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Fantastic Fans Night brought welcome news After 1-23 start in '88, O's returned to packed park, word of new stadium


Assistant general manager Frank Robinson didn't like it. He didn't like it that the Orioles were going to fire Cal Ripken Sr. after an 0-6 start. He didn't like the idea of succeeding Ripken, because he was settling into his front-office job.

But when the phone rang that April morning in 1988, general manager Roland Hemond made owner Edward Bennett Williams' wishes clear.

"He wants you to take over," Hemond said.

"What if I don't?" Robinson asked.

"He'll fire him anyway," Hemond said, explaining that Williams thought that someone in the organization could turn the club around faster than an outsider.

Robinson consulted his wife, Barbara. "You're crazy," she said. "I like you in a business suit."

Robinson phoned Hemond and said he would take the job. "Why," his wife said, "did you ask me in the first place?"

It was a question that Robinson asked himself many times. The Orioles continued to lose, setting a major-league record by dropping their first 21 games of the season and losing more (107) than any Baltimore team before or since.

"I just felt Rip deserved the opportunity to manage after 30-some years in the organization," Robinson said. "He happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, with a club in transition. His firing came much quicker than it should have. But he wasn't fired because of the 0-6 but because Mr. Williams was unhappy with the way the team had played the year before and in spring training."

There was one positive note in the dreary season. On May 2, the Orioles, back from a humiliating road trip with a season-opening 1-23 record, were welcomed home by 50,402 loyalists on Fantastic Fans Night. A banner in the upper deck read: "139-23."

"To see a city respond in such a positive manner, well, you just don't see it in other places like you do in Baltimore," said former Orioles third baseman Doug DeCinces.

It was a day of soaring and plummeting emotions for many people.

"It was a horrible time," said pitcher Scott McGregor, who was released by the Orioles that morning. "Cal Sr. was fired, Frank was thrown into it and we lost 21 straight. We got more press coverage than a World Series team."

Although he was co-Most Valuable Oriole with Eddie Murray, it was a sour season for Cal Ripken Jr. There had been the exhilarating 1983 World Series and the exciting near pennant miss against the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982, and now this: 0-21, his dad dismissed.

"I had thought we'd go on to success year after year," Ripken said. "This was the other end of the spectrum. It was not a nice experience."

At 6 p.m. on Fantastic Fans Night, Orioles officials gathered in the boardroom at Memorial Stadium to discuss how to make a dramatic announcement. Williams, ailing with cancer, and the Maryland Stadium Authority had agreed on a 15-year lease for a new downtown park that would be ready for the 1992 season.

"Representatives of the club and state had met in Washington that day, and were still negotiating on the train back to Baltimore," said public relations director Bob Brown.

"In the boardroom, we were trying to determine how to present the news to the crowd. Williams said, 'Do we have to do it in front of the crowd?' Bob Aylward [business affairs vice president], said, 'Yes, got to!' Since Williams wasn't well enough, Governor Schaefer did it himself."

Schaefer said: "We're here because of one man, Edward Bennett Williams. He bought the Orioles some years ago and he kept them in Baltimore. We'd like to thank him."

From his sky box, Williams acknowledged the cheers. It was the last Orioles game he saw in person. The world-renowned Washington attorney died 3 1/2 months later.

Remembering the moment

Broadcaster Brooks Robinson: "Up in the broadcast booth, you could sense something bad would happen as the losses mounted -- an error, a big hit or run by the other team. We'd say, 'Uh-oh, this is it.' "

Former manager Earl Weaver: "That showed how Baltimore fans take their team to heart."

Blue Jays pitcher Mike Flanagan: "I felt bad. My heart was still in Baltimore."

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks: "What surprised me wasn't the crowd turnout but the 21 straight losses. No matter how bad you are, you've got to win one out of 21. It just wasn't a good club.

When the streak was over, I was as drained as if we'd played 145 games."

Shortstop Cal Ripken: "It was good having Dad around when he was a coach and manager. When I was feeling low, like on the road, he was always there."

Pitcher Scott McGregor: "On the bus, we'd say, 'Guys, enjoy it, all this media attention. We're losing, but we're the most popular team.' When we won, there was no one there to cover us."

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