After fifteen years as an Orioles fan, the team that I most identify with is a team that I never followed at all: the 1989 Orioles. That team is a microcosm of everything about baseball that enchants us. A year after hitting rock bottom with a thrown-together mess of aging veterans and underqualified refugees from AAA, a year after losing their first 21 games of the season, firing Cal Ripken, Sr. as manager in April, and finishing dead last with 108 losses, the Orioles spent most of the 1989 season in first place in the American League East. They did it with the old methods of Oriole baseball: pitching and defense, along with some timely hitting. There were different heroes every day, most of them untested rookies and unwanted castoffs from other organizations. In one year, the O's went from laughingstocks to lovable underdogs.
That was the rallying cry of the fans, and the name of a VHS tape made locally to tell the story of the most improbable season in Baltimore baseball history. I own the tape, and try to watch it at least once a year. It's one of my favorite baseball keepsakes, for reasons both genuine and ironic. First, the genuine: it's narrated by Jon Miller, who is still sorely missed in Baltimore. The video is also well-constructed, showing the most pertinent and exciting highlights in chronological order and giving a real sense of the dizzying highs and crushing lows of the entire 162-game season.
As for the ironic, this tape is rife with uninentional comedy and is a perfect time capsule for the late 1980's. Certain points in the season are set up through "letters" the players write to friends and family. You'll see Mike Devereaux scribbling intently on a pad of paper as he also dictates the letter out loud in a stilted voiceover. In a cute touch, Cal Junior even dashes off a letter to former teammate (and at that time pitcher for the rival Blue Jays) Mike Flanagan. The players' hairstyle and fashion choices are also a source of amusement. There's the goofy soundtrack, which includes the over-the-top cheesy "Why Not?" (if you've heard any song explicitly written for your local sports team, you know what I mean), "I Love Mickey" (appropriated for slugging catcher Mickey Tettleton), "Great Balls of Fire", "Wind Beneath My Wings", and Kenny Rogers' "Blaze of Glory". I do have to admit that "Runnin' Down a Dream" was a great choice though.
But the absolute funniest moment in the entire video comes during a highlight of Randy Milligan's dramatic game-tying three run home run off of Boston's Rob Murphy. As footage of the at-bat rolls, we're treated to a voiceover by the burly first baseman, simulating his thoughts as he dug in at the plate. When he gets a hold of the pitch and it soars over the fence at Fenway Park, he lets out a loud, "YEEEAAAAHHHH BOOOOOYYYYYY!". It kills me every time.
Something else happens when I watch this video. I'm transported back in time, twenty years in the past. I find myself smiling as Dave Johnson gets that complete-game win in his Memorial Stadium debut, or Mickey Weston notches his first save in the bigs after eight-plus years in the minor leagues. Above all, I hope against hope that things will be different in the end. Maybe Mark Williamson cleanly fields that Joe Carter bunt. Perhaps the fog lifts just enough for Phil Bradley to find that Ken Phelps fly ball. Maybe, just maybe, Pete Harnisch doesn't step on a nail and miss that last starting assignment in Toronto. After all, they finished just two games back. Two wins away from a worst-to-first season.