Thirty years ago, Orioles fans approached the 1989 season opener at Memorial Stadium with the lowest of expectations. The team was coming off a year in which it had managed the astonishing feat of losing the first 21 games of a season that resulted in 107 losses. In light of that horrific year, the team traded a number of notable veteran players, including Hall of Fame bound first baseman Eddie Murray, for a group of little-known prospects as part of a rebuilding effort that followed the worst of four consecutive losing seasons. To put that losing streak in the perspective of those times, the Orioles had experienced only two losing seasons in the prior 26 years dating to 1960.
Prospects for Opening Day were further dimmed by the fact that they were facing the defending division champion Boston Red Sox, with their two-time Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens, on the mound. The game started quietly until the top of the third inning when Red Sox first baseman Nick Esasky sent a deep drive to right-center field. Rookie right fielder Steve Finley raced back to meet the ball's trajectory, snaring the blast an instant before crashing into the fence. The hometown fans, having so long been deprived of such excitement, jumped to their feet in thunderous joy. Mr. Finley, though injured on the play, had set a tone that no one had expected. Prognostications aside, this team, managed by Orioles and baseball legend Frank Robinson, had come to play — and would play hard.
The early enthusiasm began to wane when the Red Sox took a 3-1 lead in the top of the sixth. But there was a good deal of magic left in that sunny April afternoon. In the bottom of the sixth, the Orioles' remaining star, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., stepped in to face Mr. Clemens with two runners in scoring position. Mr. Ripken worked the count even at 2-2, as the fans prayed for a single that would tie the game. Mr. Ripken provided far more than that. Mr. Clemens' next pitch exploded off Mr. Ripken's bat like a cannon shot, soaring far above the left-field wall. The three-run homer sent the stadium into a raucous euphoria. Mr. Ripken had not only delivered a huge home run off an elite pitcher, he had delivered the first installment of a growing sense of hope and possibility.
The game proceeded to produce further drama. The Red Sox managed the tying run in the seventh inning, and the teams began trading tense at-bats, as the game turned into a battle of the bullpens that extended into extra innings. In the bottom of the 11th, the Orioles put runners on the corners with one out. To the plate came rookie third baseman Craig Worthington, who sent a pop fly toward shallow left-center field. On most days, that soft fly would have hung up just long enough to have been run down by one of the opposing fielders. But in shadows of that late spring afternoon, it fell safely to the grass amid three helpless Red Sox defenders. The old stadium rocked in a tribal celebration of the improbable win.
The most remarkable things were yet to come for that no-name 1989 team. In what became known as the "Why Not?" season, they would go on to win 87 games and end up battling for the division championship on the season's last weekend. Sometimes passion, determination and hard work come together to produce something that defies logic and expectation.
As this year's Orioles team, having also jettisoned its biggest stars in exchange for prospects, begins to rebuild from a horrendous 115-loss season, a new front office, field manager and coaching staff have begun to instill a new system and a new vitality. As Vice President and General Manager Mike Elias and Manager Brandon Hyde go about the imposing task of trying to build a perennial winner sustained by a deeply talented system, we might remember that, 30 years ago, another rebuilding team surprised everyone, and, during one glorious season, endeared themselves to a city forever.
Now, at a time when the town and the team are so in need of something hopeful, perhaps magic can happen. Indeed, why not?