This was the greatest Opening Day upset ever

March 28th, 2020

Here’s to the greatest Opening Day upset in Major League history, and please don’t roll your eyes until you’ve heard the story. This one jump-started a magical six-month journey, re-energized a city’s love affair with its baseball team and came oh so close to being the stuff they make movies about.

The groundwork for this Opening Day was put in place after the 1988 baseball season by the great Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. This is what Dan wrote multiple times that offseason as he looked ahead to 1989:

Guaranteed no-hitter on Opening Day.

Funny thing about that. It didn’t seem so far-fetched. He was looking ahead to a contest that pitted one of the greatest pitchers of his generation against an Orioles team that had just lost 107 times in a 1988 season that included an 0-21 start.

(At 0-18, President Reagan telephoned manager Frank Robinson, who’d taken over for Cal Ripken Sr. at 0-6, and said, “Frank, I know what you’re going through.” Robinson replied, “Mr. President, you have no bleepin’ idea.”)

Roger Clemens was 26 when he walked to the mound at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on April 3, 1989. He’d already established himself as something special, going 62-25 with a 2.80 ERA and a pair of American League Cy Young Awards in three full seasons with the Red Sox.

The O’s?

Not so much. They were 4-29 at one point in 1988, 9-38 at another. They lost 14 more games than any other AL team and scored 81 fewer runs despite the presence of two future Hall of Famers, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray.

That season was a jolt to a franchise that had prided itself on being smarter and more efficient than almost any other. Think the Tampa Bay Rays of another time and place.

To this day, the players on that 1988 team are stung by it. Two springs ago, for a documentary on the 30th anniversary of 0-21, I slid into a chair in a makeshift studio in Arizona that had been occupied moments earlier by Terry Kennedy, a catcher on the '88 O’s and now a scout for the Cubs.

Someone had placed a folded towel on the floor in front of the chair.

“We had to put that there for your catcher,” the producer said. “When he started talking about that season, he got so upset that his feet were literally pounding the floor, and the microphones were picking it up. We put the towel there to silence his reaction."

Fred Lynn, a center fielder on the 1988 O’s until an August trade to the Tigers, told the filmmakers, “This is the first time I’ve ever spoken about that team -- and it’ll be the last.”

But the 1988 season prompted an organizational cleanse, with the Orioles trading many of their veterans, most notably Murray, and running one of the youngest teams in the sport out to face the great Clemens.

On Opening Day 1989, the Baltimore starting lineup had just one 30-year-old (Phil Bradley) amid a bunch of kids, including outfielders Brady Anderson and Steve Finley and third baseman Craig Worthington, all 25 or younger. The Orioles' top four pitchers were all 25 or younger, including 22-year-old closer Gregg Olson, the AL Rookie of the Year.

Expectations? Zero.

That spring someone had posted Shaughnessy’s column on the clubhouse bulletin board and written: “We’re gonna kick his [butt].” Someone else had come along and scribbled across the bottom: “Unless he’s got his good stuff."

So on a sunny, 57-degree day in Baltimore, it played out just as Shaughnessy and lots of others thought it would, with Clemens sailing into the sixth inning with a 3-1 lead.

That’s when something happened that may have changed the course of an entire season. Anderson opened the sixth with a double. Bradley worked Clemens for a walk.

And then the great Clemens left a pitch in Ripken’s wheelhouse, and he deposited it over the wall in left for a 4-3 lead.

Memorial Stadium -- with a rowdy 52,161 in attendance that day -- seemed to shake with celebration and possibility as Ripken rounded the bases. After the awfulness and embarrassment of 1988, these kids didn’t know what they didn’t know.

The Red Sox tied the game in the seventh, Clemens departed in the eighth and the two teams went at each other for another four innings. In the O’s dugout, the rallying cry -- later featured on T-shirts -- became “Why not?”

Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, O’s catcher Mickey Tettleton worked Red Sox closer Bob Stanley for a one-out walk. First baseman Randy Milligan sliced a single to right, and when Worthington dumped a hit into center field, the Orioles had won.

That Opening Day felt like more than one game because all those young players had no idea whether they even belonged in the big leagues, much less on the field with Roger Clemens. Those Orioles spent 107 days atop the AL East as Robinson masterfully coaxed 87 wins from them.

A franchise-record 2.5 million fans packed Memorial Stadium that season as a pair of young starters, Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki, were excellent, Olson was virtually unhittable and Tettleton smashed 26 homers.

The Orioles were a game behind the first-place Blue Jays when they went to Toronto for a three-game weekend series that would decide the division. They lost a one-run game in 11 innings on Friday, and after all the miles and all the squeezing every last ounce here, there and everywhere, it had the feel of being the end.

When another one-run loss eliminated them on Saturday in Game 161, Robinson gathered his guys and told them how proud he’d been and that they’d almost done something absolutely no one thought possible. There were, he said, all sorts of life lessons in a season like this one.

Later, in his office, eyes welling with tears, he said, “We could win the division by 10 games next season, and I wouldn’t be as proud as I am of these guys right now.” And it had begun with an Opening Day win for the ages.