The players tried everything to change their luck. They wore their caps sideways and backward. They turned their uniforms inside out. They watched home-run videos. Outfielder Ken Gerhart showed up with a dozen roses one day and placed them around the clubhouse, trying to make the place “smell like victory.” Nothing worked. The losses continued to pile up. As inept as the Orioles had been in ’54, when they lost 100 games, they were even worse now. Their fall from the high of ’83 was complete. They weren’t the O’s anymore, they were the Zer-O’s, an industry laughingstock.
Robinson used gallows humor to deflect attention from the players. He opened one postloss press conference, “To answer your first question—I don’t know.” Before another game he told reporters, “To hell with the Gipper; we’re going to win one for me.” When the streak reached 19, President Ronald Reagan phoned Robinson to offer encouragement, saying, “I know what you’re going through.” Replied the manager, “No, you don’t.”
Increasingly desperate, Hemond operated a shuttle between Rochester and Baltimore, trying to inject life into the club. After Stone injured a finger making yet another blunder on the base paths, reporters asked Robinson if the error-prone leftfielder was the next to go. “I hope so,” Robinson said. A new closer, Bill Scherrer, arrived from Triple A and entered a tied game in Minnesota in the eighth inning. Boom, the Twins’ Tim Laudner launched a home run. Boom, teammate Kent Hrbek launched one even farther. So much for the new closer. The streak was at 20.
Cal Ripken Jr.: “People can laugh about it now, but it was pretty awful. It was the worst thing you could go through because you were getting national attention, worldwide attention, for things that you don’t want attention for. I mean, for the worst possible reason. You were looked at as a laughingstock. You were looked at as the worst. It was just bad. Terrible.”
In the eighth inning the next afternoon, Hemond received a package containing the champagne-soaked suit he had worn when his White Sox clinched a division title in ’83. He put on the “lucky” suit, but it didn’t stop the streak from reaching 21 with a 4–2 loss.
Beginning a weekend series with the White Sox in Chicago the next night, the Orioles were already 16 games out of first place. They had set a major league record for the longest losing streak at the start of a season, and they were within three losses of the longest losing streak in major league history. With their starting rotation in tatters, they started Mark Williamson, a reliever, on a cool Friday night at Comiskey Park.
Finally, the end.
Ripken hit a homer to give the Orioles the lead, and Murray followed with another homer. The Orioles jumped in front 7–0, and Williamson, unlike the starters before him, didn’t give back the lead. Final score: 9–0. The streak was over. “Maybe we won’t be household names anymore,” Williamson said. But despite the relief in the clubhouse, there was little joy. Several cases of unopened champagne remained corked. The message? A 1–21 team doesn’t celebrate.
Bill Ripken: “The night we won, I got beaned right in the doink [head]. I was down, and Cal came out and said I had one eye looking at left field and one eye looking at right field. That didn’t feel very good. Sort of summed it all up. But at least we finally won.”
Roland Hemond: “When we clinched the pennant in Chicago in ’83, I’d brought an extra suit to the park in case we clinched. I got drenched in champagne, and they took the suit and put it in a glass case [in Comiskey Park]. When we had lost 20 straight, and we were playing in Minnesota, [Sox president] Eddie Einhorn called me and said, ‘Hey, Roland, I’d like to mail you the suit. Put it on.’ He wanted us to win before we got to Chicago that weekend.
“They took it out of the glass case and rushed it to me, and it didn’t get there until the seventh inning of loss 21. I quickly changed into it, and it still had the scent of champagne and beer. Carl Nichols was leading off the ninth, and he got a hit, and I thought the suit was working. Then we hit into a double play and lost. We went to Chicago, and the next day I wore it again. It didn’t smell too good, but it worked. After the last out [of the win] a friend sitting behind me said, ‘What about it, Roland?’ He poured beer all over me.”
After losing the last two games in Chicago, the Orioles returned from the road trip with a 1–23 record. Incredibly, a sellout crowd showed up at Memorial Stadium on a Monday night to show their faith in their hometown team. The stunned Orioles responded with a 9–4 win over the Texas Rangers.
Roland Hemond: “I forever cherish the day we returned from the trip [at 1–23]. I was hearing that there would be a large crowd for our return, but little did I realize what would happen. To have a complete sellout and a standing ovation when we took the field, that was amazing. A fan said, ‘Hey, Roland, you’re doing a great job.’ I laughed and thought, ‘What a great place. We’re 1–23 and they think I’m doing a great job.’
“It was an emotional day. We released Scott McGregor and rushed Jay Tibbs in from Rochester to pitch. Edward Bennett Williams had said he wanted [Tibbs]. We were on the field to acknowledge the fans, and Williams got up and announced he’d signed an agreement for a long-term lease and the building of a new ballpark at Camden Yards. That was [Williams’s] last game at Memorial Stadium. After that he wasn’t well enough to come back. He died [of cancer] later that summer.”
Scott McGregor: “I was supposed to pitch that night, and Roland called me in that morning and released me. He started crying, but it was the right move. I was done. And I went into the clubhouse after that, and Terry Kennedy came up and said, ‘You lucky SOB; you don’t have to play here anymore.’”
After that high, a season already drained of suspense lapsed into a long drumbeat of lows. The Orioles kept losing and losing until they finished with their worst record ever, 54–108, good for last place in the AL East by 34 1⁄2 games. In the wake of a defining moment of ineptitude, an 0–21 start, they were at a low ebb.
Frank Robinson: “I’ll tell you what about that team. It wasn’t that they didn’t try. They just didn’t have the talent. It wasn’t there. Sometimes we didn’t play good baseball, like in the Kingdome when we had three or four guys come over for a ball, and it dropped, and we lost 5–4. But we didn’t get blown out but about one or two times in that streak. We just didn’t have the talent to win. We tried.”
Bill Ripken: “A few years later when some team lost 12 or 13 in a row, they asked me if I wanted to see the  record fall. I said no. I wouldn’t want to see anyone lose 22 or 23 games in a row. Because that’s the all-time worst thing, going through something like that. Any way you could possibly lose a game, you did. It’s not a good feeling. And I don’t wish that on anyone.”
Fred Lynn: “We had Eddie, Cal, and myself batting three, four, five, and that’s pretty good. But we can’t win one game? You couldn’t make that bet, that any major league team could lose 21 in a row, especially to start the season. It was beyond amazing. The season was over. It was absolutely over in three weeks. I’d never experienced that. We were 15 out. We were gone, done.”
From From 33rd Street to Camden Yards by John Eisenberg.
Copyright © 2001 by John Eisenberg. Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies. All rights reserved.