Recalling another April 3
Opening Day is about possibility, not probability
Unlike the current team, in 1989, the Orioles were coming off the worst season in their history — a 107 loss campaign that began with an unfathomable 0-21 start. It was their third straight losing season, a stretch during which they had lost an embarrassing 291 games. The franchise that once dominated baseball with 24 winning seasons out of 26, including 18 in a row, along with six World Series appearances, seemed a feeble shadow of its former self. In December they had traded away future Hall-of-Fame first baseman, Eddie Murray, for a trio of unknowns, and there was little reason to expect the collection of unheralded and inexperienced players who populated the 1989 roster to significantly improve on the prior year’s futility.
But something totally unexpected happened on the field at Memorial Stadium on that Opening Day, and its impact had a magical staying power that lasted all season and beyond. The opponents were the defending division champion Boston Red Sox, with their ace, Roger Clemens, on the mound. Mr. Clemens had entered the league three years earlier, just as the Orioles were commencing their descent toward the bottom of the division, and had since won 62 games and earned a Most Valuable Player and two Cy Young awards.
Despite an amazing catch and collision with the fence by their new right fielder, Steve Finley, the Orioles trailed the Red Sox 3-1 entering the bottom of the sixth inning. It was at this point, however, that the hand of Providence commenced its intervention to arrest the Orioles’ downward spiral. Center fielder Brady Anderson worked a full count before doubling to right. Newly acquired left fielder Phil Bradley followed with a walk. Joe Orsulak, who had replaced Mr. Finley following his encounter with the right field barrier, hit a slow grounder to first that served the purpose of a sacrifice bunt by moving the runners to second and third. Shortstop Cal Ripken, then more than six seasons from approaching Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record, stepped into the batter’s box. A single could tie the score. Praying hands and crossed fingers were evident throughout the crowd, and they would soon be more than amply rewarded.
Mr. Ripken got ahead in the count 2-0 before a called strike and three fouls left the count even. Then, on the at bat’s seventh pitch, the future ironman’s ash lumber fell on a Clemens’ pitch as if the two were meant to meet in a profound explosion of competing forces. The propulsion launched the ball quickly, and it rose on a northwest trajectory like a darting meteor in the spring sky. Stunned disbelief combined with exuberant exaltation to send the crowd into a frenzy as the ball soared over the left field fence; a three-run homer that carried a message far beyond the context of a single game in early April.
The one-run lead was short-lived, as the Red Sox would tie the game the game in the top of the seventh. But there were forces of destiny at work. Mr. Clemens departed following a leadoff double in the top of the eighth, and the game eventually moved into the bottom of the 11th inning. With one out, catcher Mickey Tettleto, drew a walk, and new first baseman Randy Milligan sent him to third with a single to right. Up stepped rookie third baseman, Craig Worthington, who hit one of those soft pop flies that look like easy outs, yet somehow find the one square foot of the outfield grass where they cannot be reached. The last-second dive by Red Sox left fielder Mike Greenwell, who had homered earlier in the game, was entirely futile, the ball gently falling beyond his outstretched glove. The resulting communal celebration built its strength on years of frustration.
But it was not merely one game when angels smiled on a team and town long in need of an uplift. In fact, it was only the beginning. A stretch of 13 wins in 14 games sent the team nine games over .500 on June 5. A seven-game winning streak later that month moved them to 41-28, and by Labor Day, they were in a dogfight for the division. They entered the season’s final series tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for first place before a heartbreaking 2-1 loss in 11 innings, followed by another one-run loss the next day, finally ended their season. Meanwhile, an entire town had been thoroughly uplifted by the performance of these underdogs during what came to be known as the “Why Not?” season.
It had all been so improbable on that April 3. But the power of Opening Day is not about probability. It is something far more ephemeral. And we are blessed to have it come around every year. Anyone who was there in 1989 knows that.