1989 Baltimore Orioles
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Managed by Frank Robinson
The 1989 Baltimore Orioles rose from the ashes of a 107-loss season (which famously began with a record 21 consecutive losses) in 1988 and battled for the American League East pennant. The Orioles held first place for 98 days before eventually being eliminated on the next-to-last day of the season by the Toronto Blue Jays. The team's 33-win improvement ranks as one of the greatest in history.
Under New Management
The turn-over within the franchise from Opening Day 1988 to Opening Day 1989 was tremendous. Team owner Edward Bennett Williams had died in August of 1988, and the Orioles started the season with new prospective owners, headed by Eli Jacobs who had announced the plan to keep Larry Lucchino as team president. Of course, it had only taken the first six games of the 21-game losing streak to cost Cal Ripken, Sr. his job as Oriole manager, and so, the 1989 season saw Frank Robinson's first spring training as the Oriole manager. Roland Hemond, who had taken over as GM after the 1987 season, had completed some 17 trades by Opening Day 1989.
The biggest trade had come in December of 1988 when the team finally acceded to Eddie Murray's more-than two-year-old request to be moved. Murray was sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers for minor league shortstop Juan Bell and relievers Ken Howell and Brian Holton.
Minor-leaguer Mike Devereaux was talked about in the Murray trade discussions, and during spring training, Hemond sent P Mike Morgan to Los Angeles to get Devereaux. While the Orioles were in Florida, Hemond also traded for Phil Bradley, giving up Howell; he got Bob Melvin for Terry Kennedy in a swap of catchers, and picked up 29-year-old pitcher Dave Johnson, who had led the American Association in wins in 1988.
Veterans Fred Lynn (traded for Chris Hoiles), Mike Boddicker (traded for Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling), Scott McGregor, Don Aase and Doug Sisk, all released, and Tom Niedenfuer, granted free agency, all were gone from the 1988 roster.
The 1989 team would break camp with 32-year-old Dave Schmidt (41 career wins) anchoring the starting staff filled out with 24-year-old JJ Bautista (6 wins), 24-year-old Bob Milacki (2 wins), 25-year-old Jeff Ballard (2 wins) and 22-year-old Pete Harnisch (0 wins). The outfield had the 30-year-old Phil Bradley, but also had rookies Brady Anderson, Devereaux and Steve Finley. Around SS Cal Ripken, Jr. in the infield were 1B Randy Milligan (with 83 career AB, and acquired a month before the Murray trade), 2B Rene Gonzales (353 career AB) and 3B Craig Worthington (81 career AB). For good measure, their closer, Gregg Olson, had been drafted the previous June.
Opening and Closing a Lead
On Opening Day, April 3rd, the Orioles faced the Boston Red Sox and Roger Clemens and won, 5-4, in 11 innings. Steve Finley made his major league debut that day and ran into the right-field fence in the 4th inning. Finley would leave the game, go on the disabled list and struggle with wrist and shoulder injuries for much of the first half. But Finley's play became part of the team mythology, as throughout the season, when asked about the Orioles' turn-around his teammates would cite Finley risking his neck on Opening Day.
On day 2, April 6th, the O's again defeated the Red Sox, this time beating their former ace, Mike Boddicker, 6-4, and were off.
On May 26th, Jeff Ballard (having what would turn out to be one of the great, fluky DIPS-defying seasons) won to lift his record to 8-1, pushing the Orioles to a game above .500 and into first place in the middling AL East. Three days later, Cal Ripken, Mickey Tettleton and Larry Sheets all homered off the Texas Rangers' Nolan Ryan and the Orioles began a seven-game win streak to open up a five-game lead by its end (on the same day the Orioles first-ever #1 draft pick rendered them Ben McDonald).
A second seven-game win streak two weeks later had the team 7 games ahead of the second-place Blue Jays.
On July 27th, a 7-0 loss to close a home stand snapped a five-game winning streak but didn't seem like a big deal, as the lead stood at 7 1/2 games (with no other team above .500 in the East). But the 2-12 road trip that followed let virtually the entire division back into contention. By salvaging the last game of the trip in Boston, the Orioles prevented the Sox from moving into a tie, but the division had grown so tight, that the 6th-place New York Yankees stood just 5 1/2 games back.
Four-man (and three-man) Rotation
Upon returning home, manager Frank Robinson, unable to find five starters he trusted, began using the four-man rotation of Milacki (5-9), Harnisch (1-5), Ballard (11-5) and Dave Johnson (0-1). Other than when doubleheaders dictated a fifth option, Robinson went with four starters the rest of the way – except for one nine-game stretch (from September 13th-23rd) when a three-man rotation (eliminating Harnisch) went through three complete cycles. On August 14th, forced to find a fifth starter in the wake of a doubleheader, Robinson announced that three different relievers would go three innings each; the result was a 4-1, 10-inning win. From the time Robinson went to the four-man rotation, Milacki went 9-3, with a 2.92 ERA in 13 starts, Harnisch 4-4, 3.59 in 10 starts, Ballard, 7-3, 3.12 in 13 starts and Johnson, 4-4, 4.03 in 13 starts, but it was the Baltimore-native Johnson who became the darling of the city.
On August 20th, having lost 2 straight to the Blue Jays, the Orioles held a half-game lead over both the Jays and the Milwaukee Brewers. In the final game of their series, the Orioles beat the Jays to hold them off, but it would be the last day the Orioles would gain a full game on the Jays until September 20th. Despite going at a respectable pace of 18-11 during that month, incredibly, each day that the Orioles won, if the Jays played, they won also. Over that month, the Orioles' 1 1/2-game lead over the Blue Jays became a two-game deficit.
The teams were to meet in Toronto's new Skydome for the last three games of the season, and they again approached the series in lock-step. The one-game lead the Jays held on September 24th never changed until the Orioles arrived to play on the 29th. The first pitch of the series was hit out of the park by Phil Bradley, and Ballard and Todd Stottlemyre kept it at 1-0 into the bottom of the 8th. With one out and a runner on 1st, the Orioles' rookie closer, Gregg Olson, came in. A stolen base and a ground out later, one of Olson's curveballs got by late-season pick-up Jamie Quirk. A two-out 11th-inning single by Lloyd Moseby won it for the Jays and clinched at least a tie.
Harnisch was slated to start the second game of the series, but reportedly stepped on a nail on the way back to the hotel on Friday. Dave Johnson got the start on three days' rest. The Jays scored in the 1st on George Bell's single (Bell's brother Juan was playing for the Orioles). The Orioles responded in the 3rd when Bradley was permitted to score from first on a fan interference double by Cal Ripken, and Randy Milligan followed by singling Ripken home for a 2-1 lead. The lead then became 3-1 on Bradley's second infield hit of the game which scored Devereaux. The lead stayed there until Dave Johnson was lifted after walking Nelson Liriano to lead off the home 8th. The Oriole bullpen gave up 3 runs in the 8th after Johnson's departure, and a three-up-three-down 9th ended the Orioles' shot at a worst-to-first season.
Defense and Walks
The team's successful turnaround was based on strong defense to help out young pitching – bringing up three center fielders, in Anderson, Devereaux and Finley; a virtual 2:1 double-play-to-error ratio and Bob Melvin behind the plate. But also, on offense, the Orioles drew enough walks to be at league average in on-base percentage despite being 12th in hits.
The top offensive performers for the year were C Tettleton (.258/.369/.509, 26 HR, 73 BB, 150 OPS+) and 1B Milligan (.268/.394/.458, 74 BB, 144 OPS+), with other solid contributors in LF Bradley (.277/.364/.417, 10 3B, 20 SB, 70 BB, 83 R, 124 OPS+), SS Cal Ripken (.257/.317/.401, 21 HR, 93 RBI, 105 OPS+), 3B Worthington (.247/.334/.384, 15 HR, 70 RBI, 106 OPS+) and RF Joe Orsulak (.285/.351/.421, 121 OPS+). Less effective were 2B Billy Ripken (.239/.284/.305, 70 OPS+) and DH Sheets (.243/.305/.359, 90 OPS+). Tettleton tied for 8th in the league in homers and Bradley was third in triples.
Ballard (18-8, 3.43) and Milacki (14-12, 3.74) led the staff, with Ballard finishing 5th in the league in wins. Olson (5-2, 27 Sv, 1.69), Mark Williamson (10-5, 9 Sv, 2.93) and Kevin Hickey (2-3, 2 Sv, 2.92) were the top relievers. Schmidt (10-13, 5.69) was the weak link in the rotation.
The one-year improvement was great, but it would take another few years before the team was a consistent contender. In 1991, the Orioles fell back to 6th place, 14 games below .500. However, starting in 1992, they put together a string of winning seasons, culminating in postseason appearances in 1996 and 1997, with CF Brady Anderson, who had first emerged in 1989, and of course the great Cal Ripken Jr., providing the link to the Cinderella team of 1989.
Awards and Honors
- All-Stars: Cal Ripken and Mickey Tettleton
- AL Rookie of the Year Award: Gregg Olson
- AL Silver Slugger Award: Cal Ripken (SS) and Mickey Tettleton (C)
- Topps All-Star Rookie Team: Craig Worthington (3B)
- AL Manager of the Year Award: Frank Robinson
- Joe Trezza: "1989 Orioles: The year of 'Why Not?'", mlb.com, September 13, 2019.