Do you really need a solid argument against tanking? We all know that two teams thought it would get them to the World Series. In their outlying cases, they were right.
We all know a number of other teams have gone in the tanks and come up with nothing remotely close to those two. The ones with that tainted Series win is still in the thick of the races with a decent chance to win a clean Series. The ones who ended their 108-year rebuilding effort with a Series win had a fire sale at this year’s trade deadline.
And we also know that there’s no greater argument against tanking teams, not to mention the baseball regime that lets them get away with it, than the team that once set the American League losing streak record while falling two short of the Show record.
What’s the difference between the 1988 Orioles and this year’s model? Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic asked and answered a few days ago: The ’88 Orioles were at least trying. They had two future Hall of Famers, a few former All-Stars, and a Hall of Fame outfielder who’d been ornery as a player but developed an amazing sense of the absurd as a skipper.
Told that a local disc jockey would stay on the air until his Orioles finally won a game, Frank Robinson deadpanned, “We’re gonna kill the poor guy.” Late in the streak, Robinson pulled his office desk drawer open and pulled out a button he’d been handed by a sympathetic fan for luck: “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”
Those Orioles themselves developed considerable gallows humour as the streak continued apace. Spotting a writer new on the Oriole beat, Cal Ripken, Jr. beckoned him over: “Join the hostages.”
They finally broke the streak on 29 April 1988. It took a guy with a 4.00+ ERA starting to hold the White Sox scoreless while the most they could muster through six was a two-run homer (Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in the first) and a run home on a wild pitch (to Hall of Famer Ripken).
Look at the line score and it looks like the Orioles rose from the dead in the seventh. Look at the actual inning and it was an RBI double, another run home on a throwing error, another run home on a busted, bases-loaded fielder’s choice, and a third run home on a sacrifice fly. Except for the RBI double all four runs were unearned.
In the ninth, Ripken led off with a home run off the White Sox’s then-remarkable closer Bobby Thigpen, and Terry Kennedy sent Fred Lynn home with a single off Thigpen.
The inspiring words on the outside of Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, on what was called Memorial Wall, read, “Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds.” They finished the tribute to Baltimore’s wartime fallen. They took on a perverse new meaning when the Orioles ended that losing streak. Then the Orioles blew up again the day after, losing to the White Sox, 4-1. It must have been awful tempting to add a p.s. to the Memorial Wall: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”
This year’s model should only be that lucky.
This year’s Orioles have committed few good deeds and inflicted excess punishment—on their fans. Oriole jokes run rampant. (The Orioles can’t use the Internet—they can’t put three Ws together!)
This year’s model has a couple of former All-Stars turned reclamation projects that look one day like stickers and the next like the Orioles can’t wait for someone else to re-claim them. Though even they might be hard pressed to figure out why.
Even the in-season retirement of Chris Davis, bombardier turned walking deadman for too long, too sadly, too lacking for knowledge as to what really happened and why, didn’t leave room for a change in fortune.
Now these Orioles have lost nineteen straight. Number nineteen really hits where it hurts. The good news Monday was the Orioles scoring eight runs. The bad news was that they were destroyed by the Angels—a team one game under .500 but still going nowhere much, despite the presence of Two-Way Ohtani while still missing Mike (Mr. Everything) Trout on the injured list—before they got their second run of the game.
The Angels bludgeoned the Orioles, 14-8, with thirteen runs in three innings straight (five in the second and fourth, three in the third) before tacking another on in the eighth. All that was after the Orioles opened with a 1-0 lead thanks to Ryan Mountcastle’s one-out homer off former Oriole Dylan Bundy. No lead goes unpunished anymore, either.
The Orioles have been in the tank since the 2016 wild card game. “I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it,” then-manager Buck Showalter still insisted four years later. “I’m at peace with that.”
Oriole fans (yes, there remain Oriole fans) may never be at peace with Showalter absolutely refusing to bring in the best relief pitcher of 2016 with two on, one out, and Edwin Encarnacion due to check in at the plate in the bottom of the eleventh—because Zack Britton doesn’t come in unless, you know, the Orioles have a lead to protect. The Gospel According to Blind Managers Needing a Stopper Five Seconds Ago.
So Showalter left Ubaldo Jimenez in. And Encarnacion left the Orioles behind when his three-run homer sailed into Rogers Centre’s second deck. Showalter’s still at peace with that? He’s lucky Earl Weaver didn’t throw lightning bolts down on his head from the Elysian Fields.
The Orioles decided the only way to get back to greatness from there was to go in the tank. They finished dead last in the American League East in three of the four seasons to follow, a fourth-place finish breaking the monotony. They’re 201-345 over the span. They also fired Showalter after their 47-115, fire-sale accented 2018. As if it was Showalter’s idea to go tanking the night away.
“The sport is cyclical,” Rosenthal wrote. “Teams, especially those with lower revenues, occasionally must rebuild. From 2012 to ’16, the Orioles won more regular-season games than any team in the American League. They were bound to regress. But even Major League Baseball is now implicitly acknowledging that some teams go too far in what Tony Clark, the head of the Players Association, once called “the race to the bottom.”
It won’t do to point to two more low-revenue teams and notice six trips to the postseason in the past nine years (a tip of the beak, Athletics) or six in the past thirteen including a pair of World Series appearances. (Greetings, Rays.) Those two teams have established front office brains. Orioles general manager Mike Elias came in in 2018—when Dan Duquette was executed after the season—with the Orioles tying one hand behind his back to open.
His own career having begun covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Evening Sun during that ’88 losing streak (was he the one Ripken invited to join the hostages?), Rosenthal points to Elias’s predecessor Dan Duquette stripping the major league roster with trades that haven’t proven successful yet, if they ever will.
The Orioles’ ten-thumbed ownership left Elias to spend his first few seasons on baseball’s version of poverty row. The team’s international and analytics departments need either a booster or an overhaul. These Orioles may also have the number two farm system at this writing, but they have the pitching depth of a match book up and down the organisation.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for an organisation that boasts seven men (Murray, Ripken, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Mike Mussina, and longtime manager Earl Weaver) wearing Orioles hats on their Hall of Fame plaques.
These Orioles, as Rosenthal says, should be hoisted as Exhibit A in the Tanking Hall of Shame. They’re the number one argument that tanking needs to be stopped, once and for all, that those who own major league franchises have an obligation to make their best efforts to put a competitive product on the field. Even modestly-endowed franchises can and have been known in the past to retool/remake/rebuild on the fly while continuing to keep competing.
It’s unhealthy for baseball when one of its formerly model franchises stands as the lead argument against what Rosenthal calls “owners perpetuat[ing] their rebuilding myths, getting away with lower payrolls and the losing that comes with them, knowing many fans will raise nary a whimper, wanting to see only the best in their favorite teams.”
“This is incredibly challenging and a huge gut check,” said manager Brandon Hyde after the Angels scorched the Camden Yards earth Monday. “We’re trying to keep our spirits high.” They may be tempted to drinking more than their fair share of spirits before this debacle ends.
If and when these Orioles finally figure out a way to keep from joining their 1988 forebears or the major league losing-streak record holders (the 1961 Phillies), I’m pretty sure they won’t resurrect the inspiring words posted on the outside of the late Memorial Stadium.
But they might hang a banner across the warehouse behind Camden Yards with a line from former Beatle George Harrison, of blessed memory: “All Things Must Pass.” The cynic will be ready to hang a next-day p.s.: “Including One-Game Winning Streaks.”