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The Orioles gave their fans a brief respite from losing, but the pain from a rock bottom season cuts deeper

Long before he became mayor of Baltimore, Brandon Scott was just another long-suffering Orioles fan who experienced plenty of gloomy nights at Camden Yards with “no one to my left and right.”

Scott, 37, said he would trade both Ravens Super Bowl victories for the World Series title he’s waited a lifetime to witness. Like so many of his compatriots in orange and black, he did his best to nurture hope during the recent 19-game losing streak that confirmed the Orioles as the sorriest team in baseball.

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“The streak would just set the Orioles up, just like the city, to be the greatest turnaround story in Major League Baseball history,” he said.

The Orioles gave themselves and their fans some catharsis Wednesday when they rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning to beat the Los Angeles Angels and end their nightmare streak. They even shelled the Angels again Thursday. But everyone involved knew the wins were merely a respite from bleaker realities. The Orioles are as bad as they’ve ever been in their 68-season history, and neither they nor those who love them know when it will end.

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The Orioles have subjected their fans to considerable pain over the last 36 of those seasons. They were a powerhouse in the late ‘60s, much of the ‘70s and early 80s, winning three World Series, the most recent in 1983, the year before Scott was born. But they lost 21 games in a row to start the 1988 season. From 1998 through 2011, they did not have a single winning year.

After winning the 2014 American League East and a 2016 wild-card berth, they lost 115 games in 2018 as the grand designs of manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette came apart at the seams, prompting the start of another roster rebuild in hopes of a brighter future.

While the Orioles’ farm system is ranked among the top in the league, the major league club has plummeted to new depths over the past month. Their losing streak, which started Aug. 3, only began to capture the pain. They lost by 5.7 runs per game during that span in a sport where even the worst teams usually lose by about 1.5 runs per game over a whole season. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, attendance fell to 10,250 per game in a ballpark that seats 45,971, making Camden Yards, still acclaimed as one of the prettiest parks in baseball, seem like an empty cathedral.

The Orioles’ hopeless stench wafted beyond Baltimore, capturing the attention of national baseball commentators who see them as the tragic symbol of a deformed league in which too many small- and midmarket franchises have given up trying to win.

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MLB is reportedly considering anti-tanking measures, such as a $100 million salary floor — a minimum for teams to spend on players during a season — to reduce the number of perennial losers (the Orioles rank 29th of 30 teams in the league with a payroll of about $53 million this year, according to Spotrac.com).

Players’ union executive director Tony Clark has called for action on the issue, arguing that teams should be incentivized to compete rather than financially rewarded for continuing to lose on shoestring budgets.

As the Orioles’ losses have mounted, they’ve become an emblem of the tanking debate.

“When the players’ union cites non-competitive behavior, the Orioles could be Exhibit A,” ESPN’s Buster Olney, who covered the team for The Sun in the 1990s, tweeted a week into the losing streak. “It’s just wrong.”

Tim Kurkjian knows the pain of covering an awful baseball team in Baltimore; the ESPN baseball analyst manned the Orioles beat for The Sun in 1988. But the team’s current futility strikes him as something else entirely.

“This is a really unhealthy situation in baseball, when one team ... is this bad,” he said. “They lost 16 consecutive games by multiple runs. No team since 1900 has lost that many consecutive games by multiple runs. Even the ‘88 Orioles ... were actually competitive; they lost some close games. This team has been blown out almost every game.”

Keith Law, a former Toronto Blue Jays executive who writes about farm systems for The Athletic, said the Orioles’ climb back to respectability “was always going to be a longer process than a lot of other recoveries” because of deficits in tradable players and Baltimore’s prospect development in Latin America. But he doesn’t agree with the national pounding the Orioles and third-year general manager Mike Elias have taken in recent weeks.

“It will turn around. It’s just going to take a long time,” Law said. “I see this national narrative, and it’s like, ‘You all are just doing this because they’ve lost 19 in a row.’ You know, don’t kick them when they’re down. Take a rational look at the situation they inherited and the decisions they’ve made and what direction they’re heading. I think their future is brighter than the national media is making it out to be. And they’re all scapegoating the Orioles for a more systemic problem in baseball, which is that it doesn’t matter if you suck.”

Such perspective can be harder to come by among fans who suffer with every loss.

Fans on the flag court behind right field watch the Orioles host the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night. Baltimore lost its 19th straight game before ending its streak the next night.
Fans on the flag court behind right field watch the Orioles host the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night. Baltimore lost its 19th straight game before ending its streak the next night. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad attended the Orioles’ first game at Memorial Stadium in 1954 and has enjoyed many of the club’s greatest moments in person. He’s not optimistic about the current rebuild or about the Orioles’ hopes for any kind of redemption under the stewardship of ailing owner Peter Angelos or his sons, John and Louis.

“The franchise has hit a new low with every move designed to save money and enrich ownership and the franchise’s value,” he wrote in an email. “They know how to lose to win.”

John Angelos did not respond to a request for comment.

At Camden Yards, during the last game of the losing streak Tuesday, the most steadfast fans in an announced crowd of 8,718 spoke the hardest truths.

“It’s just a bad team,” said Shelton Adams, 68, of Silver Spring. “They don’t have players. They rush the minor leaguers up too soon.”

The retired accounting technician, wearing an orange Orioles shirt and bucket hat, had the row beneath the press box mostly to himself as he penned in the scorecard for his team’s 19th straight defeat. Adams has attended more than 3,000 Orioles home games; he didn’t miss one from 1989 to 2007, he said. He’d rather watch them lose than not watch at all.

Shelton Adams of Silver Spring has attended more than 3,000 Orioles games. The 68-year-old retired accounting technician's take on the 2021 team is simple: "It's just a bad team."
Shelton Adams of Silver Spring has attended more than 3,000 Orioles games. The 68-year-old retired accounting technician's take on the 2021 team is simple: "It's just a bad team." (Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

Fans disagreed on when the dark clouds might lift.

“I keep hoping they’ll win a World Series before I die,” said Matt Schindler, 37, of Hagerstown, who was at the game with his wife and 8-year-old son, Eli.

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One of the most familiar faces at the ballpark offered a more hopeful prognosis.

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“We’re still young. We have games where we pitch, and then we have games where we hit, and can’t put the two and two together,” said renowned beer vendor Clarence “Fancy Clancy” Haskett. “But I think it’s going to get better. We’ll bring the young guys up and they start to jell with the older guys. We’re going to get better. It’s not going to be too much longer.”

There’s a segment of Orioles fandom that does not view the team’s current predicament as a life sentence. By this line of thinking, the franchise is taking its medicine in a big gulp so it can be healthy in a year or two.

Painful as this might seem, it’s the formula Elias was brought in to execute after he helped pull off a similar resurrection of the Houston Astros. The Astros averaged 108 losses per season from 2011 through 2013; in 2017, they won the World Series, and have been to the playoffs every year since.

Elias has acknowledged the “gigantic, traumatic rebuild” fans are enduring, but has remained adamant that his plan is on track.

Renowned beer vendor Clarence "Fancy Clancy" Haskett, who has spent 47 years with the team, is optimistic about the Orioles' future and excited to see them get back to winning consistently. "It's not going to be too much longer," he said.
Renowned beer vendor Clarence "Fancy Clancy" Haskett, who has spent 47 years with the team, is optimistic about the Orioles' future and excited to see them get back to winning consistently. "It's not going to be too much longer," he said. (Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

“I know that they’re frustrated with the day-to-day performances and moves and all kinds of stuff. Which is healthy and great, and we see all that and we share the frustration and we also share the energy that they bring,” Elias said. “Not every place had that. We’re just trying to bring that back, and we’re doing that the way that we have to do it.

“We make mistakes along the way. Things aren’t going to go perfectly. Guys are going to get hurt. But I cannot envision any other strategy or approach that would have been viable.”

A few rays of light have pierced the dark forest: Cedric Mullins’ emergence as an All-Star center fielder, Ryan Mountcastle’s powerful bat, John Means’ no-hitter in May.

But the true sources of hope play ball in Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, Virginia.

Orioles fans already know their names well: Adley Rutschman, the switch-hitting catcher generally regarded as baseball’s best prospect, and Grayson Rodriguez, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound fireballer who has overwhelmed minor league hitters this season. Rutschman and Rodriguez prompted Baseball America to rank the Orioles farm system as the second best in the major leagues, while MLB.com puts it at No. 1.

Optimistic bird watchers look at such prospects and say the Orioles are better off than they were in the early 2000s, when they chased major league success with free-agent signings but ended up with rot that persisted for more than a decade.

While the team’s current plight has evoked that gloomy period, it has also revived memories of the remarkable losing streak from 1988. Kurt Schmoke was Baltimore’s newly elected mayor at the time.

“It was a real downer for the community, even people who weren’t baseball fans, because they had to hear the complaints from those who were,” he remembered. “The community, of course, was very relieved once they got that first victory.”

He was standing on the field at Memorial Stadium before one of the 21 straight losses when a reporter asked the team’s then-president, Larry Lucchino, why the Orioles kept faltering.

Without missing a beat, Lucchino replied: “New mayor.”

“I just had to drop my head and walk away,” Schmoke remembered, laughing.

Baltimore attorney and Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, right, greets then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1998.
Baltimore attorney and Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos, right, greets then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1998. (Doug Kapustin, The Baltimore Sun)

Some other moments of levity broke up that doomed march. There was the 11-day, on-air vigil maintained by 98 Rock disc jockey Bob Rivers, who vowed not to sign off until the Orioles won. There was the first home game after they broke the streak when more than 50,000 fans packed Memorial Stadium to greet a 1-23 team.

Kurkjian will never forget the night when manager Frank Robinson took the team’s three beat writers — him, Ken Rosenthal of The Evening Sun and Richard Justice of The Washington Post — out to dinner in Minnesota for a few hours of commiseration. Kurkjian asked Robinson whether he’d received any unusual phone calls during the streak.

Sure enough, Robinson had just heard from President Ronald Reagan, who offered his empathy. “Mr. President, you’ve got no idea what I’m going through,” Robinson told the commander in chief.

But the players, including future Hall of Fame selections Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray, didn’t find it terribly amusing.

“It made it harder and harder to go down into the clubhouse and talk to them,” Kurkjian recalled. “They were trying to win. They had a bunch of veteran players who were used to winning. This was so foreign to them.”

When they finally won a game, beating the White Sox in Chicago, those Orioles did not celebrate. They felt embarrassed.

Thirty-three years later, Kurkjian can only sympathize with the Orioles and those who care about them as they process similar emotions.

“I’m not upset; I’m sad,” he said. “I know the rich history of the Orioles. It’s one of the richest histories of any franchise in major league history. I came to The Baltimore Sun to cover them in 1986 because I knew how much everyone cared. I had the best job at the newspaper. But it’s just not that way anymore. To see them struggle like this, I feel for the Orioles fans.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Jon Meoli contributed to this article.

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