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Worst to first, till the bubble burst


For manager Frank Robinson, it was like catching "lightning in a bottle." For general manager Roland Hemond, it was a season to cherish. For reliever Brian Holton, it was wildly improbable.

"If someone had told me we'd be playing for the title the last weekend of the season, I would have walked from here to Los Angeles and carried my car with me," Holton said.

Little was expected of the Orioles in 1989. But Robinson's overachievers executed a 32 1/2 -game turnaround and nearly became the first team this century to capture a championship after finishing last the previous season.

This was a club that posted an 87-75 record after accumulating pTC progressively fewer wins for five straight seasons, descending to 54-107 in 1988. It was a club that took the Toronto Blue Jays to the 161st game before bowing.

"I had hoped we'd pass one club," Hemond said. "Instead, we were in the race until the next-to-last day of the season. I was so proud of these guys."

Of the 186 baseball writers surveyed in a preseason poll by The Sporting News, 170 predicted the Orioles would finish last. One optimist suggested the Orioles could wind up as high as fifth.

With 13 rookies playing roles, the Orioles led the American League East for 116 days. In mid-July, when they opened a 7 1/2 -game lead, "Why Not?" signs began to appear at Memorial Stadium. The Orioles plunged into the final weekend for a three-game series against Toronto needing two wins to tie and a sweep for the division title.

They were the Orioles who went from last to almost first.

Robinson, Hemond and four players received major postseason awards. Reliever Gregg Olson was the first rookie to be hailed as Most Valuable Oriole. Home attendance was 2,535,208, a club record.

"It was one of the most enjoyable clubs I've had in my years in baseball," Robinson said. "They weren't very talented, but they gave it their all, day in and day out. They never questioned anything I asked them to do, and I tried to make it fun for them, like stealing when you wouldn't expect that guy to -- or hitting and running in a bunt situation."

The division title turned on the first two showdown games in Toronto. Coach Tom McCraw likened the series to a heavyweight title fight. Pitcher Jeff Ballard predicted "mass hysteria" at SkyDome. Even the unexcitable Cal Ripken allowed "it will be a playoff-type atmosphere for sure."

The Orioles held one-run leads in the eighth inning in both, but couldn't hold on. After Friday night's 11-inning, 2-1 loss, Pete Harnisch, Saturday's scheduled starter, stepped on a nail while walking back to the hotel. The next morning he couldn't put any pressure on his foot.

In the clubhouse, Dave Johnson saw two baseballs in his shoes, customarily placed there by bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks to designate the starter. Unaware of Harnisch's injury, Johnson thought it was a prank, for he had lost his spot in the rotation and hadn't won in more than a month.

Johnson -- an Overlea High grad and a parolee from eight years in the minors -- pitched the game of his life. He went into the eighth with a 3-1 lead and was pulled after walking the leadoff batter, but relievers Kevin Hickey and Mark Williamson couldn't hold off the Blue Jays, who won, 4-3.

The pennant race was over.

"It was such a helpless feeling, sitting there," said Johnson, who watched the rest of the game from the bench with a towel around his head. "It's your last chance of the season, and there it's slipping away before you."

Williamson absorbed both defeats after losing only once in the previous four months. Williamson, who appeared in 65 games in 1989, said he was "working on adrenalin."

Hendricks lauded Johnson's "fearlessness, command and confidence." Aside from the Orioles' loss in seven games to the ** Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 World Series, Hendricks said he "had never been more emotional."

Both defeats, he said, hurt deep down inside.

Remembering the moment

"Pete Harnisch steps on a nail, Dave Johnson fills in and throws a great game. It was my first experience in a pennant race, and really exciting."

) -- Catcher Chris Hoiles

"The team had a lot of heart and desire right down to the lasgame, which didn't mean anything except for pride."

-- Manager Frank Robinson

"My strongest memory is [reliever Gregg] Olson's curve in thdirt, a wild pitch that let in the tying run in the eighth inning of the opener. If not for that pitch . . . "

=- -- Pitcher Mike Flanagan, then with Toronto

"Some guys not expected to play well, played well all seasonBut Toronto had the horses. The final series was baseball the way it was intended to be."

+ -- Broadcaster Jim Palmer

"It was a young, energetic club, kids happy to be in the bileagues and doing the things it took to win. They were exciting."

2' -- Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks

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