They might be the only big league team ever to have a question mark in their rallying cry. Yet the 1989 Orioles’ “Why Not?” maxim fit like a glove, defining their rise from cellar to contender overnight. How else to explain such a seismic shift than with a smile and a shrug?
Thirty years later, that pinch-me season still resonates with fans hoping the 2020 Orioles will defy logic and follow suit. The 1988 club lost its first 21 games and finished in last place; the ’89 team led the American League East for 119 days and nearly won it.
The formula? A mix of fearless rookies, overachieving journeymen and one star (Cal Ripken Jr.). Plus a welcome streak of serendipity that buoyed the Orioles almost to the end. Players slapped backs with one hand and scratched their heads with the other.
“You look at how we played last year, and how we’re playing this year, and it doesn’t add up,” second baseman Bill Ripken said then. But numbers don’t lie. The Orioles improved from 54-107 to 87-75, then the third-biggest turnaround in major league history, and stayed in the chase until the final days.
“We went from being a team that couldn’t hit water if we fell out of a boat, to being a team that couldn’t do anything wrong,” catcher Mickey Tettleton told The Baltimore Sun in 2009. “The difference? Chemistry. Except for Cal, we were guys that nobody had ever heard of, and we bonded really well.”
And with their fans. Home attendance hit a record 2,535,208 — nearly 900,000 more than the year before — as folks embraced their wunderkinds who staged, general manager Roland Hemond said afterward, “a season of dreams almost fulfilled.”
They won on Opening Day — a big deal, given the ’88 start — as rookie Steve Finley slammed into the right-field fence making a catch in Memorial Stadium. Time and again, as summer wore on, fleet young outfielders like Finley, Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux flagged down sure hits, boosting the resolve of a suspect staff. The upstart Orioles finished with a fielding percentage of .986, then the best ever in the majors.
“We were a bunch of no-name pitchers who gained confidence because balls were finally getting caught, which made it easier for us to pitch,” said Jeff Ballard, who won a team-high 18 games with a humdrum (85 mph) fastball.
When the Orioles made it two in a row, manager Frank Robinson feigned worry.
“I don’t want this team to get too high,” he said. Why not? Six of its first seven victories came in games in which the opponent started a former 20-game winner. Eyebrows went up. On April 23, Bob Milacki — a rookie workhorse who would carry the staff down the stretch — three-hit Minnesota, 3-0, and faced the minimum 27 batters, a feat not accomplished hereabouts since Jim Palmer did it in 1967. The Twins mustered only four flies.
“I was bored,” Anderson said afterward. “I didn’t even have my glove on.”
Karma kicked in that afternoon. In the fifth inning, Cal Ripken hit a foul pop that eluded the Twins catcher, his path blocked by Randy “Moose” Milligan in the on-deck circle. Another pitch, another foul pop, which the catcher lost in the sun. Seeing Milligan look right, the catcher went right. The ball went left. Ripken drilled the next offering for a run-scoring double.
Destiny called; fans sensed it. After another win over the Twins put the Orioles (8-8) in first place, the home crowd of 34,698 delivered a five-minute ovation. Even the president bought in. On April 25, during the seventh-inning stretch in a game against the Angels in Anaheim, George H.W. Bush rode a limousine to the visitors’ bullpen and shook hands with the pitchers. The Orioles homered four times that day and won, 8-1.
“We should fly him in for all our games,” Ballard said. Or was a higher power in charge? The Orioles defeated California, 4-3, when the Angels walked 10. They routed New York, 16-3, as the bumbling Yankees surrendered 13 unearned runs. Two broken-bat singles sparked a win over the Chicago White Sox. In a 6-2 victory over Texas, Joe Orsulak hit a harmless fly to center on which four Rangers converged, yet the ball fell safely. And with the Orioles trailing Oakland, 3-0, at home after 4½ innings, a downpour wiped the contest off the books, three outs shy of an official game. The Sun’s Mike Littwin suggested that the team had gone from being “the dead-in-the-water Orioles to the walk-on-water Orioles.”
In late May, they went on a tear, winning 13 of 14 (including 10 on the road) to take a five-game lead. Tettleton stoked the streak, hitting eight homers in 16 games. The Popeye-armed catcher with the soldier-straight stance slugged 26 homers in all — his previous high was 11 — and created a buzz by announcing he ate Froot Loops for breakfast each day. The cereal flew off Baltimore supermarket shelves. Thereafter, whenever Tettleton launched one, fans threw handfuls of the brightly colored circles onto the field like confetti.
“People sent little boxes of Froot Loops in the mail for me to sign,” he said, obliging all.
By late July, the Orioles led by 7½ games.
“Everyone is floating down the creek the same way,” hitting coach Tom McCraw said. “What’s not to like?”
During one home game, a fan waved a small hand-lettered pennant that put the season in perspective. “Why Not?” it read. The slogan caught on, spawned a song and appeared on T-shirts, caps and banners.
“On paper, were we one of the better teams in the league? Probably not,” reliever Mark Williamson said. “But the guys believed in each other, and every game someone else would step up. We’d go into the late innings thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re still going to win.’ ”
On July 15, the mantle fell on Devereaux, who capped a furious four-run, ninth-inning rally with a walk-off, two-run homer to beat California, 11-9. The blast curled around the left-field foul pole, the crowd of 47,393 exploded; ditto, the AL West-leading Angels, who screamed the ball was foul. Devereaux’s thoughts?
“I knew it was close,” he said in hindsight. “But every time I check the record book, it says ‘fair.’ ”
The Orioles had hit their peak.
“We should go on strike until September,” Milligan said. His jest rang true. Four days later, they stopped hitting and lost 13 of 14, though stubbornly clinging to first place until supplanted by the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 1. Still, the Orioles stayed close, nipping at the Blue Jays until they were one game back with three left to play against the division leaders. Toronto took the first two, 2-1 and 4-3, to end the race.
“Our magic dust ran out,” Bill Ripken said.
The Orioles flew home to Baltimore-Washington International where nearly 2,000 fans greeted them in the rain, many with orange-and-black umbrellas. It was still drizzling Oct. 2 when the city held a parade for the players, who rode in jeeps over the 1-mile route before a crowd of 3,000. Along the way, 4-year-old Todd Toaski handed Tettleton a box of Froot Loops.
At a post-parade rally at Festival Hall, team president Larry Lucchino boiled it all down.
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“I’m tired of hearing about rookies and retreads and rejects,” he said. “They taught us something about baseball; they taught us something about life.”