Where were you 23 years ago tonight?
On April 29, 1988, shortly after 11 p.m. on the East Coast, the long nightmare that had become a season-opening 21-game losing streak by the Orioles ended (though it remains a record). Future Oriole and native Marylander Harold Baines rolled over on an offering from reliever Dave Schmidt, weakly grounding a ball to second base, where Pete Stanicek gobbled it up and tossed to Eddie Murray at first base.
That completed a 9-0 Orioles victory over the White Sox, ending the streak of futility that had captured the attention of a nation. TV stations in remote outposts like Yuma, Ariz., ran an “Orioles Win!” crawl across their regularly scheduled programming. The bad jokes with Birdland as a punch line ceased. 98 Rock disc jockey Bob Rivers, who pledged to stay on the air until the O’s snapped the skid, finally slept the sleep of a fan whose team had won - but not until an 11-day marathon that captured as much national attention as the losing streak had ended.
Me? I was a weekly newspaper sports editor trying to supplement my meager income working part-time as a security guard at the Westview Cinemas and Edmondson Drive-In Theatre in Catonsville. Crowds were watching the final reels of “Colors” and “Casual Sex?” (yes, there was once a time when both Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson appeared in the same movie as fetching female leads) and the parking lot was quiet. The drive-in lot was always quiet in spring, the few cars that pulled in and paid $5 probably not caring about the second- or third-run feature on the big screen one iota, much less the Orioles. They were focused on a different kind of scoring.
There, in my Mazda GLC on parking lot patrol, I turned down the walkie-talkie and turned up the volume on the baseball broadcast crackling from the original Comiskey Park. There was a sense of self-fulfilling prophecies of doom every time O’s manager Frank Robinson - who had replaced Cal Ripken Sr. following an 0-6 start that people thought couldn’t get much worse - talked hopefully about that night being the night the losing streak would end. Fans wanted to believe, but most times found themselves inventing creatively painful new ways for the streak to continue. The skid had become like a traffic accident on the Beltway; you didn’t want to slow down and look, but you couldn’t help but recount every disconcerting play that added another defeat to the record books.
When the final out had been recorded, I smiled a smile of relief - and quickly radioed in the final result to the manager on duty, a cantankerous old coot whose only redeeming quality may have been his love for baseball. “About time,” came the response over the walkie-talkie. “Now get back to work. We’re not paying you to listen to baseball games.”
Truth be told, all these years later I don’t remember much but the final out. I do remember the sparking pitching performance by Mark Williamson, who allowed three hits in six shutout innings before Schmidt shut the door. Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. both homered, while Murray and Terry Kennedy each had two RBIs. Future O’s Baines and Ozzie Guillen played for the White Sox that night, and Jack McDowell, a rock ‘n’ roller when he wasn’t on the mound, was the losing pitcher.
A lot has changed in the interim. The cinemas and drive-in are long gone, replaced by some electronics, office supply and vitamin retailers, and a Home Depot (though a replica of the iconic drive-in sign that beckoned folks on Route 40 West remains). After 12 seasons in the majors, Schmidt was a pitching coach in the O’s minor leagues off and on from 1998 to 2006, and had several stints as a pitching coordinator with the club before accepting the role as coordinator of Florida operations down in Sarasota earlier this year. Ken Williams, the White Sox’s third baseman that night, is now the team’s general manager, with Guillen as the skipper. And last night and this morning, images from a time before high-definition flickered on MLB Network, giving Stanicek some love long after his career ended in 1990 at Triple-A Rochester, two years after his last major league game. Rivers and his knack for parody eventually relocated to the Pacific Northwest; he’s now in Seattle, last I heard. Jackson is still around, her weirdness now matched only by her - how do I put this nicely? - her girth. Thompson has aged much more gracefully.
I still listen to games on radio and watch them on TV. And that long-ago part-time boss might be surprised to know that I’ve been getting paid to go to games since 1993. See, for struggling sportswriters and teams mired in historic losing streaks, dreams do come true.