The 2012 Baltimore Orioles Conjures up Memories of 1989 Squad

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The 2012 Baltimore Orioles are starting to draw national attention as a team that may actually be able to compete for a playoff spot in the American League this season.

Why not, when you consider that there are now two wild card teams that get to play what is essentially, a coin flip game to enter the real post season.

Maybe the impossible could even happen and the Birds end up catching the Yankees for the top spot in A.L East. Are you not a believer the Orioles can pull such a feat this season? Why not, they have what could be the newest and hottest 20 something superstar in Manny Machado. Wearing No.13, the young Alex Rodriguez look-alike has six hits, three of them home runs and one a triple in his first 13 plate appearances entering play Tuesday.

Speaking of “why not”, this 2012 O’s squad is starting to draw comparisons to the 1989 team that went on to lead the A.L East by almost eight games at one point during the season. This was a surprise to many of the so-called baseball experts especially when you consider how bad the Orioles were just the year before.

Just five years removed from having won a World Series title, the Baltimore Orioles began the 1988 season losing 21 straight games. They fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. six games into the season and replaced him with O’s legend Frank Robinson, who went on to lead the O’s to a whopping 54-101 record to close out the tumultuous season.

The Orioles were not used to losing back then, In fact, no team posted a better winner record in baseball from 1968 until 1985. The Orioles enjoyed 18 consecutive winning seasons during that span, winning the A.L. east seven times, and making five trips to the World Series, winning two of them.

While both teams won just 54 games, the 1954 Orioles only played in 154 games giving them a better winning percentage (.351) than the 88 squad (.335)did.

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The 88 O’s were of course led by the dynamic duo of Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken but much seemed to be missing in terms of chemistry on and off the field. Murray seemed to be shouldering most of the blame for the poor play on the field and the media always coddled and babied Ripken Jr, especially since his father was fired six games into the 88 season. However, Murray was far from a media prince and as the 88 season ended, it was a foregone conclusion that Murray would be playing somewhere else in 1989.

No Orioles starter won more than eight games in 88’ and as the season ended, one could sense the end of an era was coming. It began with the release of Scott McGregor on May 2 and continued when they traded pitcher Mike Boddicker to the Boston Red Sox on July 29 for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling.  Fan favorite Jim Dwyer was dealt to the Twins and Fred Lynn to the Tigers two days later. Indeed, Murray would no longer be an Oriole and on Dec 4, was traded to the Dodgers.

The Orioles entered the 1989 season with little or no expectations to win. They were predicted by many to finish as bad as they did the season before. However, the O’s won the first two games of the 89 season and were 5-5 after 10 games. Surprisingly, they were 11-9 through 20, and 19-21 at the quarter pole.

A funny thing was happening in the A.L East, the Orioles, despite being two games under .500, trailed the division leading the Cleveland Indians by just one game. The Birds were not knocking the cover off the ball, but they were getting solid starting pitching. Jeff Ballard emerged as the ace of the staff.

In the bullpen, the Orioles were holding late leads, as the Birds No.1 pick from the year before, 22-year old rookie closer Gregg Olson, would go on to win A.L rookie of the Year that season.

As the All-Star break approached, the Orioles and their fans were starting to believe the Birds could actually win the A.L. East. Why Not, was the two word slogan adopted around the Charm City. Many started to think, why couldn’t the Baltimore Orioles, who were the worst team in baseball just eight months prior, win the division in 1989. “Why Not” tee shirts were printed and new hometown heroes emerged.

Mickey Tettleton, whom the O’s signed as a free agent just after the start of the 88 season became the teams power hitting force in 1989. Known for his love of the breakfast cereal Fruit Loops, Tettleton had 16 homeruns by the end of May, which was more than any A.L catcher since Rudy York in 1938. 

These were not your dads Orioles. They were not hitting the three run home runs and winning with a plethora of games with potential 20-game winners on the mound. These Orioles were winning with heart, hard work, and hustle. With 33 comeback wins during the season, there was also a little Orioles Magic sprinkled on top.

One constant between the older generation of O’s players and the 1989 team was the ability to play defense. Led by Cal Ripken at shortstop, the Birds led all of baseball with .986 fielding percentage during the season, and was one of two teams to commit less than 100 errors during the year. (O’s-87 Angels-96)

Manager Frank Robinson used 89 different line ups in 1989, and used the same lineup just 12 times all season. This kept players on their toes and ready to play. Robinson’s philosophy was that if you were hot, you played and if you weren’t, you sat. Many still felt the O’s were a fluke until the second place New York Yankees visited Memorial Stadium for a series in mid-June.  The O’s were fresh off having scored 16 runs against the Yanks in New York on June 5, and after taking two of three from them in Baltimore, led the east by five games.

The lead increased by a half game at the All-Star break. The Birds entered the break at 48-37 and stayed hot following the break. They won five of six following the traditional halfway mark of the season and extended their lead to 7.5 games over the Bronx Bombers and 8.5 over the Toronto Blue Jays. However, the good times were about to end as the O’s set out on a 14-game four-team road trip that began with a four game series in Oakland. The A’s were the best team in baseball and swept the O's to start the road trip. From there it was on to Minnesota were there Birds were swept again, and counting the loss to close the homestand following the All-Star break, the Orioles were now losers of eight straight.  Their lead in the division had dwindled to just four games over the Indians and Blue Jays.

The O’s would finish the road trip 2-12 and return home with a two game lead on August 4. After going 17-11 in June, the Orioles were just 11-16 in July. August and September would be kinder to the black and orange, as the O’s posted a combined 32-26 record, but losing 12 of 14 games would prove to be costly.

The O’s slowed down and although they played winning baseball in August and September, they needed to be better than they were playing to hold off a very talented and primed Blue Jay team loaded with veteran players.

Mickey Tettleton hit just 10 home runs from June 1 until the end of the season, which reflected the trend of the ball club. The Orioles could not buy a run or a victory when they needed it most following the All-Star break in 1989. After hitting 72 home runs and scoring 398 runs during the first half of the season, they could muster just 57 home runs while scoring 88 fewer runs to close the season.

Outfielder Joe Orsulak led the Orioles in hitting with a .285 batting average and Cal Ripken batted just .268 for the season. To say that Cal missed batting in front of Eddie Murray was the understatement of the 1989 season. Ripken’s .257 batting average and 21-home runs were career lows for the Iron Man up to that point of his career.  Ripken’s .238-second half batting average typified an O’s offense that simply collapsed. The pitching held up for most of the season. The Orioles staff posted a 3.85 ERA during the first half and a 4.05 during the second half, allowing just two more runs over the first half than they did during the second half.

The staff was actually stellar during the month of August, tossing eight complete games and a 3.67 ERA, with two shutouts.  Many fans will recall how Middle River, Maryland native Dave Johnson joined the O’s staff on August 1 and won four of his first six starts. The former truck driver won critical games against the Red Sox and Yankees.

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Unfortunately, the O’s did not have the star power as the teams chasing them, namely the Blue Jays. On the last day of August and following an 11-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Blue Jays were tied with the Birds atop the A.L East. The Jays had played magnificent ball since the break. They went from four games under .500 to 10 games over by posting a 30-16 mark.

O’s fans geared up for a stretch drive that promised to be as compelling as the final days of 1982 season.  Seven year earlier, the Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers met on the final day of the season to decide the A.L East championship in Baltimore, but that is not the whole story. The O’s trailed the Brew Crew by three games with four to play, and after winning the first three to tie Milwaukee for the division lead, the O’s couldn’t pull the four game sweep and lost on the final day of the season as Don Sutton outpitched Jim Palmer to claim the division title for Harvey Kuenn’s Brewers.

The Orioles and Jays were set to meet in Toronto for a three game series to end the season and every one pointed to that series as the one that would decide the division. The “Why Not” posters and tee shirts were everywhere in Baltimore. Since the Colts left town in 1984, the O’s had become the main attraction. There were music videos and “Why Not” hype encased in black and orange everywhere you looked. News casts led with Oriole game results instead of finishing with them as fans didn’t seem to mind that the Birds had just blown a seven and a half game lead in just three and half weeks.

The Jays would win 10 of 15 to start September and take a two and half-game lead on the Birds, but as they had done all year, the Orioles closed the gap to one game with three remaining heading to Toronto the final weekend of the season.

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Things looked great early for the Birds, very early as the series got underway at the new Sky Dome on Friday night. Bars in Baltimore were packed with O’s fans and they were provided with a lift as soon as the game started. Outfielder Phil Bradley, whom the Orioles acquired from the Phillies in December, led off the game and took Blue Jays starter Todd Stottlemyre’s first pitch over the left-field wall to give the Birds a 1-0 lead.

The O’s could not build on the one run lead, and three times failed to plate a run with the bases loaded. Tension was building as the later innings drew closer.  Jeff Ballard, who was 18-8 for the O’s in 1989, kept the Jays from scoring throughout the game. Fate also seemed to be on the side of the Orioles. In the first three innings, for example, they had three runners retired on base-one trapped between second and third, another caught stealing and the third picked off first base.

Then came the fateful eighth inning and before the Orioles bullpen blew it in the bottom half of the inning, the O’s bats had a chance to increase the lead in the top half of it. Joe Orsulak singled and stopped at third on Randy Milligan`s double. After an intentional walk to Mickey Tettleton filled the bases, Steve Finley, running for Orsulak, was cut down at the plate trying to score on Craig Worthington`s grounder to third baseman Kelly Gruber.

The Jays tied the score in the bottom half when former NY Met Mookie Wilson, who always seemed to be in these games during the 80’s, opened with a single and was forced at second on Fred McGriff`s groundball. Tom Lawless, running for McGriff, stole second, went to third on a hit-and-run grounder and scored when rookie Gregg Olson`s curve ball, that had been so effective all season, failed him as he threw a wild pitch.

It was a matter of time before the Jays would win the game, clinching at least a tie for the division. Momentum was clearly on the side of the home team and in the 10th, loaded the bases but failed to score on Olsen. Their winning rally was off reliever Mark Williamson, who had a great year himself. Williamson was 10-5 and the only Orioles pitcher with a sub three ERA to throw more than 100 innings in 1989. The beginning of the end began with a one-out single by Manny Lee. Nelson Liriano, running for Lee, advanced to second when Ernie Whitt, on a hit-and-run, grounded to third.

With the winning run in scoring position and first base open, O’s skipper Frank Robinson, who would go onto to win the A.L. Manager of the Year award, elected to put Junior Felix on with an intentional pass and pitch to Moseby. It made sense; the old veteran was hitting .219 and has been mired in a season-long slump.

However, it was not to be. Moseby singled to score Liriano and the Jays led the east by two with two games to play. Toronto would clinch the division the following day with a 4-3 victory ending the season that will forever be known as the “Why Not” season in Baltimore.

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While this year’s Orioles team is similar in terms of unexpected success, and both teams entered the season with new but old uniform designs, there are many differences between the two teams. The Orioles who have not had a winning season since 1997, have 10 first round draft choices that have all been picked no lower than ninth either on the team or in the system. Currently, Nick Markakis (7th overall) Matt Wieters (5th overall), and Manny Machado (3rd overall) occupy roster sports with the big club.  If you count Adam Jones, who was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Erik Bedard deal, the Orioles have four first round draft choices playing every day.

Only Gregg Olsen could boast the same claim in 1989 as he was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 1988 amateur draft. Of course, the Orioles did draft big Ben McDonald with the No.1 overall selection from LSU that June. This help to add to the hype that was the “Why Not” season of 1989.

Of course, hype is the best way to describe McDonald’s career. Big Ben was a very disappointing 58-53 with the Birds before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in December 1997.

The 1989 team was built by general manager Roland Hemond and assistant GM Larry Luchino. This squad been built by a collective front of four GM’s dating back to Jim Beattie in 2005. The 1989 team consisted of grinders that as an O’s fan, you knew deep down could not win for a sustained period. And they didn’t. The 90 Birds finished in fifth and the 91 version, sixth.  Under the current playoff format, and adding a third division, it is likely the 1989 Orioles would have been the second wild card.

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Kansas City, Oakland and Toronto would have been your division winners, with the Angels and Orioles as the two wildcards.

The 2012 squad is built for the long haul. Through 115 games in 1989, the Orioles were 59-56, and the 2012 squad is 62-53. The 1989 season is a year that will always live in Orioles fans memories. The 33 game improvement from the year before is something you just do not see every day in professional sports.

It was the last great season on 33rd street at the grand old palace we Baltimoreans called, Memorial Stadium. Those Orioles, as far as I’m concerned seem a part of a generation of memories that current O’s owner Peter Angelos knows nothing about or cares for, despite living his entire life in Baltimore. At this point in my life, I just want to see a winner for one year.

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