Take me out to the ball game and let’s party like it’s 1989 again

BALTIMORE – Around here, four wins in the first week of the brand new Orioles season lets everybody dream a little. After last year’s disgrace, some of us are remembering the miracle of 1989, which followed the nightmare year heard around the world.

Do the 1988 numbers zero-and-21 still mean anything? Does the 1989 phrase “Why not?” still ring a bell?

Around here, we nurture our dreams wherever we can find ‘em. The Orioles open their home season now, against the same New York Yankees they humbled last weekend in The Bronx, and we find ourselves gazing in wonderment and, like Butch Cassidy, we’re asking, “Who are these guys?”

A bunch of kids, that’s who. The past few years, the club looked like a bunch of slugs who either hit the ball out of the park or stood there watching third strikes zip past. They were lifeless. This year, win or lose, they’re aggressive and hungry. Some are even stealing bases.

We don’t know if four wins in their first six games is some kind of fluke, after last year’s 115 losses, or if this team’s got enough raw energy, enough sense of daring mixed with a brand-new infusion of the game’s modern math calculations, or if we’re deluding ourselves into thinking maybe it’s 1989 again.

Remember that year? We called it the “Why not?” year. One minor miracle seemed followed by another. That summer of 1989 followed the crushing 1988 season in which the Orioles opened with 21 consecutive losses, a record that literally made headlines around the world.

Even President Ronald Reagan telephoned to commiserate. He told manager Frank Robinson, “It must be pretty rough.”

“Mister President,” said Robinson, “you have no (bleepin’) idea.”

Everybody figured the ’89 club for another loser. Instead, inspired by an Opening Day comeback against Roger Clemens and the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles fought for a division title until the very last week of the season and finished second.

Like today’s O’s, they were a bunch of no-names back then, too. Whoever heard of Brady Anderson or Mike Devereaux, or Gregg Olson or Mickey Tettleton, or Jeff Ballard or Pete Harnisch, or a home-town, bumped-around pitcher named Dave Johnson who arrived late and almost saved the season?

Maybe, 30 years from now, we’ll look back on the current gang with the same kind of affection. Right now, it’s hard enough just to name these guys.

And, while we’re on the subject – Orioles fans aren’t the only ones asking, “Who are these guys?”

It happens to be the case across major league baseball. Last autumn, an ESPN poll ranked the most famous athletes in the world. The list included plenty of basketball and football players, several cricket players, two ping-pong stars – and no baseball players, not one among the 100 most followed athletes on Instagram.

The top baseball names were Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, each of whom retired in 2016. The most-followed active player was Mike Trout, who had 1.5 million followers. LeBron James had more than 43 million.

The year before, Luker on Trends, the company that conducts ESPN’s poll, asked 6,000 American sports fans to name their favorite athletes. Only three baseball players made the list: Derek Jeter, who retired three years earlier; Babe Ruth, who died in 1948; and Pete Rose, banned from baseball for life since 1989.

Some of this may explain baseball’s attendance problems. Ballpark vendors used to holler, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” That’s truer than ever in an era when the ballplayers flit from town to town as fans are learning to embrace them.

Last year, the Orioles drew just over 1.5 million people. They used to draw nearly 4 million. Major league baseball, meanwhile, drew about 69 million people last year – the first time it dropped below 70 million in 15 years.

So it’s a sport with problems. And the Orioles are a team with a problem history. But, for the first week, at least, they’re a team with four victories in six tries. Around here, it lets us dream a little. Maybe it’ll be 1989 all over again.