(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
The Book of Futility, or BooFu, as religious scholars call it, was unfairly removed from the old testament and consigned to the Apocrypha because, the famed Rabbi Eleazar tell us, "it was too damned depressing." In brief, the BooFu tells the tale of Pekah, a breeder of goats, who attempts to conquer the Moabites through a complicated scheme to exchange low-quality mohair tzitzit for Tyrian lox. When his plans are thwarted, he renounces his faith only to discover there is a God, but that God has delegated administration of human ambition to a disgruntled bureaucrat named Stan Ishim, the Angel of Indifference. Stan explains to Pekah that, contrary to the old saying, God does not laugh at your plans. It's more that he's just completely unaware of them as Stan has not filed a report in thousands of years. Now, a reading from the Book of Futility:
This week in 1988, the Baltimore Orioles reached what may have been the nadir of the franchise's existence. On April 28, they lost their 21st game of the season in 21 tries, a record for start-of-season futility that has yet to be equaled. The Orioles weren't as bad as all that: Once they broke their losing streak with a 9-0 shutout of the White Sox at Chicago, they were just run-of-the-mill miserable, going 54-86. That's a .386 winning percentage, which falls on the borderline of 99 and 100 losses when projected over a full season. The losing streak was made possible because they were a bad team, but also because, as Tom Stoppard suggested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, sometimes probability suspends itself in the most sadistic of ways.
"We are now held within un- sub- or super-natural forces," Guildenstern says. The Orioles were too, because Stan Ishim had turned his back. Instead of recognizing the situation for what it was—an occasion when their planning had been so slack as to allow almost any possible outcome except a good one—the Orioles turned it into a miniature family tragedy.
The streak itself is quickly dispensed with, containing as it does the ordinary mix of straight-out losses and a few heartbreakers. On Opening Day, Teddy Higuera and two relievers pitched a five-hit shutout as the Brewers won 12-0. Paul Molitor stole home. "You can't judge us off of one game," pitcher Mike Boddicker said. A former 20-game winner and holder of the 1984 AL ERA title, Boddicker would soon be judged by his 0-8 record and near-6.00 ERA before righting his season as a member of the Boston Red Sox. After a 3-1 loss in game two, general manager Roland Hemond said, "It's only two games. If we win four out of our next five, we're off to a good start, right?" The next day, Tim Kurkjian, then of the Baltimore Sun, wrote that credibility was a problem for the Orioles.
The Orioles were managed by Cal Ripken, Sr., a 32-year organizational shield bearer who had been a minor league player and manager, scout, and coach since 1956. He had served in the latter role with the major league club since 1976, during which time his sons Billy and Cal had risen to become the team's double-play combination, with the latter reaching the majors in 1981 and the former in 1987. When Earl Weaver retired for the first time after the 1982 season, Ripken was passed over in favor of Yankees coach Joe Altobelli. The interloper was rewarded with an instant World Series title. Then, in the aftermath of the championship, the Orioles rapidly transited the distance from aging to aged, and from stiff to arthritic. Altobelli was sacked, a revival proved to be beyond the un-retired Weaver's remaining power or patience, and then, after the club suffered its first losing season since 1967, it was finally Ripken's turn.
With their sixth loss against no wins, the O's tied the team record for worst start in a season. That night, Ripken told catcher Terry Kennedy, "We might be 12-12 soon." He was fired before the next game, replaced with Orioles great Frank Robinson. It was the earliest firing of any manager in history. "I don't say this is fair. Life isn't always fair," Hemond said at the time. "I can't say this is fair to Cal Ripken by any means. He deserves better. But this is a positive transaction. A transfusion. It's a clean slate." He went on in this soggy politician's vein until honesty finally dragged him back down: "I have some deep compassion, some guilt because it's only a six-game span." He recovered himself, threw in a self-justifying "but," and went back to campaigning. The Ripken boys were brokenhearted.
Given that the Orioles went on losing for another 15 consecutive games, and largely continued to lose after that, Hemond—a great baseball man who may have just been covering for owner Edward Bennett Williams—and the organization owed the senior Ripken an apology. He got it, sort of: Ripken was brought back as third-base coach in 1989. He remained until 1992—when Hemond fired him again, this time telling the public he had retired.
On Wednesday night, the 2016 Atlanta Braves played their 21st game. At 4-17, they are in a better place than the Orioles were, a mercy given that by the end of the Orioles' streak they had national media following them around, and were on the covers of magazines. All that means, though, is that the laws of probability are operating and the Braves are not dealing with un- sub- or super-natural forces. Yet, the Braves are still special: Should they finish April with their present .190 winning percentage—at this writing they have three games to go, one with the Red Sox, then two with the Cubs—they'll have had the fifth-worst start of any team to play 20 games in the March/April period. If the Braves lose out over the rest of the month, they'd tie the 1969 Houston Astros for the fourth-worst start. Those Astros had great players in their primes like Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn—there weren't many seasons better than .269/.436/.507 in the Astrodome in 1969—Larry Dierker, and Don Wilson. Those Astros rebounded and finished the season at 81-81.
The Braves have all the prospects any team could want floating about in the minors, but they almost certainly don't have four top players on their big-league roster now. The year they went 0-for-21, the Orioles had two: Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr. We can combine Mickey Tettleton's first strong half-season and Fred Lynn's last one into one more quality player, but that wasn't enough by a longshot in 1988. In 1989, however, after many changes to the roster, including trading Murray to the Dodgers, the Orioles went 87-75 and finished second in the AL East. It wasn't another championship; they're still waiting for that. But it was a seemingly impossible reversal of fortune.
This brings us back to Stan Ishim, Angel of Indifference, with his Halo of Random Effect and his flapping Wings of Who Cares What You Want? There are all kinds of bad teams in baseball. Many of them result from systemic neglect or incompetence, like those miserable Royals teams that lost 100 or more games in four out of five seasons from 2002 through 2006, Chuck LaMar's post-expansion Devil Rays, or these same Orioles under the Angelos family from 1998 through about 2011. Some are even planned, like the 36-117 (.235) 1916 Philadelphia A's, who resulted from ownership willfully replacing a championship-winning roster with sandlot players. A few are even inflicted by the Powers That Be, such as when the National League allowed its teams to shuffle their best players off their rosters before the expansion draft that stocked the Mets and Astros.
Occasionally, though, cause and effect are so disproportionate that trying to untangle them is laughably futile. In 1934 the Boston Braves went 78-73 (.517). In 1936 they were 71-83 (.461). In between they signed Babe Ruth and went 38-115 (.248), one of the worst records ever. It was such a bad year the club christened itself the Bees in order to buy a little distance on the debacle, but by any name they were a fairly normal team again. In 2003, the Arizona Diamondbacks were a respectable 84-78. The next year, they unexpectedly fielded one of the worst offenses of the postwar era and lost 111 games, this despite the presence of Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb on the pitching side. A few changes later, they were most of the way back in 2005—not good, but no longer historic in all the wrong ways.
The current Braves were planned just enough to invite Heaven's indifference. In a recent Baseball America article that asked, "Is Atlanta's massive rebuilding project close to bearing fruit?" (A: No), GM John Coppolella testifies that dealing core talent before it reached free agency was part of the grand plan (and that re-signing them never was). "The hardest part for us is, when you trade away Jason Heyward or Justin Upton, you know you're going to take a little bit of a hit," Coppolella said. "But we have to take the long view." The team's poor start, combined with a roster of position players that is somehow the oldest in the National League despite Freddie Freeman, who has seemingly been around Atlanta forever being just 26, suggests he didn't fully grasp how close to the studs he was stripping the team. The gap between intention and execution is the murderer of our desires.
The 1988 Orioles were not planned. They had future Hall of Famers and a tradition of winning, but they missed a few tricks: They had had a decade of miserable drafts—they had a very successful 1978, netting Ripken, Jr., Boddicker, and Larry Sheets, but came away from every other draft from 1977 through 1986 with almost no one of lasting or even fleeting impact. They lost high draft picks on mostly dubious free agents; trades brought in only fringe players. They also failed to notice that their pitching staff had devolved into an assemblage of aging soft-tossers who were dead last in the league in strikeouts. None of that should have made them incapable of winning just one game over the course of a month, but it did. That is sometimes just how it goes.
After his conversation with the Angel of Indifference, Pekah tore his garments and resolved to spend his days in the Negev Desert sustaining himself only on especially starchy lentils so that, whatever happened, he could not be moved. As for Stan, he's still there, still doesn't care, and any time a baseball team puts a greater emphasis on hope than judgment, he'll be glad not to play a part. And with that, we close the Book of Futility and let us all say, amen.