The start of the Baltimore Orioles’ 2018 campaign is as close as a Nate McLouth baseball to the right-field foul pole. It’s the time of year when most fans and analysts look forward and attempt to project how the season will play out. Given the triumvirate of topics that rule this baseball blog – Humor. History. Homerism. – I’m instead taking a look backward.
The 2018 season is the 30th anniversary of the O’s ignominious 0-21 start to their 162-game schedule in 1988. The team found itself 16 games out of first place by the end of April that year, a gap that would more than double by season’s end when they put the finishing touches on a 54-107 overall mark.
Don’t expect the Orioles to mark the anniversary of the worst season in franchise history, following the St. Louis Browns’ relocation to Baltimore, with any special giveaways.* A “Fantastic Fans Night” in early May would be fun, however.
The storylines headed into the 1988 Baltimore Orioles season were nearly as crazy as the game outcomes on the horizon. They included talk of the team relocating to the nation’s capital and the possibility of Dave Winfield coming to play for the O’s via trade.
Here are three topics in the news from that time:
1. (Baltimore) Baseball in D.C.
An April 4 exhibition game at RFK Stadium between the Orioles and the Mets drew more than 36,000 fans. The D.C. Commission on Baseball knew it was engaged in more of a marathon than a sprint, although, as the New York Times excerpt below illustrates, its members underestimated how long the race would be.
Authorities here believe they have done everything asked of them by the baseball powers – and more. They have lined up potential ownership groups, with former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn expressing an interest in taking part. They have taken full control of the stadium from the Federal Government. The ball park, which was originally built for baseball -not the football Redskins – would seat 49,000 if fully restored.
They have also ”sold” the equivalent of 15,000 season tickets by inspiring area fans to deposit money into special accounts in banks and savings and loans institutions. This would guarantee attendance of 1.3 million fans, they say, with yearly attendance estimated at twice that.
Nonetheless, most people in Washington, which regards a National League expansion franchise as its best hope, believe the nation’s capital will get no team until well into the 1990’s. The Orioles, which say that 20 percent to 25 percent of their gate comes from the Washington area, are considered unenthusiastic.
(Source: “Washington Enjoys a Slugfest,” Robert D. Hershey, Jr., April 4, 1988, the New York Times.)
Worth quoting again: “The Orioles … are considered unenthusiastic.”
There was some suggestion at the time of the Orioles relocating, as described in an op-ed by Times magazine editor Jamie Katz: “Now there’s talk about the Baltimore Orioles defecting to Washington. Could Baltimore ever recover from losing both the Colts and the Orioles? ”
2. Camden Yards on the Horizon
Orioles team owner Edward Bennett Williams reached a tentative agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority in early April on a 15-year lease on a new stadium. The team also extended its lease at Memorial Stadium into the 1990s, which helped quell fears of an O’s departure from Baltimore. Ownership and the Stadium Authority were at odds over construction costs on the new stadium. The news of a stadium agreement became official on the aforementioned Fantastic Fans Night.
3. Dave Winfield in Charm City
The April 1 coverage of a proposed swap between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees was no April Fool’s Day joke. The deal would have sent O’s outfielder Fred Lynn to the Bronx in exchange for future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
The Yankees pursued the deal despite the fact that the 36-year-old Winfield, who had 10-and-5 rights, stated that he wasn’t leaving. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner pointed to a requirement in Winfield’s 10-year contract that he list seven teams annually to which he would accept a trade. The Orioles appeared on the list in 1988.
The deal between the O’s and Yankees ultimately never materialized. Winfield, who penned a controversial book prior to the 1988 season, ended up being dealt to the California Angels a year later in a deal for pitcher Mike Witt.
*The St. Louis Browns lost 107 or more games on four separate occasions during an era when fewer than 162 games were played and ties happened multiple times a year.