Spring Training With the 1988 Baltimore Orioles
Ninety-five losses in 1987 represented the Baltimore Orioles worst total in 32 years. They’d gone a miserable 81-137 since August 6, 1986, but figured they had nowhere to go but up when spring training 1988 got underway. Little did they know.
Sure, the team featured Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr, but the myriad of problems included an offense that finished next-to-last in the AL in runs despite hitting more home runs than all but ten teams in history. Baltimore pitchers surrendered a record number of long balls, as starters failed to complete three innings 35 times en route to an embarrassing 5.01 club ERA. The team was old and slow, as 69 steals compared to an average of 128 for the rest of the American League demonstrated.
General Manager Hank Peters got fired after a dozen years on the job, and Roland Hemond was charged with supplying second-year skipper Cal Ripken, Sr. with players who could turn the Orioles around.
Speedy Joe Orsulak was acquired from the Pirates, and Rip, Sr. wanted him to back up slugger Ken Gerhart (14 homers in 284 at bats in ’87) in centerfield, with fragile Fred Lynn preserving his health by moving to right. Switch-hitter Pete Stanicek was penciled in to leadoff and start in left, though owner Edward Bennett Williams thought he should remain at his natural position, second base. For now second belonged to Billy Ripken, the manager’s son, who shocked nearly everyone by batting .308 after his call up last summer. Perhaps it was an omen when Gerhart reported to camp hobbled by an off-season basketball injury to his ankle, then Stanicek fractured his index finger in Grapefruit League play.
The Orioles wanted 1985 first-round pick Craig Worthington to step up and claim the third base job, and even dealt away veteran Ray Knight to make room for him. Knight thought it was a joke when he learned about the trade after arriving at camp after a long drive, but he was now a Detroit Tiger in exchange for lefty pitcher Mark Thurmond.
Thurmond was just the latest new face on a staff under the tutelage of new pitching coach Herm Starrette. While the Orioles employed two pitching coaches their first 31 years in Baltimore, Starrette was the third different man in as many years to hold the job. Mike Morgan, loser of more games in 1986-87 than anyone in the majors, and Jay Tibbs were the pair of high potential/low performance right-handers acquired in trades to solidify the pitching corps. Insisting they were “on the verge”, Ripken, Sr. was counting on each man to hurl 200 innings.
Rule 5 draft pick Jose Bautista had a good shot to stick as a reliever with holes left by two former All-Stars. (Don Aase was recovering from elbow surgery & Tippy Martinez was in Twins camp because the Orioles wouldn’t promise him any action in “A” games). Bautista was one of “Three Amigos” expected to make the opening day roster, along with Jose Mesa and Oswald Peraza, the pair of pitchers acquired from Toronto at last year’s trade deadline for Mike Flanagan. Tibbs got mostly hammered all spring, as did a pair of once-touted youngsters who pitched their way off the roster (Eric Bell & John Habyan). Veteran Scott McGregor, considered washed up after a dismal 1987, won a rotation spot in an upset based on a strong spring.
Two weeks before opening day, the Orioles cut ties with former first-round pick “Mighty” Mike Young (28 homers in 1985), trading him to Philadelphia with a player-to-be-named in exchange for three players. In return, Baltimore landed two opening day starters in left-fielder/leadoff hitter Jeff Stone and third-baseman Rick Schu. After being blocked behind Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, Schu was particularly happy about the deal, calling his move to Baltimore “a breath of fresh air”.
Veteran outfielder Lee Lacy got released to clear a spot for utility man Wade Rowdon, who rewarded the Orioles good faith by going 3-30 before calling it a career. The last surprise came after the Orioles traveled north for an exhibition game in Washington, DC. The left-field fence at RFK Stadium was a paltry 245-feet away at the time, and young Jose Mesa got bounced from the starting rotation to Triple-A Rochester after getting pounded for seven runs in less than three innings by the New York Mets.
The 1988 Orioles were ready…or were they?