There’s a period in Baltimore Orioles history from about 1998 to 2011 that fans half-jokingly refer to as, “The Dark Years”. For the uninitiated, it was a 14-year long span of losing seasons. Lots of woes and suffering, along with the occasional false hope that kept you interested enough to be let down. You know, the good stuff. Recent success has allowed fans like myself to push those years to the back of our minds, but that type of trauma leaves a voice that kicks in every time the O’s record sinks below .500 and leaves us screaming, “Not Again” in our minds and in our pillows every night once Spring rolls around. To sound like the broken record that I often am mistaken for, we must learn from history and we must face fears, so let’s look at the beginnings of the “The Dark Years”.
Let’s go back to August 1986. Lawyer Edward Bennett Williams is a feared king. Having bought the Orioles six years prior and them winning a World Series title in 1983 has made a great resume builder. Then in 1984, the Colts leave town in the middle of the night. Every Orioles fan is clutching at an orange and black hat, hoping their O’s wouldn’t suffer the same fate and all eyes fell on Williams. The Orioles were in the middle of a lackluster season that would end with a record of 73-89. It was clear by the end of August that the season wasn’t going anywhere. Tensions are high, everyone is scared, and people want answers. Or just someone to blame.
Williams takes to a podium for a news-conference on August 20th and he says All-Star first baseman Eddie Murray needs to stay in shape and produce more. Williams more or less just called his All-Star player lazy. And fans, being fans, let Murray have it. Murray didn’t like the attention, he didn’t like the media focusing on him. The negativity stewed until 1988 when the Orioles sent him to the Dodgers.
But, wait, you typically need more than a bad attitude as a reason to replace a player, particularly one of All-Star caliber. In comes Jim Traber. Murray went down toward the end of the ’86 season with an injury. Traber stepped up and hit 13 home runs in 212 ABs. Fans thought they had Murray’s successor at first base. However, Traber couldn’t replicate that and eventually asked to be traded.
So, why is this important? Well, after 1988, the O’s were coming off their third straight losing season. So, they re-tool and win 87 games in ’89, but take a step back with 76 wins in ’90. They need a guy to give them a boost and they still have a hole at first. In 1991, the Orioles decided that the best move was to trade Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch, and Curt Schilling for rental first baseman Glenn Davis.
Steve Finley becomes an All-Star, Curt Schilling flirts with the Hall of Fame, and Pete Harnisch becomes as average as his name suggests and turns into a serviceable starter. No further comment needed.
Remember that episode of Happy Days where the Fonz jumped a shark on a pair of water skis? Or, to use a more current reference, how Dexter went completely downhill after Season 4? This is that on the Orioles timeline. Sure, there were the “Why Not?” years, but they were called that because Orioles baseball had a grim look to it. The Orioles were no longer world beaters and it showed. The Dark Years have come full swing.
Fast forward to today after The Dark Years with a few postseason appearances under their belt and what have the Orioles learned? Well, talent still gets run out of town (Mike Mussina, Nick Markakis, and possibly Manny Machado). The O’s still replace proven talent with AAAA talent (Markakis for David Lough, Nolan Reimold, and Alejandro De Aza come to mind). Talented minor leaguers are still traded whimsically (Eduardo Rodriguez, Josh Hader, Zach Davies). But that’s Orioles baseball.
The same type of baseball that’s so blue collar that it hurts. The same baseball that gives you high hopes every Spring even when you know the season won’t be the greatest. Orioles baseball is like Maryland weather. Unpredictable and inconsistent, but when it’s right, oh boy is it right.