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April 11, 2013

Wezen-Ball

The Froot Loop Summer

by Larry Granillo

There weren't many expectations for the 1989 Orioles. The year before, the club had set the bar for futility by losing the first 21 games of the season. They would end the year with a 54-107 record. In the offseason, management traded the golden gloved, silver slugging first baseman and perennial MVP candidate Eddie Murray to the Dodgers for Juan Bell, Brian Holton, and Ken Howell. It was hardly a steal for Baltimore and, what's more, the club suddenly had a 30 home run-sized hole in their already weak lineup. No one expected the O's to do anything but remain in the cellar for another year.

Then Mickey Tettleton came to the plate. Tettleton, a catcher, came up with the A's in 1984 at the age of 23. For four years, he acted as a serviceable backup, appearing in roughly half of Oakland's games. In 1986, he played in a then-career high 90 games, knocking out 10 home runs in 211 at-bats (to go along with his .204 batting average). Following Terry Steinbach's breakthrough 1987, Tettleton was cut from the team in spring training. He quickly signed on with Baltimore, where he took on a very similar role for the (dubious) record-setting club. He ended that memorable 1988 season with 11 home runs and a .261 average in 286 at-bats.

Tettleton was finally given the chance to start every day in 1989 by manager Frank Robinson in his first full year as the Baltimore skipper. In the month of April, Tettleton played in 19 of the team's 24 games and slugged five home runs. Four of those dingers were hit in the last seven days of the month, helping the O's finish the month with a .500 record and tied for first in the division. Tettleton slumped at the start of May, as did the club. A five-game losing streak left Baltimore at 13-17 and in fourth place on May 10. The next day, Oklahoma-native Tettleton started hitting like the better-known Mickey from Oklahoma. In sixteen games, Tettleton pounded out eight home runs. The O's were in first place and the power-hitting catcher was getting noticed.

The attention skyrocketed with one harmless sideline interview.

During a TV interview between innings in a game against the Texas Rangers last week, Mr. Tettleton's wife, Sylvia, disclosed that he links his hitting streak to his breakfast cereal. Not Wheaties, "the Breakfast of Champions," but Froot Loops, the breakfast of children.

Minutes after the interview, Mr. Tettleton stepped up to the plate, took one strike and cranked out a home run. The legend was born.

Tettleton explained further:

"I ate them one time in spring training and hit a home run. When we got back to Baltimore I didn't have any, and I went into a tailspin. So my wife said, `Why don't you have a bowl of Froot Loops?' I've been hitting since then," he said. "(Sylvia) thought she'd done something wrong by mentioning it in the interview, but I told her, no, people love to hear that kind of stuff."

The story took off.

Two nights later, when "the Looper" stepped up to bat against the Rangers, he was greeted by the new chant, a 30-foot banner ("Eat Your Froot Loops") and fans shaking boxes of cereal from the stands. This time the Looper hit a three-run homer to win the game. When he made a curtain call, fans showered the field with the sugary cereal's orange, lemon and cherry-flavored ringlets

Soon, Memorial Stadium was booming with the cheers of "LOOOOP" every time Tettleton came to the plate. Fans mailed boxes of the cereal to his house for autographs. Newspapers everywhere talked about the phenomenon. It was a fun story. No one wanted to hear the real reason for Tettleton's success.

In truth, the Looper ... owes his improvement to winter weightlifting and a new batting coach, his wife contends. But she adds that every ballplayer needs his superstition, and the streak has been the Looper's first big break. ... Besides, she says, he likes how "Froot Loops sweetens his milk."

In other interviews, Tettleton also claimed that he was sticking to an in-season weightlifting routine for the first time in his career, which might help explain the hot streak. Not that it mattered to the press. As long as he kept producing, the Froot Loops story was going to stay. And they stayed that way for a while longer. At the All-Star break, the Orioles catcher was batting .255/.368/.528 with 20 home runs. He was honored with his first invitation to the Midsummer Classic, where he backed up former teammate Steinbach. His team, meanwhile, was reaping the benefits: Baltimore entered the break 5.5 games in front of the second place Yankees.

The second half of the season didn't stick to the storybook script as well as the first half. In July, Tettleton managed only three home runs. He didn't have a chance to pick up the slack in August. A stiff knee early in the month quickly turned into surgery to remove cartilage, sidelining the slugger for 30 days. On September 11, after a week of pinch-hitting duty, Tettleton made his first start in over five weeks. Unsurprisingly, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Baltimore was comfortably in second-place by that time, where they would remain.

Tettleton managed to hit three more home runs before the end of the season, finishing with 26 on the year. It was a far cry from the 40 or 45 some may have predicted at the All-Star break, but it was still a career high. The fairy tale year did not have the ending that Tettleton and the O's looked destined for, but it did give fans in Baltimore something very exciting to cheer about for six months—and, with one random interview in May, it gave the baseball world one of the best stories of the last twenty years.

ADDENDUM: Kellogg Company, the makers of Froot Loops, did report an increase in sales of the breakfast cereal in Baltimore. Despite this, they never gave Tettleton an endorsement contract. That June, a spokesman told the Wall Street Journal, "We haven't any plans other than to keep putting plenty of Froot Loops on the shelves."

Related Content:  The Streak,  First Month,  Interview

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