25 years later: The legacy of the Orioles' 'Why Not?' season

BALTIMORE - The Orioles open the 2014 season Monday against the Boston Red Sox and expectations haven’t been this high in Charm City since the team led wire-to-wire and won the AL East crown in 1997.

Twenty-five years ago, the Orioles also opened the season against the Red Sox, but the expectations from fans were far different.

The Orioles were one year removed from their worst season in franchise history, having gone 54-107 and placed seventh in the AL East. Even worse, the Orioles began the 1988 season with a MLB-record 21-game losing streak to start the season.

But, the 1989 Orioles were a much different team; something that was evident on opening day. In that game, the Orioles rallied from a 3-0 deficit before scoring four runs off Boston starter Roger Clemens. 

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Then, with the game tied at 4, Orioles third baseman Craig Worthington singled off reliever Bob Stanley with one out in the bottom of the 11th to drive in catcher Mickey Tettleton and give Baltimore a 5-4 win at Memorial Stadium.

The “Why Not?” season was born.

Orioles players, coaches and fans embraced “why not” as the mantra for that season, believing there was no reason the team couldn’t go from worst to first and get the team back into the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1983.

“What people didn’t realize was that the 1989 team’s roster was far different from the 1988 team,” said former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, who was traded to the Orioles during the 1988 season. “Our defense was as good as anybody in the league, we had starters pitching out of their minds and a solid bullpen with a closer [Gregg Olson] that was very impressive.”

Clean slate

Anderson, now the Orioles vice president of baseball operations, was correct in his assessment. The Orioles cleaned house after the 1988 season as just 12 players on the roster that season were on the team in 1989.

While the 1989 Orioles had future Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., their roster that season was a mix of homegrown players, those acquired in trades and castoffs from other organizations. This included outfielder Phil Bradley and first baseman Randy Milligan, who were acquired in trades from the Pirates and Phillies, respectively.

Olson and Worthington were homegrown rookies, while pitcher Dave Johnson came up from the minors in August after being traded to the Orioles from the Houston Astros.

“We had a great mix of players on that roster,” said Johnson, a Baltimore County native who is now part of the team’s broadcast team. “We had a lot of guys just coming into their own or ones that were a few years away from being big-time impact players in the big leagues. There were also young, hungry guys and others that wanted to prove themselves.”

Down to the wire

For most of that 1989 season, the Orioles proved they belonged and more.

The Orioles were among the best teams in baseball that season, and sat atop the AL East standings for many weeks. Ripken (.257, 21 HR, 93 RBI) and Tettleton (.258, 26, 65) made the All-Star team, Olson (27 saves 1.69 ERA) was AL Rookie of the Year and Jeff Ballard (18-8, 3.43 ERA) provided the team with an ace starter. Also, Frank Robinson was named AL Manager of the Year.

At the same time, the Toronto Blue Jays were in the midst of a turnaround of their own. The Blue Jays opened the season 12-24 and had lost 15 of 19 games when the team fired manager Jimy Williams and replaced him with Cito Gaston.

The Blue Jays also played their last game at Exhibition Stadium before moving into Skydome. By the time September rolled around, the Blue Jays were deep into the pennant race after going 20-9 in August.

The Orioles and Blue Jays each had the AL East crown in their reach heading into the final weekend of the season. Toronto had a two-game lead with Baltimore coming into Skydome for a three-game series. Needing to win at least two games to force a playoff, the Orioles came up short; losing the first two games 2-1 and 4-3, respectively.

Johnson was a major part of that series as he pitched into the eighth inning of the second game of the series before leaving with a 3-1 lead that the bullpen could not hold. He got the start three hours before game time after Pete Harnisch was scratched after stepping on a nail while walking back to the team hotel the night before.

“That was a crazy season for sure, it’s just unfortunate that we didn’t make the playoffs that season,” Johnson said.

Fallout

And it would be another seven seasons before the Orioles would make the playoffs again.

For all of the excitement and momentum the Orioles gained from the “Why Not?” season, they weren’t able to build on it. Ballard went 8-23 the next two seasons for the Orioles and was out of baseball by 1994. Johnson went 13-9 in 1990 but injuries forced him out of the game by 1993.

Arguably the most damaging fallout of the 1989 season came after the 1990 season when the Orioles traded Harnisch, pitcher Curt Shilling and outfielder

Steve Finley to the Houston Astros for first baseman Glenn Davis.

The three former Orioles went on to have long, successful careers while Davis suffered a nerve injury in his neck during his first spring training game with the Orioles and had three unproductive seasons to cap what many consider one of the worst trades in baseball history.

Johnson said he couldn’t fully appreciate the time he spent in the pennant race in 1989 because as  a 29-year-old rookie at the time, he was just trying to survive in the major leagues.

“I look back fondly on it now, but at the time, I went into every appearance wondering if it was going to be my last,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he draws many similarities between the 1989 team and the Orioles today, especially when thinking about the team’s postseason run in 2012. That season, Johnson’s son, Steve, was called up from the minors and helped the Orioles advance to the American League Divisional Series after 14 consecutive losing seasons.

“That team in 2012 had no expectations from fans at the start of the season, but just like we did in 1989, they proved everyone wrong,” Johnson said. “And to see my son play a role in that was pretty special.”

Anderson offers a different perspective and believes there is no comparison.

“Bottom line is they made the playoffs in 2012 and we didn’t in 1989,” Anderson said. “I remember much more from 1996 and 1997 when we made the postseason, which changes your perspective on everything as a player.

“That’s not to take away from what was accomplished that season after such a horrible year in 1988. Frank had a great ability that year of inserting the right people into the right places. We just came up a few games short.”

Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museum, said the 1989 campaign was definitely an anomaly in the middle of some rough seasons in Orioles history. But, it will also go down as one of the most memorable.

“The ‘Why Not’ season stands by itself as one of the more special in Orioles history,” Gibbons said. “Because of the fiasco that was the 1988 season, the success in 1989 was so rewarding for so many fans and one that won’t be forgotten.”

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