The Tie That Binds Only Losers Know
By Sally Jenkins
Gene Mauch tried to break the Phillies' slump by making them stay out until 4:30 a.m. one night. Casey Stengel drew a lineup out of a hat. But such desperate bits of psychology weren't funny at the time, as the Orioles can testify after finally breaking their American League-record 21-game slump against the Chicago White Sox Friday night.
The '61 Phillies, who set the record for consecutive major league losses with 23, or the '62 Mets with their 17 straight and total of 120 to set the 20th century record for overall losses, or the 1975 Detroit Tigers with 19 in a row and 102 total, take no more pleasure in remembering their indignities now than they did in suffering them decades ago. As former Phillies outfielder John Callison told the Philadelphia Inquirer, he wished the Orioles would lose 30 so people would finally leave him alone.
These are low, bad times for a ballclub. Those who participate are marked, even those who eventually are successful. Along with the Orioles' World Series victory five years ago now goes their unforgettable 0-21 start, including the disk jockey who wouldn't sleep until they had won, and the stuffed Big Bird doll to which Manager Frank Robinson clung.
"The really bad thing about it is that as the years go by you're remembered not so much as a Hall of Famer, but as a guy who lost all those games," said San Francisco Giants Manager Roger Craig, who pitched for the '62 Mets. "You say, 'I'm no loser and I got the World Series rings to prove it.' "
There are a couple of things the Orioles can take solace in when looking at their predecessors. First, the memories of a such a noteworthy losing streak can indeed be hilarious in years after. Second, there is the knowledge that something like this has happened before and likely will happen again.
"You just don't wish it on anybody," said former Phillie Chris Short.
In 1961, the Phillies were a young team that just the next season would win 81 games. But first they had to withstand the humiliation of finishing 47-107. Those who played against them remember a team that could do absolutely nothing right; at least that's the recollection of Richie Ashburn, then an outfielder with the Chicago Cubs.
"They were the Keystone Kops," he said. "Running into each other, fly balls landing between players for base hits. If you needed a wild pitch, you got it. If you needed an error, you got it."
Short was 23 when he suffered the indignity of giving up the 23rd loss. "You thought, 'Who is going to boot one now?' " he said. "And it would happen."
He recalls the strained efforts in the clubhouse to convince themselves that the next game might be a victory, but the insidious, dead certainty that it wouldn't be. "You chat and you laugh, because these are the things that you have to do," he said.
Strange things began arriving in the mails. A clover from Ireland was sent to John Buzhardt, the pitcher who eventually broke the streak. The locker room afterward was predictable mayhem. "It had been so silent in there for so long," Buzhardt said.
When the Phillies returned home, a crowd of two to three thousand and a marching band awaited them. As they prepared to file off the plane and into the crowd, pitcher Frank Sullivan told the team, "Go in twos and threes, so they can't get us all in one shot."
Just a year later, the Mets almost equaled their feat. But no one expected much of the expansion Mets of 1962, including Ashburn, who played for them. He was increasingly horrified as his new team started 0-9, then lost 17 straight in late spring.
Craig went 10-24. Don Zimmer went hitless in 34 trips. Marv Throneberry had two triples that didn't count because he missed second base. That's when Stengel pulled names out of a hat.
"He had a way of making you have fun," Craig said. "You had to have some fun because it snowballed, with the pressure and anxiety and people wanting you to lose, to break records and stuff."
A host of writers followed the Mets, waiting for them to win their first game under Stengel. He sat in the dugout listlessly one day as Ashburn introduced a reporter who had been following the team. The reporter, Ashburn explained, had gotten married on opening day and was waiting miserably for them to win so he could write his story and go home.
Stengel began laughing, first uproariously and then helplessly. Finally, he looked up at the writer. "You're going to have your honeymoon in October," he said.
© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company