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Anybody can come back for more when they’ve won 21 straight baseball games, a fantastic feat the Cleveland Indians claimed Wednesday with their 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
But to persevere when you’ve lost 21 in a row, now that’s something.
I traveled through near-blizzard conditions in I-35 in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota to get to the now-gone Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in late April of 1988.
Humphrey wouldn’t have stood a chance in today’s politics, by the way. He was too upbeat and optimistic. He wasn’t the only such animal, in both parties.
Anyway, the reason I went was to see a metaphorical car crash, not the kinds there were on snowy I-35 that day. The Baltimore Orioles were headed to the Twin Cities with an 0-18 record, the longest losing streak to ever start a Major League Baseball season.
When the series ended, the O’s had a 21-game losing streak, still the American League’s longest after 1900.
The Orioles had genuine baseball stars like Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Fred Lynn. They also had a pitcher from Norway, Iowa named Mike Boddicker, the ALCS Most Valuable Player for the world-champion 1983 Orioles.
Boddicker won 20 games for Baltimore the next season. He had a career record of 134-116. He won 10 or more games in nine different season. He was good.
But he was the losing pitcher the day the O’s went from 0-20 to 0-21. It was his fifth loss in the streak. He allowed four runs in 7 1/3 innings to improve his ERA to 6.75, better than two other Baltimore starters at that point in the season.
The Twins’ Kent Hrbek got a gift double on a routine pop fly that no Oriole decided to catch. The great shortstop Ripken booted a routine double-play ball. Nothing was really routine in those 21 games.
“I’ve always told young kids coming up here for the first time that if they hold ‘em under four in the Dome, they’ve done a good job,” Boddicker said after the game. “I’m not holding my head.
“I don’t feel bad about the way I pitched. I feel bad for us losing. I went out there and tried the best I could, and I know the others were doing the same thing.”
The postgame scene was one of the strangest I’ve experienced. I felt like a vulture, but this was a story, and it was a time before suffocating 24/7 global news transmissions and on-site reporters could bring things to people that was news to them.
“It’s so difficult to get you people out of here,” Baltimore outfielder Larry Sheets said about the media horde in the Orioles’ dressing room after the game. “All we do is keep bringing you back day after day.”
“You can’t get away from it. I turned on the TV and a comedian is making jokes about the Orioles.”
Boddicker said “The streak never entered my mind at all. I just go out and pitch my game. That’s my job. I can’t pitch for anybody else. I can’t hit for anybody else, and I can’t field for anybody else.”
Boddicker faced that media horde, unlike Murray, who snapped at a cameraman.
The Orioles went on to a 54-107 season, easily their worst since they’ve been in Baltimore. But there was good news for Boddicker. He got traded to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Brady Anderson and minor league pitcher Curt Schilling in late July of that season.
Schilling pitched for Baltimore, Houston, Philadelphia and Toronto before coming back to Boston in 2004, when he went 21-6 and made some postseason lore.
The Red Sox won the American League East after getting Boddicker, who was 7-3 for Boston that year and started a game for them in the ALCS. He would do the same two years later, after he went 17-8.
Boddicker signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals after the 1990 season. The Royals started the 1992 season with seven consecutive losses and 16 defeats in their first 17 games. Boddicker had two of those defeats. He experienced the best and worst of things in baseball, but always seemed to be the same quiet, levelheaded pro.
Oh, the Orioles won their next game after that messy 21-game start in 1988. They whipped the White Sox in Chicago, 9-0. I didn’t go. I’d seen enough.
On the plus side, the snow quickly melted.