Ground Zer-Os

Adversity is often called the great strengthener. You discover what you're really made of when you're hit with it. Anyone can show tremendous character when the going is good, but not everyone can show it when the going is lost somewhere between difficult and impossible.

Getting to the World Series? Try opening a season without winning for your first twenty-one games. The World Series might separate the men from the boys, but a season-opening losing streak like that can separate the men from themselves.

Thirty years ago, the Orioles learned it the hard way. And, on the thirtieth anniversary of the final loss of that 0-21 season-opening streak, MLB Network broadcast The Other Streak. In which they commemorated (if that's the appropriate word) the Orioles' streak and actually got some of the participants — including Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. — to reflect and remember what they might prefer to forget.

Some might think there's a touch of cruelty involved in the showing. Today's Orioles were 7-20 pending the outcome of their game against the Tigers on The Other Streak day; they'd split the first two of a three-game set. This year's edition isn't quite in the same condition as their 1988 forebears. They had losing streaks of five, two, six, and five entering last Sunday's action. They're not talented enough to have gone 21 straight without a win.

The '88 Orioles weren't the '03 Tigers who threatened but didn't quite equal or pass the 1962 Mets' 120 season losses. About the only thing the '03 Tigers had in common with the '88 Orioles was being managed by a franchise icon.

Alan Trammell was stuck from the '03 opening bell to the final curtain. Cal Ripken, Sr. escaped with his life early enough. He was canned after the first six losses. That might have left his two sons who played on the team a little infuriated but holding their tongues, but now it seems like a mercy killing. Another Oriole icon, Frank Robinson, took over, presided over the final 15 losses, then rode the rest of the sorry season out.

The '88 Orioles weren't even those '62 Mets, who opened with a measly nine-game losing streak. The Original Mets became baseball's version of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — with Casey Stengel as the hapless ringmaster.

The tigers and lions never showed up, but somehow Abbott & Costello were the usual the battery, the Marx Brothers covered the infield, the Three Stooges held the outfield, the Keystone Kops came off the bench, the Harlem Globetrotters came out of the bullpen, Charlie Chaplin coached first, and Buster Keaton coached third. Maybe Milton Berle was the bullpen coach. (Rumor has it that Red Skelton was the bench coach.)

Unfortunately, the '88 Orioles weren't that funny. On the field, anyway. Well, take that back for a moment. They blew consecutive win No. 20 with a walk, a balk, and a throwing error. The '62 Mets would have been proud.

Off the field they developed their own kind of gallows humor. After season-opening consecutive loss eleven, Baltimore radio host Bob Rivers swore he'd stay on the air until the Orioles won. After consecutive loss 20, Robinson said, gently, "We're gonna kill the poor guy."

Before loss 20, reserve outfielder Ken Gerhart received flowers from what the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell called a secret admirer. After teammates draped them around his locker, another reserve, outfielder/first baseman/DH Jim Dwyer said, "They're sending us roses like this was a funeral parlor."

A reporter newly assigned to the Orioles showed up in the locker room around the same time. "[O]ne more media type," Boswell wrote, "who can't go home to his family until the Orioles release him with a victory." Ripken had a more sanguine greeting to the poor sap. "Join the hostages," the shortstop beckoned.

They withstood gag comparisons to those '62 Mets and to myriad Senators teams from more ancient times, not to mention the 1930s (and almost ever after) St. Louis Browns, the 1940s Pirates, and maybe every Phillies team on the planet prior to 1950 and then from about 1953-1963.

But they'd also withstood the end of the Orioles' glory years, the end of the annual or semi-annual pennant races, an end that looked ignominious enough to too many. Then-owner Edward Bennett Williams might have been one of America's most talented legal trick shot artists but as a baseball owner he seemed more like the guy who'd sink the eight ball on his first stroke.

Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver re-tired, un-retired, and re-retired. Joe Altobelli managed to win a World Series after Weaver's first retirement, then got canned in such a way that Oriole lifers thought George Steinbrenner looked like a saint by comparison. There was so little grace in the dismissals of Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and such among his stout mates as Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, and Rich Dauer, that none of them stayed in the organization after taking off their uniforms. There was less grace in handing out contracts to free agents who made little sense and less of what remained of their once-considerable abilities.

Ripken and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray were disillusioned enough at the end of 1987 that both pondered hopes of being traded out of town. Murray's once-glittering relationship with Baltimore was destroyed over a scurrilous attempt by Williams to paint him as a malingerer while he was on the disabled list with a legitimate injury, causing Murray to turn off talking to writers for the rest of his career and giving him a very unfair image as a malcontent.

When Williams died in August 1988, Murray refused to attend his funeral. It punched the ticket out of town for a player who should have remained, with Ripken (one of his closest friends on the team), an Oriole for life.

After loss 20, designated hitter Larry Sheets was seen rubbing Murray's shoulders, Boswell noted, "as you would a favorite brother's so he wouldn't cry," though it was Sheets who looked closer to tears. Robinson opened a drawer from his office desk and displayed a pin given to him for better luck: "It's been lovely, but I have to scream now."

Loss 21 might have been that button's reference. The Twins started a pitcher with a 10.95 ERA the season before, Allan Anderson. His relief, Mike Mason, walked all three Orioles he faced. Mason's relief, Mark Portugal, went 1-10 in the minors in '87. But Ripken's blast down the left field line missed being a grand slam by inches as the ball brushed the Metrodome bag ceiling and turned into an inning-ending out.

Portugal finished the game with a 2.2-inning save. Orioles starter Mike Boddicker's stout start got wasted early enough and often enough. The 21st straight loss erased the memory of the Orioles taking a 1-0 lead in the first inning.

When the Orioles picked up, dusted off, and went to Chicago from there, they ended The Other Streak with a blast. And, a few comic surprises of their own.

First, Murray battered White Sox starter Jack McDowell with two outs in the first with a mammoth two-run homer. (Ripken had a two-out single ahead of him.) Then, in the fifth, with Ripken at the plate, Pete Stanicek scored on a wild pitch. Two innings later, Stanicek doubled home Joe Orsulak with nobody out in the first. And the fun was only beginning:

Billy Ripken — with McDowell knocked out of the game by Stanicek's double, reliever John Davis hit him on the first pitch. Brother Cal — whacked a grounder to third thrown wild enough to let Stanicek score. Sheets — after pinch runner Tito Landrum was thrown out at the plate and Fred Lynn walked to load the pads, he grounded one that scored Ripken just ahead of a throw home and kept the bases loaded. Terry Kennedy — sacrifice fly to left, scoring Murray.

Then, in the ninth, Cal Ripken led off against White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen — who was probably in the game just to get the work — and hit one over the fence. After Murray struck out, it was single, wild pitch, ground out, RBI single, and a 9-0 Oriole win. With Dave Schmidt shaking off a leadoff hit in the bottom of the ninth to save it for Mark Williamson.

Two days later, the Orioles returned home. Their record: 1-23. On the Memorial Stadium facade read the words TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS. The sellout crowd greeted the Orioles as if they were U2. Morganna the Kissing Bandit greeted Ripken with a plant right next to his kisser. Brother Billy admitted he was confused. "Usually, when a team plays like this," he said, "nobody goes to the park."

The Orioles released veteran pitcher Scott MacGregor, "the emblem of the Orioles intelligence and their almost 'magical' ability to surpass their apparent skills," as Boswell observed, on that very day. Punching the button on an overdue beginning of a painful rebuilding. The Orioles then beat the Rangers, 9-4. When Ripken settled under a game-opening popup and caught it without breaking a sweat, the park went nuclear.

Said Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller, "It was like the World Series had started."

But they'd finish 1988 at 54-107. They'd get to a couple of mid-1990s postseasons managed by one-time Oriole second baseman Davey Johnson; they'd make three under Buck Showalter in this decade. But they haven't been back to the World Series since they beat the Phillies in five in 1983. And what was once the Oriole Way was buried once and for almost all by The Other Streak.

It didn't get the Orioles all the way into the record books on the negative side. The '88 Zer-Os fell just short of the record losing streak set by the '61 Phillies. But it isn't every team that opens a season losing 21 straight. Or busts the streak, loses the next two, and still gets their their Hall of Fame-in-waiting shortstop a busty buss.

Then-President Ronald Reagan had once called the Orioles clubhouse to congratulate them on winning the 1983 World Series. During The Other Streak, Reagan called Frank Robinson to offer encouragement. "I've been accused of being a jinx by coming on Opening Day," said Reagan, "but you can't blame me for this one."

"He told me to win one for the Gipper," Robinson remembered.

It only took five more games to do it.

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