Orioles are worse than the ’88 team

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BALTIMORE —  Turn away if you must, but do not deny the arithmetic, which is inscribed on our souls. Any moment now, the Baltimore Orioles will match the worst season in their 65-year history and implicitly send a message to all of major league baseball: money has changed the game irrevocably, and what happened here will happen elsewhere.

As of Sunday, the Orioles have lost 106 games out of 149, which means they still have 13 chances remaining to match their all-time worst season of 107 losses, set in 1988.

What will make the new mark truly special is the history surrounding 1988.

That’s the year the Orioles made headlines all over the world, including countries where they don’t even play baseball, by losing their first 21 games in a row.

Yes! Oh-and-21, and they still finished with a better record (55-and-107) than this year’s team will set, barring a miraculous 13-game win streak to close the season.

Are there still fans who remember that dreary summer of 1988 – or have we all mercifully blocked it from memory?

That’s the year they opened the season by losing to the Milwaukee Brewers, 12 to 0. When the losing streak reached six games, they fired the manager, Cal Ripken Sr., and hired former slugger Frank Robinson to take over. The losing went on.

A week after Robinson’s arrival, he got a pre-game call from President Ronald Reagan, extending good wishes. The Orioles, clearly inspired, went out and gave up nine first-inning runs to Kansas City that night – without getting an out.

Yet this year’s team is worse.

In 1988, motorists drove around town with their headlights on during daylight hours, in a show of support that seemed eerily funereal. In Emmittsburg, 20 nuns at Villa Saint Michael said special prayers for those O’s. Yet heaven did not respond.

A local bookmaker, checking the odds, declared that someone betting $100 for the Orioles to lose on Opening Day, and then parlaying his winnings with each successive loss, would have been up $13 million by the end of the streak.

And yet this year’s team is worse.

Who knows how things got this bad? Major league baseball knows, but they’re not doing anything about it.

Thirty years ago, the game was still in its early stages of free agency and mushrooming salaries. A mid-sized market like Baltimore could call itself “the best team money can’t buy” and keep winning pennants in the earliest years of free agency – but by the late ‘80s they’d run out of gas.

And now, as the summer of 2018 draws to a close, it’s precisely 35 years since the Orioles have been to a World Series – and less likely than ever that they’ll be back any time soon.

The reason is mostly money. Thirty years ago, the best players hadn’t yet signed multi-year contracts in excess of $100 million. Those deals are now becoming routine among the fat cat teams – and it means that any club lacking that kind of money can no longer compete on an equal playing field.

After five years, their best young players can offer themselves to the highest bidders – the richest big-city teams – leaving the clubs that developed them utterly holding the bag and needing to start over.

That’s where the Orioles found themselves this year – dealing away Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zach Britton and Kevin Gausman while they still had some trade value.

But it’s a pattern that’s increasingly going to hit every team that doesn’t have deep pockets. For the Orioles, it’s like 1988 all over again. And they’re not going to be alone.