Throughout the unexpected rise of the Orioles during the 2022 season, there have been a lot of parallels drawn between these young Birds and the ones that flew to surprising heights in the 1989 season. In many regards, the similarities are too great to avoid making these comparisons. They’re both teams coming off seasons where they were the worst clubs in the majors, who were then propelled into surprising contention by the arrival of former No.1 overall picks and breakout seasons from other young players. Some have even taken to calling the 2022 Orioles the “Why Not? Too” Orioles (though personally I still prefer the “Never Say Die” O’s).
However, what sometimes gets forgotten in the euphoria and nostalgia that comes from surprise contention and joyful reminiscing is how that ‘89 season ended. The “Why Not?” Orioles did not finish that season with a fairy tale ending. Instead, they lost two out of three in Toronto to end the season and missed out on an AL East title by two games.
So how can this Orioles team do what the “Why Not?” O’s couldn’t and finish the season in the playoffs? There are plenty of lessons to learn from how that 1989 Baltimore team finished that season. Those pitfalls from ‘89 are what these Orioles must avoid if they hope to write an even more memorable chapter in the history of this franchise.
Let’s first set the scene: it’s Saturday, August 19, 1989. The Orioles are coming off of a 9-2 loss to the Blue Jays in Memorial Stadium—a loss that has reduced their lead in the AL East to 0.5 games. This is five years before the introduction of the Wild Card so that AL East pennant is the only ticket to October baseball.
Contrast that with where these Orioles sit—also after 121 games—and there is both a larger mountain climb, but also a slightly larger margin for error. Yes, instead of being in the driver’s seat for their playoff destiny, the O’s sit 2.5 games out of the nearest playoff spot. However, that potential proverbial parachute does come from the fact Baltimore is fighting for three playoff spots instead of just one.
Back to 1989: after that late August series against the Blue Jays, the “Why Not?” O’s had a pretty favorable closing stretch to their season. Twenty-two of those final 41 games were against teams who were below .500 on August 19, and the majority of their games against teams above .500 came at Memorial Stadium. Their two closest rivals for the AL East crown were Toronto and Milwaukee (back when they were still in the AL), and the O’s had 11 games against those two throughout the final stretch.
The 2022 O’s don’t quite as easy of a final stretch. Twenty-six of their closing 41 come against teams with winning records—including seven against the AL-best Astros. The Birds’ remaining schedule is the 11th toughest in the MLB—slightly easier than the Rays (5th), slightly tougher than the Blue Jays and Twins (15th/16th) and much tougher than the Mariners, who have the easiest in baseball.
This is the first area where the 2022 O’s need to truly distinguish themselves from the “Why Not?” boys. That 1989 club finished 12-10 against teams with losing records, and their only series sweep in seven opportunities was a two-game sweep against the Tigers in September. As simple as it may sound, if the O’s fall just short of sweeping eminently sweepable series (like they did recently against Pittsburgh, Toronto and Boston), they’ll likely also fall short of a Wild Card spot. In their remaining 15 games against the likes of Boston, Washington, Oakland and Detroit, winning 10 games needs to not just be the goal, but the bare minimum of what’s considered acceptable.
This year’s Orioles will also have to do a better job in the games where they “control their own destiny” —those games against their direct competition for a playoff spot. While those games were split across two teams in ‘89, three decades later and it’s really just one opponent: the Toronto Blue Jays. With no games remaining against Tampa or Seattle, those 10 remaining games of bird-on-bird violence will go a long way in determining the king of the roost and the holder of one of the Wild Card spots.
The good news is that the Blue Jays have been the Orioles’ most favorable AL East foe in 2022. With the Orioles going 6-3 over their first nine meetings, I’m sure there are plenty in Birdland that relish the opportunity to try and chase down our Canadian rivals. We know Ryan Mountcastle certainly will. However, if these O’s want to avoid falling at the last hurdle like Gregg Olson and Mark Williamson did in ‘89, their bats cannot continue to randomly vanish like they seem to invariably do against the Jays.
Speaking of vanishing at inopportune times, much of the ‘89 Orioles roster knew nothing of success in the MLB and it showed in how their approaches devolved down the stretch of that season. Rookie third baseman Craig Worthington saw his on-base and slugging percentages drop by 45 and 63 points respectively over the last 41 games that season. For veteran outfielder Phil Bradley, those drops were 27 and 51 points. These precipitous dropoffs by players those O’s relied on spoke to a team full of players who weren’t yet ready to carry themselves through the most pressure-packed games of their entire baseball careers.
The 2022 Orioles are presented with the same challenge. If they are truly intent on making a playoff run, Brandon Hyde & Co. will not only need to seize opportunities for sweeps (especially against Toronto) and stave off those random games where the team falls completely flat. They will also need to make sure that players in the midst of both career years and their first years keep growing and approaching the games in the ways that have gotten them this far.
Yes, Brandon Hyde hasn’t benched the slumping Austin Hays or Anthony Santander the same way Frank Robinson sat down a struggling Brady Anderson. Instead, perhaps the promotion of Terrin Vavra and Kyle Stowers—with more promotions potentially on their way—is the method this organization is using to stoke the fires of those players struggling with the weight of expectations that comes with a playoff push.
Either way, this team has the same tremendous opportunity that the ‘89 group had three decades prior. Yet, with the benefit of learning from the past (and arguably just a more talented roster) this team can right the “wrongs” of that 1989 bunch and actually finish in a playoff spot. It will take better focus in those games that need to be won, as well as composure not often seen in players with this little meaningful experience. And yet, as these Never Say Die Orioles have shown all season, they will stay comin’ for that playoff spot until the final whistle.