The Baltimore Orioles were coming off a disastrous year in 1988. They opened that season by losing their first 21 games, firing manager Cal Ripken Sr. just six games in (and in the process antagonizing his son, Cal Jr., merely the face of the franchise) and finishing with a record 54-107. The 1989 Baltimore Orioles were a great turnaround story, as they contended to the final weekend of the season. Here are the most important things to know about a special season in Charm City…
*As you might expect, the Orioles made some moves in the offseason. The most notable was trading future Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray to the Dodgers. Murray was in the twilight of his great career and Baltimore got a good replacement in Randy Milligan via a separate deal with Pittsburgh. Milligan finished with a stat line of .394 on-base percentage/.458 slugging percentage.
*As you might not expect, the team’s resurgence came in spite of an off-year from Ripken Jr, who settled for a pedestrian stat line of .317/.401. The offense was carried by catcher Mickey Tettleton, who popped 26 home runs and had an OBP of .369. Phil Bradley, a new acquisition from Philadelphia to play leftfield, posted an OBP of .364 and rightfielder Joe Orsulak was at .351.
*Patience at the plate and home run power were the keys to Baltimore’s success. They were able to finish fifth in the American League in runs scored in spite of being seventh in OBP and 11th in slugging. The team batting average was even worse, at 12th in a 14-team league. Where the Birds made up for it was walks—where they were second, and home runs, where they were fifth.
*The pitching was problematic, ranking ninth in the AL in ERA. Jeff Ballard was the best of the group, winning 18 games with a 3.43 ERA and Bob Milacki was respectable, with a 3.74 ERA and 14 wins while piling up over 240 innings. But rotation depth was non-existent.
*Manager Frank Robinson was able to compensate for some of this shortcomings with use of the bullpen. Closer Gregg Olson had a great year, saving 27 games (a good number in an era when complete games by starters still happened), with Mark Williamson, Mark Thurmond, Brian Holton and Kevin Hickey providing some solid support.
*The first victory of the season—so elusive in 1988—came right off the bat on Opening Day. The Orioles beat the Boston Red Sox 5-4 in eleven innings. Beating the defending AL East champs, with Roger Clemens on the mound no less, proved to be a harbinger of better things to come.
*Weakness in the AL East also made the Baltimore revival seem even more dramatic. They played average baseball through Memorial Day, but the 23-22 record was good enough for first place. Between Memorial Day and the end of June, the Birds took off. At one point they won 15 of 16 games. They beat the eventual World Series champion Oakland A’s three of four and held the potent A’s offense to five runs in the three wins.
*Baltimore was riding high at the All-Star break, with a 48-37 record good enough to lead the division by 5 ½ games over New York, six on Boston, seven on Toronto and 7 ½ over Milwaukee (The Brewers were in the American League prior to 1998. And they were in the AL East prior to the 1994 realignment and creation of the Central Division). The Oriole lead soared as high as seven games after they won four out of six from the Blue Jays.
*It was a road trip to Oakland were things started to go awry. Baltimore lost four straight to the A’s and it started a 2-12 skid. Meanwhile, Toronto was starting to surge. In the month of August, the Blue Jays caught and passed the Orioles. When Labor Day arrived, signaling the start of the stretch run, Baltimore was a game back of Toronto. Boston was five games out and still hoping for a repeat ALCS trip (there was no wild-card and no divisional round in the straight East-West alignment that existed from 1969-93).
*The race stabilized through September. The Red Sox faded, and the Orioles and Blue Jays jousted for the final couple weeks. Baltimore slipped as many as 2 ½ games out, but were back to within a single game by the final weekend. They went to Toronto for a three-game set, needing two wins to force a one-game playoff—or to clinch with a sweep.
*Ballard was brilliant in the Friday night opener ,but after a first inning solo blast from Bradley, the offense fell silent. The game went into extra innings tied 1-1 where the Jays scraped over a run against Williamson. The Orioles had no breathing room left.
*Williamson had another tough go of it on Saturday afternoon. Baltimore led 3-1 going into the eighth inning and Williamson came on with runners on first and second. Two singles and a sac fly later, Toronto had a 4-3 lead, they closed it out in the ninth and the race was over.
*Manager Frank Robinson was a deserved winner of Manager of the Year, but this was his high point as Baltimore manager. The Orioles slipped back under .500 each of the next two years and did not return to contention until 1992 under the leadership of Johnny Oates. The franchise did not return to the postseason until a 1996-97 run of ALCS trips under Davey Johnson.