Keeping the faith It's Opening Day. Take your seat at the Yard, sense the promise of the season. And remember the spring of 1988 -- when this town proved its devotion by learning to love a loser.

March 31, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Once upon a time, a nation's attention latched onto a spectacle of disaster, a spectacle so large that it set records and kept going, leaving crowds shaking their heads in wonder that something so enormous could actually be done.

That time was a decade ago, spring 1988. Who needed "Titanic"? Baltimore had "Orioles," another love story set against a calamitous backdrop.

The home team steamed out of port loaded with the usual promise, the best wishes of Opening Day. The team lost once, twice, three and four times straight. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Could it be 10 years since "Orioles," became a national, no, an international phenomenon? Could it be so long since "Orioles" -- known for habitually winning in that steady, unassuming way of theirs -- became a national laughing stock?

Where were you when the spectacle transcended mere "slump" and became something spooky? When the fabled love affair between a city and its team was put to the test?

Catastrophe has a way of warping time.

"Is it 10 years?" asks Bob Rivers, former disc jockey for 98-Rock in Baltimore, incredulity rising in his voice. "It seems like -- 10 years."

Rivers, 41, now co-host of the morning show on the Seattle station KISW-FM, sat at the epicenter of the 1988 disaster. From his studio on Hooper Avenue, he watched it eat the team, the city. Then his life.

Who could forget that cold Saturday night at Memorial Stadium when Orioles right-hander Mike Morgan was shutting out the Cleveland Indians, promising to end the ordeal at 10 straight losses? That would have made it merely the worst start in Orioles history.

Rivers was there in a skybox with the radio station's afternoon disc jockey and the general manager. Hey, the afternoon guy says to Rivers: If the Orioles lose this one, you should stay on the air until they win. Great idea, says the general manager.

Morgan had a shutout through nine and left the game, relieved by Doug Jones, who yielded a run in the 11th. That was that, 1-0. Put up another number. Loss No. 11.

That Monday, April 18, Rivers went into the booth for his morning show and vowed to stay on the air until the Thing ended. "Orioles," the spectacle, was up to No. 12.

"When we started it, we thought it would last a day," says Rivers.

Thought? The Thing defied thought or reason, not to mention explanation.

"I've been telling them to pitch a shutout," said pitching coach Herm Starrette, after the 1-0 heart-breaker. "Now I'm going to have to think of something else."

When they pitched, they couldn't hit. When they hit, they couldn't pitch or field. One night the wind blew a Kansas City fly ball into a triple, leading to a winning run. Another routine fly ball turned into another winning run at Memorial Stadium when left-fielder Jeff Stone lost it in the lights. Everyone owned a piece of the escalating calamity, although some took more of the brunt than others.

Manager Cal Ripken Sr. lost his job after loss No. 6 and was succeeded by Frank Robinson. Ripken's sons, Cal Jr. and Billy, kept their thoughts about the firing to themselves and suffered through a team-wide hitting drought.

The Thing became an unfathomable object of awe, like a black hole, sucking in the valiant efforts of veterans and rookies alike. It defied attempts to put it into perspective.

Frank Robinson tried. There was no irony in his statement after loss No. 14, the one that set a record for the worst start in Major League history. Trying to play it down, he said "Someone might come along and lose 15, 16, 20 in a row. Who knows?"

Someone might. Imagine that: 20 in a row, tying a season-long American League record last reached by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1943. Naaaaah. It could never happen, people kept saying. Tomorrow, tomorrow it will end.

Robinson juggled the lineup. He rested players. He told them to skip batting practice. He even tried stepping into the cage to take a few swings himself. Anything to break the spell.

"You do all that crazy stuff," recalls Robinson, now director of baseball operations for the Arizona Fall League. "You keep trying I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do."

Somebody gave Robinson a lapel pin that read: "It's been lovely, but I have to scream now."

Soon it became necessary to move a cot into 98-Rock so Rivers could catch naps here and there. Fans started sending the DJ food. Billy Crystal called to encourage Rivers. So did Aerosmith's lead singer, Steven Tyler. Even Cal Jr. phoned in an encouraging word.

Rivers rallied the troops. He told fans to turn on their headlights to show support for the team. The result was "a sea of headlights." He enlisted the help of the Amazing Kreskin to lead listeners in a "mass telepathic" effort to project winning thoughts to the Orioles. Radio sports guy Stan "The Fan" Charles showed up for work in hair curlers and a red and black muumuu to demonstrate, he said, "what a drag losing is."

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