By Alan Richman Marty Katz
May 16, 1988 12:00 PM

When baseball historians study the calamitous 21-game losing streak of the Baltimore Orioles, they might blame manager Cal Ripken Sr. (fired after six games), his successor, Frank Robinson (survivor of the next 15), or the players, but they can’t say the problem was a failure to communicate.

For the final 10 games of the awful streak, Orioles fan and morning drive-time deejay Bob Rivers of rock station WIYY manned his microphone 24 hours a day, snatching sleep only when songs were being played, and rallying the city behind a team that would go on to record the worst start in major league history. He began his vigil believing it would last only a day or two but stoically stayed on for 258 hours, until the Orioles finally beat the Chicago White Sox. “It was a little more than I bargained for, but it was worth it,” says Rivers, 32.

He was interviewed on network TV, the BBC and the Voice of America, and listeners called in from Bangkok, Botswana and Belize, Rivers found out how far south the Orioles had gone when he got a radio message from some people who were on a research expedition in Antarctica. As sleep deprivation softened his brain, all Baltimore took up his cause. Signs appeared, reading, “Free Bob Rivers.” At his urging, highways became streams of headlights during daylight hours. A masseuse provided complimentary rubdowns. His co-workers pored over record archives to find long cuts that would let him stretch his naps.

At times it got ugly. Not the losing streak; looking in the mirror. Rivers, who normally runs for exercise and eats carefully, survived mainly on junk food sent in by supportive merchants—huge pizzas and drums of potato chips. His wife, Lisa, brought in a bathroom scale, but he refused to step on it. He was almost as sluggish as the Orioles’ defense, his movements limited to a few unsteady steps from his studio chair to the tiny bedroom hastily thrown up in the next room. His blood pressure rose so alarmingly that an intensive care unit from a nearby hospital started monitoring his vital signs.

Television, radio and print reporters converged on the station, all requesting exclusive interviews with the man being held hostage by the Great American Pastime. And they all asked the same question: How do you feel? “I was doing 10 interviews an hour, and I got irritable,” Rivers admits. It probably wasn’t much different in the locker room of the O’s, by now better known as the Zer-O’s or the No-rioles. Even while they kept losing, Rivers kept cheering, finding bright spots in agonizing defeats, trying to create sympathy for the home team. A former Boston resident, he remembered how fans there reacted when the Red Sox slumped. “They turned on the team,” he said. “I wanted to prevent that.”

On April 29 the losing streak ended gloriously. The Orioles trounced the White Sox 9-0, and the studio exploded with relief. Rivers uncorked champagne and drank deeply from his Orioles souvenir cup, cued up “I’m Free” by The Who and screamed into the mike, “I’m going home!”

So he did. He passed out for nearly 24 hours, sleeping the good sleep of a man who has sacrificed for his team, his city and his ratings.

And the next day the Orioles lost again.

—By Alan Richman, with Marty Katz in Baltimore