This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
In blackjack, 21 is a good number. If somehow, you are dealt an ace and a face card or a ten, you win! Plain and simple. If you’re dealt a 21 in Las Vegas, you’ll hit the jackpot. But in 1988, 21 was a bad number for the Baltimore Orioles.
To start the 1988 season, the Orioles lost 21 consecutive games. In other words, the Orioles needed 22 games before finally recording their first win of the season. It went downhill early and it never went uphill for the rest of the year.
The warning signs were there at the close of the 1987 season, where the Orioles finished that campaign with a 7-22 record for the month of September. That poor finish, dropped the O’s to a 67-95 record for the season, their worst record in 80 years.
Then along came 1988. Usually when the season begins, hope springs eternal for all teams. The Orioles hopes died a fast, yet painful death in 1988. After losing their first six games, the Orioles fired manager Cal Ripken Sr. and replaced him with Frank Robinson. It didn’t help. The Orioles lost their next 15 games, to start the season 0-21, the worst start in Major League Baseball history. After snapping their 21-game disaster with a convincing 9-0 rout of the Chicago White Sox, the Orioles went about their losing ways for the rest of the season, bottoming out with a 54-107 mark, 34.5 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Orioles were so bad, they finished 23.5 games behind the Cleveland Indians, who were nearest to them in the standings.
The Orioles were last in hitting, batting .238 as a team for the season. The Orioles were last in pitching, as the staff combined for a 4.54 ERA, while surrendering 789 runs, the most in baseball. (An average of 4.87 runs allowed per game.)
Mike Boddicker went into the season as the ace of the staff, but was traded to Boston at the trade deadline. The 1983 ALCS MVP, didn’t get the run support in Baltimore, going 6-12 with a team low 3.86 ERA. Despite not playing the final two months of the season for the O’s, Boddicker led the team with 100 strikeouts.
Jeff Ballard led the team with 8 wins, but also had an ERA of 4.40. The crafty left-hander only had a few moments of glory, in a season filled with no glory for the Orioles.
Jose Bautista was supposed to be the future of the rotation, but 1988 completely destroyed his confidence. A 6-15 record with a 4.30 ERA will do that to a young pitcher. Bautista surrendered 21 home runs, the most on the Orioles rotation. He served up so many gopher balls, Bill Murray was called upon to blow them up to protect Memorial Stadium.
The Orioles poor record did allow them to use young players to gain experience. One of the those players was Curt Schilling, who made his Major League Baseball debut on September 7, 1988, ironically against the Boston Red Sox. Schilling earned a no-decision as the Orioles surprisingly won 4-3. It was the only bright moment for the future superstar in 1988. Schilling went 0-3 with an astronomical 9.82 ERA in 4 starts with O’s. It would get better for him in later years.
The bullpen had its issues as well. Tom Niedenfuer led the team with 18 saves, but led the team with 5 blown saves. Granted, the former Dodgers closer didn’t have many opportunities to save games.
Mark Williamson did record 2 saves, but had a bloated 4.90 ERA, while surrendering 14 home runs. He provided as much relief as a tampered Tylenol bottle.
Dave Schmidt should be congratulated for achieving a rare feat, having a winning record on this team. Schmidt went 8-5 with a 3.40 ERA while recording 2 saves. The one problem was that Schmidt gave up 14 home runs. Imagine if he learned to stop throwing beach balls. He could have been good.
The everyday lineup wasn’t that shabby in Baltimore. Future Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray were in the everyday lineup, while the like of Fred Lynn and Mickey Tettleton were starters on this team. On paper, that’s four players who are very solid to outstanding big league players. But it didn’t work out on the field.
Ripken did put up solid numbers, batting .264 with 23 home runs and 81 RBIs. However, it was his fielding that was an issue. Ripken committed 21 errors which led the team. The good news for Oriole fans is that Ripken worked on his game in the field, and became a Gold Glove shortstop in 1992.
Murray did lead the team with 28 home runs and 84 RBIs, but was starting to become a liability at first base, where he committed 11 errors. The Orioles were gradually using Murray as a designated hitter, a role that Murray would play for the balance of his career.
Lynn was on downside of his career, but managed to belt 18 home runs and 37 RBIs, before being dealt to Detroit for the September stretch drive.
Tettleton came over from the Oakland Athletics via free agency, but struggled with injuries and inconsistency. Appearing in only 86 games. Tettleton did swat 11 home runs while driving in 37 runs.
No player though, had higher hopes than Billy Ripken. The younger brother of Cal Jr. and son of Cal Sr. was called up late in the 1987 season, and impressed management by batting .308 in 53 games. But 1988 was a completely different story. Billy won the job as the everyday second baseman, but he either forgot how to hit, or he couldn’t handle the pressure. In 150 games, Ripken’s average sunk to a mere .207, adding only 2 home runs and 34 RBIs. His fielding wasn’t much better, as Ripken committed 12 errors at second base. He soon faded away, once people realized he wasn’t even close to being as good as his brother.
The 21-game losing streak was the obvious low point, but opening day was the sign that this season was going to be a disaster. The Orioles were shelled 12-0 by the Milwaukee Brewers, which began the nightmare that never seemed to end. In fact, the Orioles should have just forfeited the season from that point.
But things turned around the next season. The Orioles were the most improved team in baseball in 1989, going 87-75, finishing in second place in the American League East. In fact, they had a chance to win the division on the final weekend of the season, but lost two out of three games to the division winning Toronto Blue Jays.
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