Was there a pitcher in his day more admired by Orioles fans than Bob Milacki? His success was short-lived, but Milacki's lunchpail mindset and workhorse demeanor set well with the crowds who had little to shout about in some of the darkest times for the team.
Promoted late in 1988, after a modest ascent through the minors, the big right-hander proved a godsend for the Orioles as they slogged through their worst season ever (54-107). In his big league debut, Milacki defeated the Detroit Tigers, 2-0, allowing one hit in eight innings. Ten days later, he turned back the New York Yankees by the same score, allowing three hits and striking out 10 in a complete-game shutout.
"I was confident, going up [to the majors], but I never expected to do that," said Milacki, who turned 53 on Friday. "I was nervous as a cat all three games. I mean, I wasn't a poster child for the Baltimore Orioles. I wasn't a Ben McDonald, who had all of the hype. I just came out of nowhere."
Aggressive and resolute, he seemed to make every pitch — fastball, changeup and slider — personal.
"He hates hitters," then-Orioles catcher Terry Kennedy said. "That's good."
Could he last a whole season? In 1989, Milacki won 14, lost 12 and — to the delight of the fans — helped the team to a second-place finish in the American League East. In a 3-0 defeat of the Minnesota Twins in April, he surrendered three hits, faced the minimum 27 batters and allowed just four balls out of the infield.
"I was bored," center fielder Brady Anderson said afterward. "I didn't even have my glove on."
Thereafter, Milacki struggled, entering the All-Star break with a 5-8 record.
"I worried that I'd be sent down," he said. "Then [outfielder] Phil Bradley took me under his wing and said, 'You're not going anywhere. Keep throwing and things will turn around.'
"Sure enough, they did."
He allowed two runs or fewer in 18 starts that season. On 19 occasions, he pitched into the eighth inning. Ten times in August and September, when the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays duked it out for the division lead, Milacki started on three days' rest, going 7-1 with a 2.50 ERA. He finished the season with five straight victories, becoming the first rookie to lead the AL in starts (36) in 71 years.
His 243 innings pitched in 1989 set an Orioles rookie record. That also provoked the arm woes that would plague him the rest of his eight-season career.
"I lost some velocity after that," Milacki said. "Maybe I was trying too hard. Or maybe my arm just ran out of bullets."
He soldiered on. In 1991, he went 10-9 and played a starting role in a bizarre 2-0 no-hitter against the Oakland Athletics in which four Orioles pitchers took part. In the sixth inning, Milacki was breezing, 2-0, when struck in the hand by a line drive.
"The ball ran down my leg and rolled straight to [first baseman] Randy Milligan for the out," Milacki said. "That's the kind of luck I had that day. I finished the inning, but left the game. My hand was swollen to the size of a softball, and I didn't want to risk us losing because of my trying to throw a no-hitter."
Three relievers — Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson — finished the job. Milacki's mementos include an autographed photo of them all, plus catcher Chris Hoiles.
A free agent in 1993, he left the Orioles (37-37 lifetime) and bandied about between the majors, minors and Japan before retiring in 2000. Coaching beckoned and Milacki worked in the farm systems of the Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies until 2015, when he became pitching coach for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
Married 31 years and the father of three, Milacki still lives in Lake Havasu. Of his playing career, he has no regrets.
"I'm not disappointed with what I did, but I wish I could have played longer," he said. "I knew how to pitch, but my stuff was better suited for Triple-A than the majors. Those hitters are tremendous athletes, and my stuff was below big-league average. After 1989, my velocity went down and my command wasn't as good.
"I wouldn't do anything different. I worked hard and prepared myself as best I could. I hope I'll be remembered as someone who was once a good player, who played the game the right way — and who would pitch on three days' rest."