1989 Orioles: The year of 'Why Not?'

September 13th, 2019
Jamie Quirk and the 1989 Orioles returned to Baltimore for a reunion in August. (AP)

Thirty years ago this month, the Orioles paraded down downtown Baltimore, not as conquering heroes, but darlings nonetheless. Sure, when the dust cleared, the 1989 Orioles were a second-place team. But few runners-up live in as unique a space in the history of their franchises as the '89 Orioles.

Under the guidance of manager Frank Robinson and coming off a historically trying season, the 1989 Orioles went from worst-to-almost, oh-so-close-to-first. En route to one of the more remarkable turnarounds in Major League history, they shocked pundits, the baseball world and even themselves. And in doing so, they begged a simple question: Why Not?

This is their story.


Tim Kurkjian, beat writer, Baltimore Sun: “Here’s how bad the Orioles were: Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe predicted, tongue-in-cheek of course, that Roger Clemens would pitch a no-hitter on Opening Day against the Orioles. Not just were the Orioles so bad in 1988, but this goes way back.”

Less than three years prior, on Aug. 6, 1986, the Orioles were on their way to potentially winning the American League East. They hit two grand slams that day, but allowed 11 unanswered runs and lost to the Rangers, 13-11. That started a 13-42 finish to that season. They lost 95 games the next season. The year after that, they lost 107 games, including an MLB-record 21 straight to open the year. They were almost 100 games under .500 in a two-year, two-month period. Then came the facelift.

Jon Miller, radio broadcaster: “They had a new GM who’d already come in [Roland Hemond in 1988]. It was obvious they needed to start rebuilding, so Eddie Murray got traded. Fred Lynn got traded. Mike Flanagan had been traded the year before. They started getting younger, bringing guys like Brady Anderson and Pete Harnisch in."

Larry Lucchino, club president: “The thinking was: This is a great opportunity. The stone is at the bottom of the hill. We’re starting as low as one could start, so let's be aggressive, let’s be bold and make some big changes."

Cal Ripken Jr.: “We had lost Mike Boddicker as well. The expectations were low. We had some prospects. Steve Finley came up from the Minor Leagues. When we did trade for players and gave young guys a chance, it was an opportunity. There was sort of a hopeful attitude but expectations were low. It was more, ‘Go out and do the best you can.'”

Charles Steinberg, director of club production: “You didn’t know who Gregg Olson was going to be, who Craig Worthington was going to be. You didn’t know Brady Anderson, Steve Finley and Mike Devereaux were going to become such embraceable characters.”

Phil Bradley, outfielder: “I had experience losing, and on paper, that was probably supposed to be the worst team I ever played on.”

Miller: “It was Cal Ripken and a bunch of kids.”

Ripken Jr.: “The firing of my dad was in '88, and I was a free agent at the end of that year. If I had to make that decision right away, I would’ve left. But I figured I could go through the rebuilding process, so I signed in August 1988. I was one of the few guys who had experience at the big league level.”

Olson: “We were supposed to be in last place. I was in my first Spring Training, so everything was new to me. In the clubhouse, there were so many new faces and so many guys who’ve never played at that level. It’s hard knowing what to expect when you’ve never been there.”

Pete Harnisch, starting pitcher: “We were regarded as maybe the worst team in the big leagues. And we were going to have five or six -- six when I was on the mound -- rookies out there at a time."

Kurkjian: "There were NO expectations. I think we all kind of assumed, 'They’re going to lose 100 games again.'"

Miller: "So somebody clipped that article out of the Boston Globe and put it up at the wall at Bobby Maduro Stadium, the Orioles’ Spring Training home at that time.”

Worthington: “They said don’t read the papers, but I read the papers. It said we were going to get no-no’ed. I took that to heart, and I think everyone did, too.”

Miller: I think a lot of people looked at it like, “I don’t know. [Clemens] might!’”


Not only did Clemens not throw a no-hitter that day, he didn’t even leave with the lead. Worthington notched the Orioles' first hit in the third and Ripken their biggest in the sixth, putting Baltimore ahead with a three-run homer off Clemens. They’d go on to win 5-4 in 11 innings, after Worthington’s walk-off single sent a crowd of 52,161 at Memorial Stadium into a stupor.

Miller: “I remember getting so excited on the air, because of that backdrop of the no-hitter being predicted. And the Red Sox were the defending AL East champions. But the real signature of Opening Day was a play early on in the game. [Boston first baseman Nick Esasky] hit a shot into deep right-center field, and Steve Finley raced back with great speed, leapt and caught the ball, smashed into the wall and separated his shoulder. He saved a double or even a triple, then had to go on the disabled list. But it had been years since the Orioles had an outfielder who could make a play like that.”

Steinberg: “I adore Steve Finley to this day.”

Jeff Ballard, starting pitcher: “That was indicative of the types plays our outfielders would make, which we weren’t making in ’87 or ’88. When Finley ran that ball down, that really set the tone for the season."

Joe Orsulak, outfielder: “Opening Day was the biggest game of the season for us. That kind of got the '88 guys out of their funk, got the new guys going and got everyone believing we could win right away.”

Kurkjian: “I swear to you, I know it sounds crazy, it was like the entire team looked around and said: ‘Maybe we’re not terrible anymore! Maybe that terrible streak is over. Maybe this is where everything turns. And as ridiculous as it seems, that’s exactly what happened.'”

Then the Orioles did something nobody expected -- they kept winning. They went 12-12 in April, 14-10 in May. They finished the month winners of eight of nine and in sole possession of first place, behind a group of unsung heroes -- Olson, the rookie closer, breakout catcher Mickey Tettleton and out-of-nowhere starters Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki among them.

Miller: “I have this memory of a game in Oakland [April 26] -- and Oakland was the best team in the league. Olson came in, and the A’s had this murderer’s row of sluggers: Dave Parker, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.”

Olson: “Frank left me out there for the ninth. This was the first time in the ninth inning of a real game.”

Miller: "And he struck out the side; he ran the table. From that point on, they said, 'Hell with it. When the game’s on the line late, we’re going with Olson. That’s it.'”

Ripken Jr.: “We started to believe we could win. Half the battle is believing you should win. ... Our pitching was even better than expected. Our outfield defense was awesome.”

Kurkjian: "Phil Bradley was close to his prime, Finley was up from the Minors, Mike Devereaux was acquired in the Eddie Murray trade, Brady Anderson and Joe Orsulak were already there. It wasn’t, 'Hey, look at how much better we are!' … they didn’t know!”

Miller: “All of a sudden in the outfield, they had four guys who were legitimate MLB center fielders, guys with legitimate Gold Glove-caliber ability.”

Devereaux: “The biggest thing I remember about that year was our defense. We made it a point for them not to score runs. It's fun and it was a thrill to be able to take runs away."

Ripken Jr.: “They were just making miraculous plays and sometimes you just shook your head at some of the plays they were making, and it uplifted you and made you happy.”

Harnisch: “It was just insane -- every play, every dive, every throw -- and I really appreciated it because I needed it back then.”

Kurkjian: “I can tell you without hesitation the worst defensive outfield I’ve ever seen in my life was on the 1988 Orioles. But in '89, they had young, athletic defensive players and everything changed. The fans caught on almost right away, with every diving catch that was made in the outfield. Everyone started to recognize, 'Wow, maybe we’ve got something here.'”


The Orioles lost their first 21 games of 1988. They didn’t lose their 21st game of 1989 until May 21. Then they went on a run -- winning 30 of 46 to cruise into the All-Star break with a 5 1/2-game division lead. It set the stage for a summer fueled by slogans, comebacks and catch phrases, one that captured the imagination of a city clamoring for a winner.

Tom Davis, television broadcaster: “Mickey Tettleton hit 26 home runs that year, and he was off to a really good start. I knew his wife, Sylvia, was in the stands one night and found her for an interview. I asked her, 'What is the key to Mickey’s success?' She said, 'He eats Fruit Loops every morning.'”

Kurkjian: “Suddenly, Fruit Loops, the breakfast cereal, was part of the Orioles magic in 1989.”

Steinberg: "Say that occurred around the third inning. There were fans that saw that on the telecast, who then came to the ballpark -- during that same game -- holding up letters that said “Fruit Loops.” Tettleton later homered, and they had signs. We’d only learned about it in the third inning of that game!”

Davis: "I was as stunned as anybody else. It stuck. It's something people haven’t forgotten 30 years later, Tettleton and the Fruit Loops.”

Ripken: "I remember the city embraced us in a big way. It was almost like everybody was asking, 'Is this real?'"

Kurkjian: “Charles Steinberg was the one who said, 'Why not? Why can’t we win?' That’s how they became the ‘Why Not? Orioles.’ Everyone caught on, and they just took off. It was truly amazing and inspiring to watch.”

Steinberg: “One of the most dynamic elements of Larry Lucchino’s management were quarterly, all-day marketing meetings. They would go from about 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. There was no person in charge of marketing, because we believed so many departments are part of resonating, connecting with your market. So these meetings included many people examining what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. What are our community partners telling us? What are our crab-cake-eating, Natty-Boh drinking fans telling us?"

Ballard: “Wonderful memories. The fans were great.”

Bradley: “In spite of how '88 went, as soon as we started to catch a little bit of momentum, they were all in. Memorial Stadium to me was a special place to play.”

Steinberg: "Sometime after that meeting, someone in the fans held up a sign that said 'Why Not?' We gravitated to it. …. To this day, I don’t know who held up the sign.”

Olson: “Memorial Stadium was full every night. You could walk out after the game and there are hundreds of people standing around waiting to shake your hand. It never felt like we got booed. It felt like 100 percent support.”

Steinberg: “It wasn’t dictated. It wasn’t imposed. It was talked about. Then when the spark was lit, we were ready to go. The '89 fans had every reason to feel excited. Now they had a rallying cry.”

Bob Melvin, catcher: “It was one of those seasons that transpired as it went along. Guys started believing, started trusting each other. I’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s a season I’ll never forget because it was magical.”

Mark Williamson, reliever: "It was literally like, 'Who are these guys? And they’re winning?'"


That feeling became even more prevalent in the second half, when another wave of previously unknown characters emerged to keep the Orioles afloat down the stretch. By the end of August, they’d slid back into a tie atop the division with Toronto, but not before a slew of signature moments, surprise performances and the arrival of the man they quickly dubbed “Magic.”

Kurkjian: "Another snapshot of that season is Stanley Jefferson scoring a run on a play that defied logic. He came home, and he should have been out by like 50 feet, and somehow he zigzags the catcher, jumps over the catcher, does a summersault and helps them win the game. I remember thinking: 'Who is Stanley Jefferson? And what is he doing scoring a run on a play like that?' I promise you, after seeing that play, I threw my hands up and said, 'OK. Something is going on here now! You can’t score a run in that fashion unless there is some sort of jeopardy involved.'"

Ripken Jr: “We overachieved in some areas. Jeff Ballard was close to winning 20 games. Pete Harnisch had a really good year. Dave Johnson came up from the Minor Leagues and contributed in a big way. Unexpected performances. It was about testing your limits, finding out who you were.”

Johnson: “I had spent seven years in the Pirates system. They didn’t think I could pitch in the big leagues, which was fine. Most people didn’t.”

Kurkjian: “Dave Johnson came from nowhere. He threw about 84 mph. He won some enormous games for the Orioles without very good stuff at all.”

But it worked. So anonymous that Fenway Park security almost wouldn’t let him in to make his MLB debut, Johnson quickly burst onto the scene in grand fashion. The 28-year-old rookie threw complete-game victories in three of his first five starts, including two consecutive against Minnesota and Boston with the Orioles clinging to the division lead. On the air, Miller dubbed him “an overnight sensation, after seven years!”

Johnson: "I always wanted to play for the Orioles. I grew up here watching Brooks and Frank and Boog and Palmer. There isn’t a better place to grow up than in Baltimore when I’m a kid. But I wasn’t very good in high school. I didn’t make the varsity team until I was a senior. I played for Essex Community College and quit. Went to work for UPS. Started driving a tractor-trailer full time, did that for three years, thinking, 'My dad drove a tractor trailer, I’ll drive a tractor trailer. Who cares?'”

Steinberg: “Where was Dave Johnson? Right under our nose. Here was a humble Baltimorean from Middle River, who had lived the itinerant Minor League life.”

Johnson: “Timmy [Kurkjian] gave me the nickname 'Magic.' The point was: That [excrement] I was flippin’ up there, it must have been magic, because it wasn’t very good!”

Melvin: “I remember [Johnson] was pitching against Detroit, he’d pitched a few good games in a row. Alan Trammell comes to the plate and says, 'What’s this guy got?' I said, 'He rears back and throws an 84 mph fastball down the middle with no movement at all.' Trammell looks back at me and goes, 'That’s it?' I said, 'That’s it. That’s definitely it.'"

Johnson: “The whole thing was just crazy. But for me, I’m still not caught up in the ’89 thing. I’m still thinking, 'OK, one more day in the big leagues.' Finally, about mid-September, we’re scoreboard watching. Every time we won, Toronto won. Every time we lost, Toronto lost. We just couldn’t catch them.”

Steinberg: “I remember Dave greeting 200 family and friends outside Memorial Stadium, crying his eyes out. His heart is as real and Baltimore and Oriole as they come. It played out certainly, famously, on that final weekend.”


Fast-forward to Sept. 29, and the Orioles and Blue Jays -- battling for weeks -- collide at the brand-new SkyDome in Toronto. Baltimore enters play one game back with three to play. It all comes down to this: one final series to determine the AL East. The upstart Orioles have already shocked the world. Now they’re making contingency plans in case they continue to.

Miller: “There was some feeling, 'Well, if we do tie it, who is pitching that one-game playoff? There was some talk about maybe trading for Mark Langston from the Expos. He couldn’t do anything but pitch that one-game playoff game, and then if they made it, he’d not be eligible.”

Lucchino: “We were going to unload some serious players for the potential of that one game. That’s how much we believed in that team. In the end, I think it ended up being a little too bold for Montreal.”

Miller: “It never turned out that that happened. They lost both of those games Friday and Saturday.”

Ballard: “It was my one time playing on a winning team. All the excitement you’d see in playoff baseball was there in Toronto.”

Lucchino: “That last weekend was extraordinary. I don’t think I ever moved from my seat.”

Ripken: “The first game was a heartbreaker.”

Kurkjian: “Gregg Olson was a great closer as a rookie. Not good: great. He had one of the best curveballs I’ve ever seen. He threw a wild pitch and ended up helping them lose that game [2-1 in 11 innings].”

Olson: “I look back on it harshly, but what did I throw, 10-15 wild pitches that year? I’d been living on that pitch all year. I lived on it in my career. I just threw a bad one that Jamie Quirk had no chance of stopping."

Kurkjian: ”I remember walking to Olson’s locker and Jamie Quirk intercepted me. He was a veteran on that team and he said, ‘I have to make that play. I have to stop that ball.’ I tell you, there is no chance in the world that any catcher could have blocked that ball. It was a 58-foot curve that exploded when it hit the ground. But that kind of explained to me who the Orioles were. A veteran took one for the team to protect the rookie closer in what ended up being the biggest loss of the season.”

Olson: “When they came over saying Jamie said he could’ve stopped it, all I could do was laugh at them. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what he’s saying, but it was my fault.”

Kurkjian: “So they go into Saturday and this is it. Pete Harnisch is one of their best pitchers and he’s supposed to pitch. Harnisch steps on a nail the night before walking back to the hotel. The big joke was, there was probably one exposed nail in the entire city of Toronto, that’s how clean and pure that place was, and he stepped on it!”

Harnisch: “I was somewhere between excited to pitch the biggest game of my life and terrified of pitching the biggest game and having the weight of the world on my shoulders. Things happen for a reason.”

Melvin: “We used to always joke with Harnisch: How long did it take him to actually hammer that into his foot that night?”

Johnson: “I get to the ballpark the next day, knowing we need to win two to force a tiebreaker. But I’m not pitching, and I’m just hanging out. Then I look in my locker and there are two baseballs in my shoes. [Bullpen coach] Elrod Hendricks always put two balls in the starter’s spikes. That’s weird. I take them out. Came back a couple minutes later, they’re in my locker again. I run around and find [pitching coach] Al Jackson and tell him Elrod keeps putting these balls in my locker. He goes, 'You don’t know what happened?'"

Ripken Jr.: “Right at the end, we were a little unlucky.”

Johnson: “It was instant panic. That’s kind of how my career went. I’m remembered for a game that we lost, and I’m remembered fondly. If people remember me, they remember me as, 'God, how did he do that?' Because they just knew. I was a truck driver from Middle River, pitching against the Blue Jays, trying to win the pennant for the Orioles!”


The music stopped that Saturday afternoon, when Johnson took a lead into the seventh before the Blue Jays rallied for three runs in the eighth to clinch the division with a 4-3 win. But even though they came up short, the 1989 Orioles won 33 more games than the year before. The team that had lost 21 in a row to start the previous year, that had been a bottom-dweller for more than two years, nearly won the AL East.

Melvin: “Johnson literally pitched the game of his life. That was a game we had to win against all odds, and boy did he step up to the task. It just wasn’t meant to be, but what a great season.”

Harnisch: “The short answer is yes, it was very tough to get over. The way DJ pitched when I couldn’t take the post was incredible. ... Could I honestly sit here and tell you I would have done a better job than he did? I don’t think I can honestly tell you [that]. The Blue Jays were a great team. It was David vs. Goliath. It was crazy, but it was an unbelievable ride, and that’s how I had to deal with it.”

Ripken Jr.: “After that first game, to have almost the identical thing happen the next night, we were disappointed, but we were happy and proud that we fought as hard as we did. I don’t remember feeling a sense of sadness even though we lost those two games the way we lost them. We were right there. The atmosphere in Toronto was more one of accomplishment than of failure at that point.”

Miller: “It was sad, but looking back at it, it was one of the great turnarounds of all time."

Olson: “That season was special. The fans were special. Everything about that season was not normal. And it probably would’ve been a Disney movie had we finished it off and went to the playoffs.”

Instead the Orioles returned home runners-up -- but to a cinematic reception nonetheless. Though the details are up for debate, there indeed was a parade through downtown Baltimore for these cherished Orioles, who remain celebrated by the city to this day.

Larry Sheets, outfielder: “What is this parade everyone is talking about? Did we have one?”

Lucchino: “The parade in the rain! It’s the only parade I’ve ever known of for a second-place team. The parade was something that was suggested for us from the business community and the mayor. We were happy to do it. We couldn’t quite believe it, but I think people saw the gigantic leap forward.”

Ripken: “I don’t remember the parade.”

Johnson: “I think it was raining. I remember Frank [Robinson] being real animated and Frank wasn’t that kind of person. But he was caught up in it. We had a great season.”

Williamson: “I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to have a parade? Last time I checked, we came in second.’ The way the year ended for me, I really didn’t want to be out there. But people were really nice to me.”

Olson: “That was, in hindsight, kind of weird. But I think Orioles fans wanted one more day. Give us one more day with these guys. Baseball is too short of a lifespan. Too short of a memory. I don’t have any other explanation for why we’d have a parade for coming in second place, but we did!"

Steinberg: "Just to be a participant in such a galvanizing, unifying civic movement was such an honor. Think about what that team did. Even though we lost, to have a parade? Frank Robinson said: ‘I’m finishing second and getting a parade? I finished second in San Francisco and got fired!’”

Ripken Jr.: “Even though we came up a little bit short in the end, we were able to surprise the whole league. And we darn near pulled it off.”

Kurkjian: “It reaffirmed my faith in baseball: As soon as you think you understand it, you realize that you don’t. It also reaffirmed my faith that baseball is the one sport that the player or team can go from really bad to really good in a short amount of time, and the '89 Orioles were a classic example of that.”

Ripken Jr.: “For us as a team, it was about hoping when hope was lost. Hope is a wonderful thing, and sometimes we need something to help you believe there is hope.”