Remember '88

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles can celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1983 World Series championship team if they want to, but it might make more sense - all things considered - to lift your glass to a less-heralded O's team and its much-less-heralded 20th anniversary this year.

I know what you're thinking. What kind of negative nincompoop would bring up the team that lost a record 21 games in a row at the start of the 1988 season and went on to post the worst record (54-107) in club history? And it would be a fair question if I were just trying to remind you of a time when the Orioles were even more hapless than they are now.

But there's a reason that team comes to mind as the rebuilding Orioles prepare to open spring training this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and it's not to advance some snarky anti-club agenda. (Though you should continue to be on guard for that in the future.)

Believe it or not, there are interesting parallels between what's going on now and what happened when the Orioles went from national laughingstock in 1988 to baseball's feel-good story of 1989, though no one is likely to make a case for this year's team fighting for the AL East title down to the final weekend of the season.

The 1988 team was flat-out awful, even though it featured Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and a number of other veteran stars, which put general manager Roland Hemond in an uncomfortable position when owner Edward Bennett Williams asked him for a scouting report during spring training.

"We were sitting in the dugout in Miami," Hemond said by phone yesterday. "Mr. Williams said to me, 'What do you think of the club?' I told him, 'I'm sad to tell you, this is the slowest club I've ever seen.' Then we proceeded to lose 21 straight."

Soon thereafter, Hemond began to do the same thing Andy MacPhail is doing now. He traded popular veteran pitcher Mike Boddicker for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling, two of the top prospects in the Boston Red Sox's organization. He dealt Fred Lynn to the Detroit Tigers for catcher Chris Hoiles. He sent future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three young players. And, during the spring training of 1989, he acquired outfielder Mike Devereaux from the Dodgers for pitcher Mike Morgan.

When the smoke cleared, the Orioles were a speedier team with a great defensive outfield that included Anderson, Devereaux, homegrown Steve Finley and veterans Phil Bradley and Joe Orsulak.

MacPhail has to hope he's creating something similar by putting newcomers Adam Jones and Luke Scott next to homegrown right fielder Nick Markakis.

"What Andy is doing to inject the roster of the club with a lot of youth, I commend him for that," said Hemond, who now works as a special assistant to Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall. "In the position he was confronted with, that is the route to go. It's kind of like '88 and '89, when we had an injection of youthful enthusiasm."

Of course, the fan reaction back then was different from what it might be now. When the Orioles came home after scoring their first victory of 1988, they were greeted by an upbeat sellout crowd. "We ... came home 1-23 and there were 50,402 fans at Memorial Stadium," Hemond said. "I remember saying at the time it was the greatest expression of fan support in the history of sport."

It was May 2, 1988, better known as "Fantastic Fans Night," and it was historic for another reason. It also was the night William Donald Schaefer announced that the Orioles and the state of Maryland had reached an agreement to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Fans were willing to forgive a lot back then. That season was just five years removed from the 1983 World Series, and the town didn't have an NFL team to turn to in August.

"I think they were forgiving because we were so bad," said former Orioles public relations director Rick Vaughn, who now is vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Rays. "We weren't just bad. We were as bad as you could get. The nation had been poking fun at us for a month. I think everybody just rallied behind us. It was like they were saying, 'Yeah, we're not very good, but it's us. It's our team.' "

Two decades and a lot of losing later, the Orioles cannot expect that level of indulgence. They are far more likely to be in last place on the final weekend of the upcoming season than fighting for the division title. Even if history does end up repeating itself, it probably won't do so right away.

Happy anniversary, nonetheless.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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