20 years ago, 'Why Not?' O's began final push

20 years ago, 'Why Not?' O's began final push
This was the slogan for the overachieving 1989 team. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)
The day began 20 years ago with overcast skies and wisps of fog, a Friday.

Despite the fact that the weekend is not expected to brighten, Baltimore baseball fans bask in a warm glow that has been building since April.

Their team, the American League cellar dweller just a year earlier, has a chance to win the pennant. Just one game back of the Toronto Blue Jays with three to play, the Orioles need a sweep at SkyDome to make everyone forget about the previous season, the one that began with 21 losses and ended with 107.

"From the beginning, everybody figured they didn't have a chance," recalls Peter Angelos, a fan who was still nearly four years away from becoming the owner. "But before you knew it, they were in the thick of it and almost made it."

Their assets? A legitimate star, Cal Ripken Jr., and supporting cast of characters with an average salary of $324,000. A manager, Frank Robinson, who as one of the most feared hitters of his era dared pitchers to knock him down. And a region of believers who ask, "Why Not?"

"When an underdog stays in the mix, the longer you keep him in the mix the more he believes and the more the fan base believes," says Bill Ripken. "I believe everyone on the club believed, 'Somebody's got to win, why not us?'"

After the season, Moss Klein marvels in the Sporting News: "How they managed to go so far is a complete mystery."

Maybe. But on Sept. 29, 1989, the Baltimore players and their fans know their fate boils down to one stark mathematical statement: One hundred fifty-nine games down, three to go. Snatch all three, and the Orioles secure a place in the playoffs. Win two, and it's back to Baltimore for a one-game showdown at Memorial Stadium.

"I'd rather be in Toronto's position, but I'll take where we are," Robinson tells reporters. "I know five other ballclubs who would like to be where we are."

For the Blue Jays, the weekend series with the Orioles presents a chance to wipe away the label of chokers glued to them after performances in the 1985 American League Championship Series, in which they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Kansas City Royals, and at the end of the 1987 regular season, when they coughed up a three-game lead to Detroit.

The showdown isn't the only news in town. But the headline screaming across the top of the Evening Sun announces the only thing that matters: "This is It!"

No one can foresee the Birds dropping the first two games, 2-1 (Game 1) and 4-3 (Game 2), when their bullpen can't stop Toronto's hitters. Still, the "Why Not?" Orioles end the season with a win -- Ben McDonald's first -- and remain in this era of diminished expectations one of the most exciting teams in the region's rich sports history.

"It was wonderful. It was serendipitous," recalls Mike Gesker, author of The Orioles Encyclopedia. "Baseball is such a wonderful sport. You make predictions and at the end of the year you find out how wrong you are."

On that final weekend in Toronto, Jays fans are plenty nervous. Despite wresting first place from the Orioles in early September, the team can't seem to get Baltimore off its rear bumper.

The Birds are loose. They aren't supposed to be here. They are nobodies.

"It just seemed like another two out of three we had to go out and win," second baseman Bill Ripken recalls.

"SkyDome had just opened up and a young group of guys -- Curt Schilling, Ben McDonald, Pete Harnisch and Steve Finley -- were just trying to get our feet wet all at the same time," McDonald remembers. "I'm just about three months out of college ball and never played before more than about 12,000 people and come from a hometown of 18,000 people. All of the sudden at 21 years old I'm in the big leagues, I'm in the middle of a pennant race and experiencing 50,000 people in SkyDome. I was like a kid in a candy store. My eyes were as big as saucers."

The pitching matchups are Todd Stottlemyre (7-7) vs. Jeff Ballard (18-8), Jimmy Key (13-14) vs. Harnisch (5-9) and Jose Nunez (0-0) vs. Bob Milacki (14-12).

In the first game, the Orioles plate one run in the first inning on a Phil Bradley home run, a score that holds until the eighth, when Toronto puts one on the scoreboard. In the 11th inning, Toronto pushes another run across. The Orioles' margin for error is gone.

"Nothing changed. The game was over and we just said, 'We need to win these next two and we've got it,'" Bill Ripken says. "We actually looked at it like we're going to bring it back to Baltimore and win this."

Walking across some railroad tracks on his way back to the hotel Friday night, Harnisch puncture his foot on a nail.

"If Harnisch don't step on that nail, who knows," says catcher Chris Hoiles, a late-season call up. "Don't get me wrong, Dave Johnson fills in and pitches a great game, but when something that that happens, it does something to you."

Hours before the game, Johnson arrives in the clubhouse to find baseballs in each of his shoes -- coach Elrod Hendrick's method of telling a pitcher he's starting. Assuming there's been a mistake, Johnson puts the baseballs in the coach's locker only to have them reappear in his shoes. Loser of five straight, Johnson will pitch on three day's rest.

The Jays strike early with a run in the first, but Johnson steadies.

"I was smart enough to realize after about the second inning that you couldn't hit a ball out of that ballpark, with the dome open and the wind swirling, with a cannon. So I was throwing fastball after fastball right down the middle saying, 'Fellas see how far you can hit it,' and they did, but they couldn't hit it out," says Johnson.

The Orioles answer with two in the third and one in the fourth. Johnson pitches 7 innings, giving up two runs on two hits. But Toronto come up with another nail in the form of three eighth-inning runs, and the Orioles have no answer in the ninth. Sadly, Baltimore fans have the answer to "Why Not?"

Over those two games, the Orioles outhit the Jays, 16-13, but can't score when it matters.

"Our magic dust ran out," says Bill Ripken. "Cinderella's slipper fell off at midnight and hit us."

The Orioles take the final game, with a seven-run explosion in the seventh and eighth and a scoreless inning of relief from McDonald, and everyone begins envisioning a pennant for Memorial Stadium as a going-away present for the 33rd Street icon.

Despite all the promise, 1990 is more like "Not Again," than "Why Not?" By mid-April, the Orioles slip to .500 and never resurface, ending with a 76-85 (.472) record, 11 1/2 games behind the Red Sox. The glow of winning won't return until 1996.

"Unfortunately, in my nine-year major league career, it was the only time I got to experience a pennant race," says McDonald. "I kind of took it for granted at that time, I was convinced it was the norm, not something unusual, but it didn't work out like that."

Baltimore has never taken it for granted. Ask fans of a certain age where they were on the weekend of Sept. 29, 1989, most can tell you. They may mix up the details a bit, but they remember a team of overachievers who never worried about how they matched up on paper but who scooped up ground balls, hit the cutoff man and moved the runner along -- the Oriole Way.

"In our country, we root for the little guy, the guy who isn't expected to win," says Angelos. "Even if the win doesn't come, the effort has been superior and unexpected. That was the '89 Orioles."
'Why Not?' buzz

Here's a sampling of what was being said as the Orioles' 1989 season came down to the wire, concluding with the final series against the Blue Jays in Toronto to decide the American League East title.

"It's going to Canada." - Reliever Brian Holton

"We want to win. Whether we were expected to be here or not, the fact of the matter is, we have a chance." - Shortstop Cal Ripken Jr

"Baltimore Orioles. Please hold." - Ticket sellers on the first day of playoff sales

"It's a lot of fun. You don't know as a player or as a fan if you're ever going to be in this situation again. Why not enjoy it?" - Catcher Mickey Tettleton

"I just sat here and redialed for two hours. I read the paper, some magazines, I ate chocolate cake and I played with my daughter." - Fan Barbara McCord

"If there was a catbird's seat, the Orioles are in it." Minnesota general manager Andy MacPhail

"I'd like to be three games up. But I have no quarrels about where we are." Manager Frank Robinson

"The Orioles are just another U.S. team trying to break our hearts." CLIQ-FM sports director John Gallagher

"Baltimore has nothing to lose. It's a Cinderella year. " Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton

"I, for one, hope it goes to a playoff [game]. That would be the best possible way to end it." Tigers manager Sparky Anderson

"It's not the way you want it to be, but that's the way it is and you have to deal with it." Blue Jays pitcher (and former and future Oriole) Mike Flanagan