My decision to drive to Baltimore from Annapolis, where my business had taken me, was made as soon as I learned that the Red Sox would be there the same night, but I took a long time coming around to acknowledging that decision. I had a rented car and free time, so there was no doubt that I would at last venture onto Maryland's highways in search of out-of-town baseball.
Baltimore is about 25 miles north of Annapolis, and I had a mysterious confidence that I would find Memorial Stadium despuite its absence on the Budgt Rent-a-Car maps that I was using. Driving north on a succession of medium-size routes, as game time approached, I figured I could just follow the signs and the traffic. As it turned out, I was right, although even the signs leading to the stadium were small and hard to find, and the route they took me was long and circuitous, through the depths of the inner city.
I felt at first that Baltimore was a dying city -- the Colts had left town, the Orioles are the worst team in baseball, and the industrial squalor, boarded-up buildings, and disrepair of the downtown areas I drove through caused me to envision the gradual abandonment of a once-proud colonial era metropolis that hadbeen left behind by the modern world. This city should just quit, I thought -- let the people move out, tear down the buildings, turn it into a suburb of Washington, D.C. The final irony, as I neared the vicinity of the Stadium, was a large billboard promoting the Orioles. It showed a large, fat lady in a Viking outfit, and proclaimed in bold letters: "She hasn't started singing yet!" Overconfident, Baltimore is not.
Traffic slowed to a snarl on the residential streets leding to the Stadium. People's houses, double-deckers and some one-family's, line these streets to within steps of the entrance gates. In fact, it was a nice neighborhood, I noticed, abundant with trees and grass, very attractive if you don't mind a massive traffic jam in your front yard 81 times a year.
All the official parking lots were full, and I drove around twice before noticing some small side roads where cars were starting to park under signs that read "No parking, Stadium Events, 6-9 PM". The traffic had delayed me to the point where it wass now 8:30 PM (the game began at 8:00; Jon Miller was on the radio telling Oriole fans about Oil Can Boyd's history of controversies; no score, 2nd inning), so I figured these people must know something, and parked my bright red Toyota Supra behind a row of cars on one of the side streets. Another car immediately pulled in behind me, and the teenagers who piled out told me I might get a ticket, but I wouldn't get towed. They also admired my Supra (which I confessed was rented), and asked where I was from, what Boston was like, etc., as we walked the 100 yards or so to the ticket windows. Baltimore kids, I thought, sure seem friendly.
I was pleased to wind up so close to the Stadium, and also that I didn't have to pay for parking, although the posted rate for the local lots was only 3.00. Lower Grandstand tickets, meanwhile (the best seats remaining) were only $5.50. A game at Fenway will cost you $7-$11 for parking, plus $9.00 for a Grandstand seat -- twenty bukcs before you get in the door, and here I'd made it in for $5.50.
It was beginning to occur to me, from the traffic and the limited tickets, that this game might not be as sparsely attended as I had expected. Immediately inside the gate, I found out at least part of the reason. A large man reached into a larger cardboard box as I shuffled by, and handed me a big white plastic half-gallon pitcher, that said on one side "Bud", and on the other "Orioles fans, this Bud's for you!" I had arrived on Pitcher Night. Five and a half bucks, and they give me a pitcher worth at least 3 bucks at Store 24. I felt generous and bought a souvenir program.
It was the bottom of the 2nd when I emerged into the light of Memorial Stadium for the first time. I have a strong parochial prejudice in favor of Fenway Park and against all others, but I could find little to complain about here. The Stadium is circular, with a lower and upper deck surrounding 3/4 of the field, and a wall in front of some wooden bleachers in center field that I guessed only get used when the Orioles sell out the Granstand seats. Behind the bleachers, green treetops overhang the Stadium walls, giving the appearance that this park is nestled ina country woodland areas. There is a large color video message board, and two traditional electric lightbulb scoreboards. There appeat to be no bad seats, although from the upper deck I imagine the field seems far away.
I was just beyond the right field foul pole, 19 rows above where Dwight Evans was patrolling, as Oil Can, on the distant mound, delivered to Larry Sheets. A quick glance at the bases and the scoreboard showed that the Orioles had runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. The crowd was making some noise. Quickly, however, Can struck out Sheets and got Mickey Tettleton to foul out to Boggs at 3rd. When Rene Gonzales hit a medium-distance fly bal to center field, the Orioles fans around me erupted in a loud roar, only to quiet when Ellis Burks made the easy catch. (These fans either don't know their baseball too well, I thought, or they're grasping at any hint of offense.)
In the top of the 3rd, the Oriole team's over-anxiety showed. With none out, Tibbs walked the Sox' No. 9 hitter Pat (.178) Dodson, and Ellis Burks singled him to second. When Marty Barrett laid down a bunt, catcher Tettleton panicked, jumping on the ball and throwing it wildly past 3rd, scoring Dodson and moving Barrett and Burks to 2nd and 3rd. Tettleton's terrible throw, it seemed to me, was indicative of the poor play and attitude of the Orioles. He rushed, taking an unnecessary chance, as if feeling that he had no other choice: if the Sox got the runners to 2nd and 3rd with one out, the game was all but over.
As it turned out, Boggs's sacrifice fly brought home the second Red Sox run, but Tibbs got out of the inning down only 2-0. Boyd pitched strongly through the first five, however, and the Orioles' fears appeared justified. The end of the 4th seemed particularly typical for the hapless so-called Zer-O's. With two on and two out, Tettleton smashed a long fly right in my direction, but toward the upper deck. The crowd rose in anticipation, and from my angle I couldn't see whether the ball would make the foul pole or not. At the last second, however, the 1st base umpire waved his arms toward the dugout, foul. The fans in front of me were disappointed; many of them stood up and mockingly waved their arms toward fair territory.
Then, with the count 3-2, Tettleton launched another long fly to right, and the crowd again leapt to its feet, only this ball was even more clearly foul. The fans in front of me nevertheless repeated their newfound gesture of over-ruling the umpire's signal. After two straight foul home runs, the Orioles rooters were excited by now, and they remained standing, imploring Tettleton to straighten out the next one. Strangely, I had no doubt as to what would really happen: sure enough, Tettleton struck out swinging on the next pitch. What was remarkable to me, however, was that the fans still cheered as the inning ended in futility. "Well, it was fun, anyway," they seemed to say. "You came close, and we got excited, and what more can you ask?" At Fenway, they would have booed mercilessly.
I was noticing a lot about the Orioles fans. The crowd semed to be enjoying itself on this warm Friday night. The game was the focus of attention, but general social revelry abounded almost irrespective of what was happening on the field. Two teenage girls and a guy next to me were laughing, looking around the park for friends, gossiping, and yet also following the baseball action. The Stadium management encouraged this celebratory mood between innings with rock music, dancing characters dressed as animals, panoramic views of the audience on the wide screen, and numerous highlight films, quizzes, and the like. Whenever a foul ball into the stands was caught by a fan, the P.A. announcer would shout "Give that fan a contract!" I wondered, in light of the Orioles' record, if he were half serious.
I also noticed that there were many black fans in the crowd: couples, families with children, buddies, all attending the game with the same for-the-fun-of-it attitude. There should be nothing remarkable about this, except it was so unfamiliar in comparison with Fenway Park. Boston's racial divisions are notorious, and it's no secret that the Red Sox and Celtics have ben criticized for their disproportionately white rosters. Many Boston area blacks, in fact, are vocal Lakers fans rather than Celtics fans, and black attendance at Celtic and Red Sox games is almost negligible. Now the Orioles are not exactly the Blue Jays or the Yankees in terms of prominent black players (Eddie Murray is their only curent black star, although they brought back Frank Robinson as manager this year), but that apparently hasn't inhibited blacks from attending games in large numbers. The difference, I surmised, is in the atmosphere in the respective cities, not in the composition of the teams.
Baseball-wise, the 5th inning was pivotal. Although Oil Can had been strong, Tibbs had allowed only 3 hits and 2 tainted runs through 4 innings. Now in the top of the 5th, Boggs made a bid for his second home run of the year with a smash to straightaway center, over the head of Fred Lynn. When Lynn had come to the plate earlier, I had flashbacks to his great Red Sox years, 1975-80, when he was spectacular both at the plate and in centerfield. In all the years he has been away, with the Angels and the Orioles, Lynn has had some fleeting glory -- most notably in All Star games -- but he has not approached the peaks of greatness he achieved in Boston. Too many injuries, and a lingering sensse of indifference, that Southern California lethargy. I had a brief image of Lynn and Rice and the Red Sox' Lennon and McCartney, I'm not sure why.
Here, Lynn raced straight back toward the wall, turned, leaped, and in a patented play from his past, grabbed the ball with his glove after it had cleared the fence, and pulled it back into the park. The crowd went wild -- everyone, including me, on his feet, clapping, cheering, and waving. I had no choice, just as when Carlton Fisk invariably homers these days when he returns to Fenway Park, but to acclaim the heroics of an erstwhile Red Sox champion. The fans kept cheering through Evans's final out, Lynn tipping his cap, and those behind the Oriole dugout renewed the clamor as he jogged in from the field.
Between innings, the Memorial Stadium management pulled a brilliant maneuver. It immediately played on the message board a video tape called "Oriole Greats" or something like that, featuring -- who else? -- Fred Lynn. This tape clearly revealed that great fielding plays have not exactly been a rarity for Lynn since he joined the Orioles. We witnessed more than a dozen catches almost identical to the one he had just made, along with countless other diving grabs, throws to the plate, and assorted clutch plays. These were peppered with shots of Lynn's hitting, mostly majestic home runs.
So it was that when Lynn came to bat with one on and none out in the bottom of the 5th, the crowd was fully primed, Memorial Stadium rocking with appreciation and anticipation. And in one of those special, wonderful moments that only baseball can provide, Lynn responded on the first pitch from Boyd, lining it deep to right center, over the wall and behind the Red Sox bullpen, tying the ballgame. Bedlam erupted all around the ballpark. The forlorn Orioles fans seemed to unleash two seasons' worth of frustration (just as Red Sox fans had done a week earlier when Jim Rice connected for two straight two-run homers against the Yankees). I could only shake my head and clap my hands, muttering "What a hero."
After the 5th, the game settled into a pitchers' duel. This does not mean that the fans fought with their free Budweiser pitchers . . . (although several of them right behind me later learned, to their glee and my eardrums' woe, that banging the pitchers on the metal stands made a wondrous racket.) It means that nobody was hitting the ball, for which the respective hurlers generously were given credit. The most interesting part for me of these later innings was eavesdropping on, and then talking with, the fans right behind me. They were a young boy and older man, nephew and uncle, and their conversation moved from filling out their All Star ballots to the performance of players on their Rotisserie League roster, to guessing the Quiz question posted on the message board during the 7th inning stretch.
At this point, I jumped in, because the question dealt with the Red Sox: Name the four Sox who drove in 100+ runs in 1977. I immediately enlightened the doubting Oriole fans that Butch Hobson was one. I then changed my guess to George Scott. Hobson, of course, turned out to be correct, along with Rice, Fisk, and Yaz. In the meantime, I established a bit of a rapport with these hard core fans from another city. The boy in particular fascinated me, as he could rattle off players' statistics from around both leagues with computer-like ease. He reminded me of myself at 10 years old, and I realized again that baseball really does belong to the kid in all of us.
Although there were some exciting moments during the rest of the game, mostly of a defensive nature, I won't dwell on the rest. The teams played into extra innings, most of the crowd surprisingly remaining as Oriole rallies failed in the 9th and 10th. Finally the game concluded in anticlimactic fashion, when Sox reliever Dennis Lamp timidly walked Murray on four pitches with one out, then watched as he stole 2nd, took 3rd on Gedman's errant throw, and scored the winning run on a fly ball by Jim Traber over the drawn-in outfield. The fans cheered and cheered as if something far more important had happened than a 7th-place team defeating a 5th-place team. As we filed out, I commented to my neighbor, the uncle, that I was beginning to understand how he must have felt earlier in the season, when the O's were 0-and-21.
I was also beginning to understand that I had been wrong about Baltimore, both the city and the team. I had a momentary shock upon leaving the Stadium when I encountered a tow truck parked where my car should have been, seeming to be licking its chops after a good meal. The good news, however, was that I had come out of the park one street over from where I went in, and my car was in fact safely resting where I had left it. So I didn't have to walk back to Annapolis, and instead I staked out a different route out through the city. This time I wound up driving through the real downtown Baltimore: modern, illuminated, clean, attractive. Tall new buildings, upscale shops and galleries, a convention center, a fountain, all strutted past my window, as I discovered that this town was anything but dying -- all of a sudden, it seemed full of life, even growing.
As for the baseball team, a moment's reflection recalled that this Baltimore Orioles franchise has won at least the Division championship no less than eight times since 1966, has won two World Chanpionships in that time, and has enjoyed uncounted Cy Young winners, MVPs, Gold Gloves, and All Stars. To be more precise, before 1987-88, Baltimore had the winningest team in all of baseball over the previous 20 seasons. The Orioles have been the closest equivalent, in terms of persistent excellence, to the Celtics and Lakers that baseball has seen in my lifetime. The fact that they have now bottomed out dows not much discourage their richly endowed fandom. These privileged rooters have every reason to believe that their O's will soon return to contention, and in the meantime, they have plenty of great memories, and an occasional thrilling victory, to keep them coming to the ballpark.
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