Amid filming for a documentary commemorating the 30th anniversary of the lowest point in Orioles’ history, Richard Justice found himself seated with a folded towel at his feet. He asked what it was for.
A member of the crew told him that their previous interview subject, former Orioles catcher Terry Kennedy, couldn’t stop pounding his feet into the floor as he discussed Baltimore’s 21 straight losses to open the 1988 season. The towel muffled the sounds for microphones.
“He would still get agitated, 30 years later, talking about The Streak,” said Justice, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who covered that team for The Washington Post.
Only in Baltimore does “The Streak” carry two meanings with juxtaposing connotations. The happier version is Cal Ripken’s indomitable record for consecutive games played. Thanks to the Orioles’ 7-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, the other mark will stand as well, and this year’s team won’t need their feet quieted in three decades.
That 21-game losing streak is the only one in franchise history longer than the 14 straight defeats the Orioles suffered before Tuesday. The previous version’s end did not spark sudden change. A 9-0 victory against the Chicago White Sox on the penultimate day of April preceded 139 more games; the 1988 team finished 54-107, another franchise low until surpassed in 2018.
Having finally ended their losing streak, the 2021 Orioles are 18-37 heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Twins. Now comes the rest of the season.
This losing streak fell a week short of its predecessor and impacted a far different team; in 1988, Baltimore expected to contend before the bottom immediately fell out, while this year’s rebuilding unit had already accrued 17 wins. Still, an early-season losing streak of this length can carry weight going forward.
“When you’re up in the teens, you realize that’s the season. It’s over,” 1988 reserve infielder Rene Gonzalez told The Baltimore Sun five years later. “You will not be playing for a pennant.”
Amid an organizational rebuild focused on development, the 2021 Orioles were never seen as capable of that, but the losing streak and the 2-21 stretch it came amid buffered any rise in expectations a 15-16 start provided.
Tuesday’s win kept Brandon Hyde from joining Frank Robinson, who replaced Cal Ripken Sr. six games into 1988, as the only Baltimore manager to guide a team to 15 consecutive losses. At a point, both managers described their team’s struggles as “embarrassing.” Hyde has said repeatedly that losing is hard, no matter if a team is rebuilding or in the playoff hunt.
“Whether we’re winning or losing, it consumes me,” he said before the streak-snapping victory.
Before Hyde did the same 33 years later, Robinson frequently spoke of the effort present during his team’s slide. It, too, took a while to amount to a victory.
“We’re encouraged, but we’re not looking for encouragement anymore,” he told reporters when his Orioles dropped to 0-20. “We’re looking for a win.”
The pandemic has prevented access to this year’s Orioles clubhouse in the same manner Justice and his colleagues enjoyed, but Hyde and his players continually said they kept their heads up and remained positive during this difficult stretch. A read through Justice’s work shows the 1988 team struggled to do the same.
“This is what the 1988 Baltimore Orioles are going to be remembered for,” Kennedy said after loss 14 set the record for season-opening futility, “and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“I feel as much pressure as I’ve ever felt,” center fielder Fred Lynn said a game later within a story headlined “Orioles Do The Usual.” “I feel the kind of pressure I felt on clubs in pennant races. It’s not a monkey on our backs anymore. It’s Godzilla.”
“Now I know how the people on the Titanic felt,” pitching coach Herm Starrette said when The Streak reached 19. “I don’t expect anything good anymore,” designated hitter Larry Sheets added the same day.
“This is worse than anyone can imagine,” second baseman Billy Ripken said a day before they finally won. “We may not show it, but there are a lot of people here hurting.”
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When the dam at last broke and Robinson earned his first win as Baltimore’s manager, he made sure to note how much his players had gone through.
“The pressure wasn’t on me,” Robinson said. “Let’s make that clear. The pressure was on the players.”
Hyde said he felt “a lot more relief than happiness” after Tuesday’s final out, but the pressure on his club didn’t match that of Robinson’s. Losses were expected, even if not in such succession. They had already won games. Their streak didn’t reach the length that it captured national attention. President Joe Biden never called Hyde to empathize, as Ronald Reagan famously did with Robinson.
When the 1988 season ended, Ripken Jr., the Iron Man who set the standard for going to work each day, said he was thankful he would have some time off.
“I’m relieved that the season is over,” he said. “It has been a long year in a lot of respects. We can wipe the slate clean and start over.”
With 107 games left, Hyde’s Orioles don’t have to wait for the last of them to do the same. Their dugout was the loudest Hyde said he had heard in his three seasons. Likewise, the Orioles haven’t played celebratory music in their clubhouse in two weeks, but Trey Mancini said the volume had never been turned up higher. For a night, they could enjoy being, as starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann put it, “the team everybody in this clubhouse knows we can be.”
They have the rest of the season to show it.