Only a few players on the current Orioles roster were born when the 1989 O’s shocked the baseball world by rebounding from the worst record in franchise history to stay in playoff contention until the final weekend of the season.
None are old enough to remember that, but there still are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be drawn from one of the most memorable teams in Baltimore sports history, 20 members of which celebrated its 30th anniversary at Oriole Park on Friday.
There are no perfect parallels, since last year’s Orioles replaced the 1988 team as the losingest ever and could challenge that record this season, but the “Why Not?” O’s proved that — with great team chemistry and good young talent — anything is possible.
“I certainly can relate and feel the pain of going through a rebuilding process to this point, because I was part of the 0-21 streak,'' Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. said. “We lost 107 games. It’s a miserable time. But if you can turn it around a little bit and take an optimistic view, it is that people are getting chances to play that might otherwise not. The guys who got a chance to play in ’89 because of a rebuilding situation carved out pretty good careers and became big leaguers.”
That team featured Ripken and a few other veterans, but was packed with young talent that would bloom both here and elsewhere over the next decade.
Reliever Gregg Olson would save 27 games, be named American League Rookie of the Year and go on to set the Orioles’ career save record. Third baseman Craig Worthington would come out of nowhere to play 145 games and finish fourth in the rookie ballotting.
The Orioles roster that year included future All-Stars Brady Anderson, Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch. No one could have known that when the season began and the club was expected to sink right back to the bottom of the standings.
“On paper, that was probably the worst team I ever played for and, as it turned out, it was the best team I ever played with,'' said outfielder Phil Bradley, who was the team’s oldest everyday player. "That just goes to show you that everybody can predict and judge however they like, but at the end of the day the game is still played on the field. It was just a team that had just the right mix.”
Left-hander Jeff Ballard emerged as the staff ace in only his second full major league season, winning 18 games and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting. He appeared to be on the way to stardom, but an injury stunted his performance with the Orioles the next couple of years and his career was cut short by a serious automobile accident.
“It (1989) was very memorable,'' he said Friday. "It was my one time when I was in the big leagues playing on a winning team and getting to the end of the season with a chance to win the division. All the excitement that you would see in playoff baseball was there in Toronto. All the things – minus actually being in the World Series or the playoffs – you’re check box got checked that year as far as big-league experience goes.”
The season started with a dramatic Opening Day victory over Roger Clemens and the Red Sox, which featured a three-run homer by Ripken and a terrific catch by Finley, who separated his shoulder crashing into the wall on the play in his major league debut.
Several teammates at Friday’s reunion said that gutsy play set the tone for a speedy outfield defense that spent the whole season stealing home runs and extra-base hits to the benefit of the unheralded pitching staff.
“The biggest thing I remember about that year was our defense,'' said center fielder Mike Devereaux. “We definitely made it a point not to allow them to score runs, which obviously helps out the pitching. … So you don’t have a lot of pitchers pitching around guys. They could go right after guys and we’d try our best to run them down.”
The Orioles won 87 games and spent 116 days in first place, but spent the entire month of September in second, shadowing the Blue Jays throughout a month in which they were never more than 2 1/2 games back until the climactic final series in Toronto.
"For those of us who were here in ’88, it was a whole different tone,'' said designated hitter Larry Sheets. "Things that went against you in ’88 went for you in ’89. Balls falling in. Home runs going down the line fair or foul and going in your favor was a big part of it.”
Perhaps the most defining moment came on July 15 when Devereaux hit a disputed walkoff home run against the California Angels at Memorial Stadium. The Angels insisted that the ball went foul and some of Devereaux’s teammates still wink when they say it was fair. The HTS video replay couldn’t even settle the argument.
“That ball was fair by about a quarter of an inch and it’s still fair today,'' Devereaux said with a smile.
The Orioles, of course, came up a couple of games short on that final weekend, but they had captured the imagination of their fans so completely that they were honored with a parade after they got home.
That’s right, they got a parade for finishing second.
“Yes," Devereaux said. "I was thinking, ‘Wow, we didn’t even win it and we got a parade. All right. Pretty cool. It is what it is.' We had a great season and the fans really appreciated us and we really appreciated then, so it was a good thing.”
Outfielder Joe Orsulak remembers it well and hopes that the players who are suffering through the early stages of the current rebuild will get the chance to experience something like it soon.
“Some of these guys on this team that are playing right now are going to be with this team when they get good,'' Orsulak said. "And that might be next year or, more likely, four or five years from now and it’ll be a great feeling for them when they make that transition.”