Thursday, April 30, 2009

Baseball, Dad, and what I learned in the seventh inning.....

Well, here I am, true to the form I've unwittingly established as this blog has evolved with painful slowness over the last several months. It's the last evening of April, and I find myself hurriedly pulling some thoughts together, hopefully with a modicum of purpose that makes them even slightly worth reading. It was a rather unremarkable April, a passage of four weeks that were each basically like the one before. But the one bright spot which differentiated this month from its predecessors was the annual event which still stirs my heart no matter how blase' and jaded I've allowed my demeanor to become--the start of baseball season. It's a love of baseball in general, but the Baltimore Orioles in particular. I liken it to my being a Christian first and foremost, but a member of the Brethren in Christ as my specific descriptor. With baseball, it can't help but ultimately be the Orioles. Having been born and bred in Maryland, there was simply too much history and legacy generated from the complex entity we fans lovingly refer to as 'the Birds' to sit by oblivious to it all.

As a native of Hagerstown, the Orioles drama was always unfolding 70-odd miles away, so it carried a heady mixture of being the 'home team' and yet being isolated in the rarified realm of the sprawling harbor city we visited only occasionally in my childhood. When my brother relocated to Baltimore in the fall of 1980, the dynamic changed, and the Birds suddenly felt more like the boys next door. I remember sitting in the nosebleeds at the old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street with my brother and Dad on a muggy July evening in 1984, drinking it all in, my first live immersion into the Orioles kingdom. There was a new relevance being able to watch the action unfold before me, and I remember being overwhelmed by how enormous it all was, not just the ballpark, but the game itself. The mechanics of the play, as these incredibly skilled athletes wove an intricate tapestry beneath the glaring lights, struck me as being epic in every possible way. That was the moment when something so fundamentally right about the game ensconced itself in the fabric of who I am, and I felt like I was witnessing life from some wonderful and privileged vantage point for the very first time. I remember feeling the amazing contradiction of being profoundly, intimately connected to 25,000 other people, and yet keenly aware of being a tiny element juxtaposed against a gigantic monolith, like a child standing by the ocean. It may not have been the defining moment of my life, but something forever changed in my perspective as I watched the Orioles work their magic in the Baltimore summer night.

But it's the hazier memories of my childhood that are the sweet ones, as I, a clumsy, Coke-bottle eyeglassed, overweight, uncoordinated loner who was always picked last for teams in gym class sat beside my dad on sweltering summer evenings and watched as the action unfolded on our fuzzy old Zenith TV, the picture tube glowing, lightning bugs flitting by the window. In the panorama of that faded past, the truly amazing year was probably 1973. That was a magical summer for the eight-year-old me; our family made its first trip to Walt Disney World, and the Orioles slugged their way through the season with what was arguably their most classic line-up. The mere mention of the names from that '73 roster conjures up the awe I felt as I watched them flow together like a supremely well-oiled machine -- Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Doug DeCinces -- and Jim Palmer flinging powerhouse pitches with the grace of a classical dancer and the aim of a sniper, all of it with a sharp-edged undercurrent of determination and purpose. I remember feeling a tremendous kinship with Mark Belanger due to nothing more than the dumb connection of us sharing the same first name. But I recall thinking to myself that it felt somehow empowering when I would put on my Orioles cap and pick up my plastic bat for a family game of pseudo-baseball, and count myself every bit a Bird. On those fleeting occasions when I would actually make a decent hit, it felt good to know that I was, at least in my own mind, in the company of the guy I watched on TV with 7 on his uniform who plied his trade 70 miles away as the crow flies, and a million miles away in reality.

The 1970's wore on, and I found myself gradually distracted with a seemingly endless string of interests vying for my attention: Star Wars, Walt Disney World, the Beatles, playing guitar, model railroading, home movies, creative writing, and perhaps the most derailing of all -- girls! Before I knew it, the Orioles had slid far down on the ladder of significance, and I wasn't reminded of the old glories again until the fall of 1983, now out of high school and struggling to find where I should go in life. I remember sitting at the house of a girl I had been dating, in the company of her rather unpleasant father, with her off doing homework or something, as we watched the Orioles battle the Phillies in the World Series. So much looked the same as when I had watched ten years before, but changes had crept in, too. Jim Palmer was still there, his form and command as flawless as ever, racking up a win in game 3 in a battle of wits with Steve Carlton. But there were new names and a new team dynamic, a slew of personalities who were carving out their own Orioles legacy a decade after the boys of '73 -- Al Bumbry, Rick Dempsey, Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton, and, most notably, Cal Ripken, Jr., who would go on to define the very essence of the integrity which had always represented baseball at its finest. The Birds pounded away through the five games, losing the first, then claiming victory in the remaining four, resulting in their most recent World Series victory to date.

Something eroded, or at least tarnished, as the years went by. Cal proved himself the inarguable Iron Man, but then retired, and the Orioles, and all of baseball itself, were less for his loss. My modern-day hero was now B.J. Surhoff, a disciplined ace who had proved himself throughout many solid seasons and whom I felt an empathy for by the nature of his being seven months my senior, the guy trying to still prove his validity as forty closed in. But then, Surhoff, too was gone, voted by the fans one of the top 50 Orioles of all time, and then suddenly playing his final game in October of '05. In the wake of Ripken and Surhoff, the Orioles drifted through a frustrating quagmire of lackluster seasons and managers who just didn't seem to understand their own players' strengths and weaknesses. The theatrical but effectual leadership during Earl Weaver's tenure as skipper was a distant memory, and for every powerhouse player now coming to the forefront, there seemed to be a counterweight erasing his contribution. Eric Bedard and B.J. Ryan were, respectively, awe-inspiring as a starter and a closer, but Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson threw away games with frustrating frequency and racked up humiliating ERA's. Melvin Mora, Jerry Hairston, David Newhan, Corey Patterson, and various other talents brought solid fielding into alignment with consistent batwork. But Miguel Tejada and Raphael Palmeiro cast a grim shadow over the club in the midst of the MLB-wide pandemic of performance-enhancing drug use.

Somewhere in the middle of the decade, it was somehow a respite to start turning my attention to the Hagerstown Suns. After all, they had once upon a time been in the Orioles farm organization, drifting then to the Toronto Bluejays, finally jumping over to the National League, from the Giants to the Mets to the Nationals. There was something wonderfully refreshing sitting in the old stadium where Willie Mays had made his professional debut, watching the very different world of Single A ball, where mega-salaries and global recognition were blissfully absent. Going to Suns games became somehow healing, and invigorating. I sat huddled beside my girlfriend in the air of a cold April afternoon and shared a wonderful time with her, and came away feeling like new breath had come into me. Although I can't give the game all the credit, I did propose to her the next day. She accepted, and now, as my wife, she still patiently sits with me through games, even if they lurch into extra innings, and it still feels like that first game we ever went to together. But probably my greatest live game moment was one I experienced with my dad. It's the absolute cliche of cliches to paint baseball as the defining connection of fathers and sons, the glory and honor of bygone times wrapped in a bittersweet envelope of Americana that would make Ray Kinsella blush. But that's exactly what I experienced along the first base line in the bleachers at Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium one night in July of 2004. I think the Suns lost that night, but it didn't even matter. I sat in my father's company and basked in the afterglow of something from decades before my birth, and I saw this veteran of World War II who had headed to the Philippines wondering if he would ever come home again acknowledge something as he sat with his son and watched the long balls driven deep into right field, just beneath the advertisements for all the old local businesses I had known all my life.

It was nothing earth-shattering, but we stood for the national anthem, and my dad, in his late-seventies and with an amazing array of life experiences defining who he is, placed his hand over his heart and looked down at that field with moist eyes. The sun was dipping behind the skyline of Hagerstown, those roof lines and church steeples I've been looking at for forty-four years, and lights were starting to come on along the streets as the last magenta hues of daylight slid away. Then they threw out the opening pitch, and the innings unfolded with me thinking incessantly about the simple, beautiful image of my dad acknowledging his country, and the game, and special moments with his son in the sanctity of an old stadium in a small city in western Maryland. When we stood for the seventh inning stretch, everybody sang along as 'Take Me Out To the Ball Game' crackled over the PA. I looked over at Dad and smiled, and I knew that I had just been party to one of the most blissfully pure moments of my entire life, when we didn't say anything but the game around us said everything, and we understood it all completely, and unquestionably.

I went to a Suns game for the last time in '05 and sat beside my stepson, feeling what I hoped was at least an inkling of what swept through Dad's heart just a year before. The Suns, the underdogs, the true home team in my true home town, are probably my best shot at a live baseball connection these days. And I haven't made it back to Camden Yards in five years....marriage and kids and all the odds and ends of life clamoring for attention have made things shift back to where they were thirty-five years ago. Now I watch the Orioles on TV again, like on those July nights when I was eight. These days, it's Brian Roberts who captivates my interest, this incredibly versatile and determined young man who plays every game like the future of the world hangs in the balance. They started this season like gangbusters, winning the first three series with a humble might that echoed days gone by. Then it all seemed to unravel, and the season has begun to look more like some of those bleak expanses in the last ten years. But it doesn't really matter to those of us who are orange-blooded. Even if .500 ball remains elusive, it's enough that they'll always be the Birds, our Birds, from a Baltimore that in my heart will always be the Baltimore of 1973, when you walked into the Inner Harbor and were overpowered with the amazing aroma of the old McCormick Spice factory, a permeating odor that is as vanished as the summer evenings when Brooks and Boog and Jim wowed the world from 33rd Street, and awkward boys could watch fuzzy innings at their father's side, and all was right with the world as long as the ball just kept flying......