The great baseball city of Baltimore was at the peak of its glory coming into 1984. Over the past 23 seasons, the Orioles had 22 winning seasons. They won the rigorous AL East seven times. There were multiple near-misses that would have been easy playoff seasons by the standards of today. They had a reputation as a team that closed seasons strong. And in 1983, they won their third World Series championship of this glory era. The 1984 Baltimore Orioles were still a good team, but it was a step back and ushered in the end of an era.
Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray were the focal points of the lineup, having finished 1-2 in the MVP voting following the ’83 title run. Both picked up where they left off. Ripken had a stat line of .374 on-base percentage/.510 slugging percentage. Murray’s stat line was .410/.509, including 29 home runs, 110 RBI and another top-5 finish in the MVP vote.
But the players surrounding the two stars dipped substantially. Ken Singleton, Rich Dauer, Rick Dempsey, John Shelby, Al Bumbry and John Lowenstein—all key players for the past several years of success, did not produce.
The only notable offensive contributions beyond Ripken and Murray came from third baseman Wayne Gross, whose stat line was a respectable .346/.442, and left fielder Gary Roenicke, who posted a .346 OBP of his own. The lack of support for star talent is why Baltimore finished ninth in the American League for runs scored.
Pitching was the hallmark of Oriole success over the years and there were no problems here. Mike Boddicker emerged as a hero of the previous October and he won 20 games with a 2.79 ERA, good for fourth in the Cy Young results.
The rotation behind Boddicker was steady and consistent. Mike Flanagan, Storm Davis and Scott McGregor all went to the post at least thirty times and all finished with ERAs in the 3s. In the bullpen, Tippy Martinez and Sammy Stewart combined for 30 saves with ERAs in the 3s, although there wasn’t much behind them. But the quality of the rotation got the Oriole staff as a whole to second in the AL for ERA.
Baltimore’s bid for another championship got off to a less-than-stellar start—they lost ten of their first twelve games, including three straight in Toronto, where the Blue Jays were off to a hot start. It was late April before the Orioles found their footing. Between April 27 and May 20, they won every series, including taking two of three from the Jays. By Memorial Day, Baltimore’s record was a respectable 25-21.
Normally that would be enough to at least keep you in the mix heading into the summer. But there are a lot of differences that have to be underscored. The first is the difference in the era. From 1969-93, there were only two divisions per league, an East and a West, and only the first-place finisher advanced to the postseason.
That meant that in addition to sharing the AL East with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Toronto, Baltimore also had to compete with Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee (an AL team prior to 1998) for a single playoff berth.
Even so, a 25-21 record was still good enough to at least be in striking distance. In fact, in 1984, Baltimore’s Memorial Day record was better than the leaders of both the AL West and the NL West. But 1984 in the AL East was no ordinary year.
Yes, Toronto was hot, out to a 31-14 start. But Detroit was blazing. The Tigers were in the midst of a historic 35-5 start to the season. On this holiday weekend, the Orioles were staring at a 11 ½ game deficit in the division.
June would be the critical month. Baltimore and Detroit would play a pair of series against each other. The Orioles could reasonably hope to chip away at the lead in the head-to-head games, and then count on the Tigers simply being too hot not to cool down.
The first series opened up at old Tiger Stadium on a Friday night and was less than ideal for the Birds. McGregor was rocked off the mound by the second inning in a 14-2 loss. But Baltimore bounced back the following afternoon. Storm Davis outpitched Detroit ace Jack Morris, Gross and Singleton each homered and the Orioles won 5-0. Flanagan came out on Sunday and delivered another game, winning 2-1.
Baltimore nudged to within 8 ½ games and Detroit made the return visit to old Memorial Stadium. This would be a four-game set ending with a Sunday doubleheader.
Again, it started poorly. This time it was the bats failing. Ripken and Murray went hitless in a 3-2 loss. Again, Flanagan stepped up. He tossed a complete-game shutout on Saturday afternoon and won 4-0. With Boddicker scheduled to pitch the first game on Sunday, the Orioles were primed to make a move.
But instead, Boddicker struggled and lost to a relative no-name pitcher in Detroit’s Glenn Abbott, 10-4. The Orioles mailed in the nightcap, mustering only three hits in an 8-0 loss. Not only had Baltimore slipped back to eleven games out, but they had been humiliated on their home field.
It has to be noted this was more about the greatness of Detroit in 1984, arguably the best team of the entire decade, than anything having to do with Baltimore. The Tigers left a number of good AL East teams in the dust this year.
Baltimore continued to play reasonably consistent baseball. They were 46-39 by the All-Star break, still eleven games back. By Labor Day, the Orioles were 73-62. That was 14 ½ games back of Detroit, but still third-best in the American League.
September did not go particularly well. Even though the Birds won a couple series with a Tiger team that had moved into the champagne-drinking stage of the season, Baltimore went 2-5 against New York and 3-5 against Boston. Both the Yankees and Red Sox moved ahead of the Orioles in the final standings. Baltimore clocked in at 85-77, fifth in the AL East.
That was still better than anyone in the AL West, where Kansas City took the division with an 84-win season. It was still eighth-best in all of baseball. In other words, it was playoff-caliber baseball by the standards of today.
What it also was though, was a pretty substantial step back from where this proud franchise had been. 1985 was more of the same—another year that was above .500, but the decline continuing. A year later, the glory era of baseball in Baltimore officially bottomed out.