won the game when Lloyd Moseby singled home the decisive run off reliever Mark Williamson three innings later.

* Game 2: Journeyman pitcher Dave Johnson was forced into a do-or-die start when teammate Pete Harnisch stepped on a nail walking from SkyDome back to the team hotel. He pitched seven strong innings and left with the Orioles ahead in the eighth, only ++ to see the game of his life get away -- and with it the club's last chance to complete its unlikely march to the playoffs.

* Game 3: In the final game of the series, rookie right-hander Ben McDonald defeated a skeleton Jays lineup for his first major-league victory. He may have been the only one who had anything to play for that afternoon.

"It was a very exciting season," said shortstop Cal Ripken, "but it didn't end the way we wanted it to end. The games in Toronto were exciting. We were in both [of the first two] games and we were winning, but in a long season, there are a lot of different ways the ball can bounce."

No doubt, Olson would agree. He emerged in '89 as one of the best young relievers in baseball and was named American League Rookie of the Year after saving 27 games, but one 59-foot curveball would take much of the joy out of his impressive performance.

Williamson, who was charged with both losses after fashioning a terrific season in middle relief, is philosophical in retrospect.

"It was a good experience," he said. "We were playing over our heads and finally came back to earth. You can look back on it and say, 'What if?' but if you analyze it, we had a great run and someone's got to lose."

Johnson picked a perfect time for the best clutch performance of his career, but he's still trying to figure out if his one great moment in the major-league spotlight was a blessing or a curse.

"I'm basically remembered for being the starting pitcher in one of the most disappointing losses in club history," Johnson said.

The pitch

The two pivotal games have run together in the memory of some fans. Johnson said he can't count the number of times that he has been approached on the street and told what a shame it was that a wild pitch cost him that potentially historic victory.

"That was the night before," he said, "but you'd be surprised how many people remember it all happening in one game."

That's because Olson's ill-fated curveball is the most memorable single moment of the series -- and perhaps that entire season. Olson blamed himself. So did Quirk, who -- in one of the great stand-up guy postgame performances -- said afterward that a major-league catcher has to block that ball. It was not that simple.

Manager Frank Robinson said he still can see the ball bouncing toward the backstop as if it were last night, but remembers that deflating moment in a different, more team-oriented context.

"When I look back, the thing I remember is that we had a chance to add to that one-run lead," Robinson said. "We had a guy at second base with no one out before that and couldn't get him over. If it's a two-run game, then Tom Lawless doesn't steal second base and isn't going to third on a grounder to shortstop. All of that sequence wouldn't have happened. That's the thing I remember most."

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