In 1988, the Orioles were the only major professional sports franchise in Baltimore. The Colts had moved away four years before, and the Ravens didn’t arrive until 1996.
When the Orioles began the ’88 season with 21 consecutive losses, it was national news. Unlike this current team, losers of 19 straight, the 1988 group had two future Hall of Famers, Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray, past All-Stars in catcher Terry Kennedy and centerfielder Fred Lynn. They also had two of the best pitchers in franchise history, Mike Boddicker and Scott McGregor.
McGregor, who had a long association with the franchise as pitcher and coach, remembers that team’s losses were different from the current team’s.
“We had one-run games, close games, extra-inning games, ugly games,” he said. “We had the whole menagerie of things and after a while, you start getting that: ‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.’”
Among the 21 losses were four by one run and five by two runs, and three by more than 10.
The 2021 Orioles have just a single one-run loss and a pair of two-run loses. They have allowed 10 or more in seven of the 19 games.
“It’s a horrible feeling, that’s for sure,” McGregor said. “You just think, ‘OK, how are we going to lose this one tonight?’ That’s not the way to think, that’s for sure. I never went through that in whole career—until then.”
With 138 wins, McGregor has the sixth most in franchise history, but none in what turned out to be the final month of his career.
“With all that talent on the team, how could you possibly lose 21 games in a row?” McGregor said. “The pitching wasn’t as good. Boddicker was good. I was terrible. Oh, my God, it was brutal.
“I ran out of gas, and [Mike Flanagan] was gone. You just had a bunch of young guys. The bullpen would give it up or we’d give it up early. Something would happen. It was just a comedy of errors, really.”
Unlike McGregor, who was in his 13th season with the Orioles, outfielder Joe Orsulak had just come to the team in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates and was beginning a five-year stint in Baltimore.
The Orioles lost the first two games to Milwaukee at home — the opener by 12-0 — four in Cleveland, then fired Cal Ripken Sr. as manager and replaced him with Frank Robinson. It was a controversial decision, especially with his two sons, Cal and Billy, on the roster.
“That kind of stuff doesn’t help, changing managers after six games,” Orsulak said.
The Orioles lost six straight at home and, with an 0-12 record, lost three each in Milwaukee, Kansas City and Minnesota as their ineptitude became a national punchline.
“It was kind of embarrassing, really,” Orsulak said. “It was like a circus show. When are these guys going to win a game? But then after 15 in a row, you honestly think maybe you won’t win a game all year long.”
There were close calls. There was the 11th straight, a 1-0 loss in 11 innings to the Indians when Mike Morgan and Dave Schmidt combined to allow just three hits.
In the ninth loss, the Orioles and Royals were tied in the ninth inning until a fly ball to left field.
“Jeff Stone dropped the ball in the lights, and we could have won the game,” Oruslak said. “The next thing you know, you had 21 in a row.”
With the games far away from Memorial Stadium, fans watched on TV, listened to radio and read about the losses in the three daily newspapers that followed the team. The Sun, Evening Sun and Washington Post were joined by dozens of other outlets who chronicled each loss.
“I don’t think the press added any more pressure,” Orsulak said. “It puts you in an awkward position because that’s all they want to talk about.”
McGregor had pitched a complete-game shutout in Game 5 of the World Series to clinch the Orioles’ last World Series win in 1983, so he was used to seeing the horde.
“Enjoy it,” McGregor told his teammates. “Because as soon as we win a game, they’re gone. We were the story. I don’t think it’s being covered quite like that these days. It was more press, just as much as when we were in the World Series. We definitely got everybody’s attention.”
On April 27th, McGregor started what would be the Orioles’ 20th consecutive loss in Minneapolis. The day before he read a report that the team might release him.
“If this is it, I’m going for it, I’m letting it rip,” he said. McGregor pitched 3 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits in a game the Orioles lost, 7-6.
“I came in and sat next to Boddicker when they took me out, and I said, ‘Bod, I think you just watched my last game.’” Boddicker told him it was the best he had thrown. “’Bod, that’s the best I can do.’”
After the Orioles won their first game on April 30, 9-0 in Chicago, they lost two more games to the White Sox and returned to Memorial Stadium on May 2nd for Fantastic Fans Night. More than 50,00 fans attended to show their support.
Orsulak had been stunned when a big group of fans met the team at the airport. Their support unnerved him.
“As a player, it’s embarrassing to lose that many games in a row,” he said. “You won a game, but they’re supporting you because you were that bad.”
He hasn’t watched the current streak closely and remains mystified by what he went through
“I don’t know how we did it, and I don’t know how they’re doing it,” Orsulak said. “There’s enough talented players, and you think you’d throw in a win sooner or later.”
Orsulak ended up with a good season, leading the Orioles in batting with a .288 average.
“You’re playing for your career,” he said. “These are guys who are trying to establish themselves in the big leagues … I’m playing for my job. I’m not going to let a losing streak affect how I’m going to go about trying to play.”
McGregor’s career ended hours before Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer and Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams announced to the 50,402 on hand that a new stadium had been agreed upon. Camden Yards would open in 1992.
General manager Roland Hemond began tearing up when delivering the news. “If you’re going to start crying, I’m going to start crying,” McGregor said.
He spoke to the press, went to the clubhouse and when he saw his now former teammates, he broke down.
“I cried so hard that I lurched and my chest was sore for a week,” McGregor said. He went home, sat on his patio and listened to the game on the radio.
“This is really strange,” he said.
When the Orioles won that game in Chicago, there wasn’t much of a scene in the clubhouse.
“I don’t know if we celebrated,” McGregor said. “I think, ‘OK, yay, finally, we won a game.’ These guys are having a rough go, too. At least these guys are a bunch of rookies trying to make it happen.”
McGregor, who had another season remaining on his contract when he was released, had a final memory of the Orioles’ clubhouse, saying goodbye to his catcher.
“You are so lucky,” Kennedy said. “You get paid. You don’t have to watch this stuff anymore.”
Note: Right-handed pitcher Chris Ellis will make his first appearance when he starts against Shohei Ohtani in Wednesday night’s game.