Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Baseball Story

It was dilemma.

What a start time, 5:30 on a Thursday, the time when most of the people that live in the faded cities of Baltimore and Detroit go home from work. Why did baseball schedule the best matchup in the LCS at such an hour when the second game doesn't start until 9pm? (One could argue that the Taint Louis-LAD matchup is better. I prefer to disregard that scarlet bird team although if I face reality I know it's probably true.) (Before I get too far, I must say this. I like the Tigers. I have since I was exposed to them in 1984. Read about it if you want.)

I have fallen in love with this Orioles team.

I've had an affinity for the O's since...well, I was going to say 2003 when I first moved to Washington and that was the Major League Baseball team near here, but I have an Orioles hat that I bought in 1996, the year after my Reds were so rudely dispelled from the NLCS by the hated Barves, a year when I needed a team to root for in the post season to get over yet another disappointment. That was the Jeffrey Maier Year, the one in which a tenth man, er, boy, changed everything, or at least it seemed that way, judging from the wild hand gestures of an irate future Hall of Famer. I did like that team. I did like the idea of the Orioles, and I don't know why I felt connected to them. I remember as a kid getting Orioles baseball cards - the 1987 Topps set stands out - and not understanding what or where "Baltimore" was or why it was a city or why it had a baseball team. I'm not sure I even knew what state it was in. It was a weird word, all the way over there on the "East Coast," and it sounded more like a foreign country than anything American. Even when I took my first trip to Washington - during my sophomore year in college - the entire state of Maryland seemed like a fake place, a place that only existed in primary school social studies textbooks when you were learning the capitals and had to know of a city called "Annapolis." It was October 1996, and I said aloud to other people on the trip, "I've never been to New England before!" as we entered the state of Maryland. I was promptly corrected by a girl from Connecticut.

But...I knew of the Baltimore baseball team, and I knew it was a good one once, and I knew they had "stolen" Frank Robinson (I'd later learn the harsh truth about his departure and the worst trade in baseball history even to this day, but, you know, innocence and all. Milt Pappas? Annie Savoy was right.) I knew that they had beaten the Reds in the '70 World Series during the infancy of the Big Red Machine, and I remember being kind of mad at them about that. I respected the franchise even though I suppose I thought it existed in space, just floating there above the "East Coast." It's funny to think about now, but aren't all the things you thought when you were a kid? I once had a Jim Palmer baseball card, a card from his twilight years when the underwear commercials had dried up and he was still pretending he was young enough to pitch, and I remember when my mother saw it and told me he had been a great pitcher and I knew it was true from the look of him on the card. I think he had retired by the time I acquired it so I couldn't even watch him pitch.

Though there was such thing as the "world wide web" in 1996, I don't remember Major League Baseball having a website that year. I had a subscription to the literally made-of-paper New York Times and I remember a picture of some Serbian kids on the front page and instead of thinking about why they were protesting, I was fascinated by the fact that one of them was wearing a New York Yankees hat. I think it was the first time I truly understood the phenomenon called "globalization" and to this day I remember that picture. I also corrected a guy in class after the professor asked what the big deal was about the Yankees being in the playoffs because the student had given the incorrect date of the last time, which was a glorious 14 years, though I didn't think it glorious then. It was a great series with the Orioles and it stands out in my mind more than most, but I never would have guessed that I would one day have a direct connection to the Baltimore Orioles or Maryland or that I'd learn how to eat crabs and Old Bay.

When I packed up my car in 2003 and drove it across the country to start a new life in our nation's capital, Spring Training was underway and almost over and our Holy Opening Day was approaching. I had spent the previous two baseball seasons rooting for Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants (when the Reds weren't playing them,) having lived in Monterey, California, but I was a baseball fan, and I had no problem driving up to Baltimore several times that summer and the next. That Orioles hat came in handy. The team wasn't particularly good either of those first two seasons or several after that, and the most exciting thing to watch was Rafael Palmero's homers. That was in 2004, before steroids ruined the idea of him.

The Nats arrived in 2005, and though I still drove up to Baltimore a few times that summer, it was AWESOME to be able to get on a train and go to a ballpark, a dream, really. It was the first time in my life that it was so easy to see baseball, having grown up near Dayton (45 minutes from Cincinnati) and in Sidney (1.5 hours from Cincy.) I still watched the Orioles when they didn't interfere with the Reds and Nats games, but I got away from them a bit. My visits dwindled to once or twice a year, then none at all, and I only watched when one or two or both of the others had an off day or game time was different.

The 2005 Nats team was fun until they fell off a cliff that August. I even rooted against the Reds when they came to town late that season, as their season had ended long before and the Nats were still clinging to wild card hopes, albeit desperately. That was tough. So was putting up with all the losing for the next many years. But I still went, and I still cheered, and I still was considered one of those in the Nats inner circle of fandom as an early adopter of the team. I was given a season ticket package from my family as a 30th birthday present in 2007; the stadium was so empty most of the time that I moved from my seats in the upper deck to somewhere closer to home plate on the lower. RFK was a dump, a relic from another time, but the ghosts still roamed through it, and though they had seen a lot of losing, those ghosts still made the baseball experience wonderful.

I wasn't in DC during the inaugural season of Nats Park, so it wasn't until 2009 that I saw my first game there. I was less than impressed. It was a mall. It couldn't decide which history to embrace. Was it the city's baseball history or the corporate side of things? They couldn't even get the view right, choosing parking garages over the Capitol Dome. One thing they did get right was the idea to put a statue of Josh Gibson in a spot equal to Walter Johnson and Frank Howard. But they blew it by approving such a hideous design.

Being on the East Coast makes it easy to go to a lot of different ballparks. I covered them all - The Beautiful Relic, The House that Jeter Killed, The House that Jeter Shopped In, The Blue Dump in Flushing, Shitty Field, Citizen's Prank, and even further west, that pretty aberration in Pusburgh. In those years I went to all of them as well as Big Box Store Field, Ivy Drunkard Paradise, Beer Park West, and probably some others that I'm leaving out. Every one of them was a better baseball experience than Nats Park.

I've been struggling to put why that is into words. It makes me an enemy in certain parts. I suppose I'm long overdue to explain, but I've been trying to write about it for awhile. (That's coming.) The bottom line is that even though I've been to about a quarter of the home games at Nats Park in each of the last six years, aside from 2011 when I spent the summer in Ohio, I don't get that feeling of awe when I'm there, unless something big is happening, like Randy Johnson's 300th win (though they made sure to get their money from us in the rainout game before it) or a playoff game or Opening Day.

At some point, I stopped enjoying baseball.

The Reds may have planted the seeds, being awful with seemingly no end to the losing in sight, which exacerbated the disappointment I felt over their 2010, 2012, and 2013 post season performances. We had waited too long to flame out so quickly and awfully. The Nats were perennial losers except in 2012, as were the Orioles, and though I continued to go to Nats games, I think my heart was breaking. A lot of it had to do with the emergence of social media and the nastiness of people on the internet, too. I had put my heart and soul into this blog about the wonder of the game of baseball, and I think even I couldn't live up to the high standard I had set for the game. But when you create something that a lot of people appreciate, you start to attract those who appreciate nothing, the bullies, the sociopaths, the trolls. I became bitter. (I don't know why I criticize sports journalists who are nasty with fans; I saw what they see for a time.) Then, social media destroyed my ability to write and the audience's ability to read, and my posting became less frequent until it was almost non-existent. 140 characters at a time was all I could muster.

I've been watching the Orioles much more frequently in the last few years. I think it is because I moved to Columbia Heights and started going to Lou's City Bar, which usually has the Nats and O's games on side by side. I often ask for the Reds game, too, so I have three games I'm watching at the same time. I tweet from there quite regularly. But sometimes watching felt like more of an obligation rather than a love.

This post began as a story about my commute, the dysfunctional Metro, working far from where I live, scrambling to get to a television where I can watch a baseball game, and the impetus for it all. This post is about a rediscovery of a lifelong love, a rediscovery that I think happened in the city of Baltimore, at one of the best ballparks to have ever had the privilege of hosting a baseball team, and a development that I desperately needed. When Chris's older brother came to visit his siblings at the end of July, when the Reds had already showed their disinterest in October baseball, we went to an Orioles-Angels game, and I rediscovered the magic of baseball. What a ballpark! What a crowd! What a team! What a history! WHAT A BALLPARK! That game was like playoff baseball, a preview of what could be the ALCS, an extra inning affair in which the team that Angelos didn't seem to care about for many years was victorious over the Angels. Wow. That feeling was never replicated in Nats Park, despite a similar bandwagon rolling down the beltway.

I left the office of my job of a mere three weeks last Thursday on the first bus out of there, worried about missing the first half of the game during my hour and a half commute. Then I remembered MLB At Bat, and as a half hour of my commute is outside, knew I could listen to the radio broadcast. (Young people, let this be a lesson to you: learn to listen to baseball on the radio. You will cherish it forever. And by radio I mean your phone.) I have a twenty minute bus ride to the Silver Line Metro before I suffer an hour and ten to thirty minute train ride. Thursday was one of those longer ones, where you just sit on the tracks for ten minutes at a time, not moving, which feels like an hour or forever. But I realized I didn't have to go home. As one of those "won't cross the river" people in DC, working in Virginia is a new experience, and it had never occurred to me to get off the train in one of those cities along the Metro line. A light bulb. Ballston it was, the first stop under the tunnel, where no radio broadcast would go. I went to the only place I knew - Front Page - where they had the sound on and every screen tuned to baseball.

As it should be. This is America, after all. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie.

I was excited for playoff baseball that day, but I was particularly excited for Orioles baseball. Though I had been watching the Orioles this and other seasons prior, that one game on a beautiful July night in Camden Yards gave me something that had been missing from my life. I felt the soul of the game again, that awe, that magic. That beautiful ballpark, the Oriole history, the intensity of the players, the excitement and rowdiness of the I had not enjoyed a baseball game like that for a long time. I suppose if you haven't been a baseball fan all your life, you probably can't understand that.

So, Orioles fans, I hope you will accept me as your guest this post season, because I am not from your country but hail from the land of Cincinnatus, one steeped in a grand tradition that even your proud city can't imagine. I am not of the bandwagon crowd. I come from the Church of Baseball, I worship the same saints as you do, the revered Cals and Brookses and Franks and Jims and Earls and all of those who have performed their miracles in your city (in nearly half the time as my beloved Reds sect.) You are baseball fans. You appreciate the game. Your team is damn good. And you're gonna get another one of those divine golden trophies, I'm pretty sure of it.

Note: I will be torn in a Nats-O's World Series, which, from the looks of it, probably won't happen. Chris and I might break up if I root for the O's too loudly in the event it does, but I'll probably root for both at the same time and be satisfied with either outcome. I'm half kidding. Regardless, I want to see good baseball. As long as Taint Louis isn't in it, life will be ok.


bg said...

Interesting commentary on the city and park. I also like the Orioles but really want the Nats to bring DC its first World Series title since 1924.
Though born in D.C., I haven't lived here too long myself, having moved back from Dallas about a decade ago. My dad was a big Yankees fan growing up near NYC and later lived in D.C. for 25 years, becoming a Senators fan. Talk about a tough transition. Frank Howard, who we have met, was one of the few bright spots of those teams.
My son has grown up with the Nationals, having gone to games since that first season when he was five. He has met many of them through fanfests and the Sunday signature events. They are his team.
He and I were troopers at his first MLB playoff game that he actually witnessed from the inside last Saturday. We went to a playoff game in 2012 but couldn't get tickets and watched part of it from the big centerfield gate TV screen. I bought his ticket for well above face value through a reseller website and watched the game myself with some other fans from that centerfield TV. I had seen many games, including playoff ones, from inside the park and some pressboxes, and found the view from outside the gate not ideal, but good enough.
We stayed for the entire agonizing 6 ½-hour affair, and by the time it ended, well more than half the crowd had left, seeking a warmer and saner environment. But there was still a fairly substantial hardy contingent. We cheered, then groaned when the fierce wind kept potential walk-off home runs by Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche in the park. That cruel wind died down enough by the 18th inning to provide little resistance to Brandon Belt’s shot.
On the walk out, some fans cursed Matt Williams for yanking Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth, and a lot of fans cursed home plate ump Vic Carapazza for his wildly erratic strike zone. My son said his dream was to play for the Nationals and be on the team that broke Washington’s now 90-year string without a World Series victory. He said he’d take a ticket or something to his grandpa’s grave in Arlington Cemetery to show the former longtime Senators fan “we did it.”
Now, I guess we fans can take some solace that the team made the playoffs in its eighth season after moving from Montreal, whereas the former Senators took 24 years before making the playoffs after moving to Texas.
It seems most teams take a long time to win their first World Series, but how did the Diamondback do it in only their fourth year and the Marlins in only their fifth? Some teams just have more luck than others.
One day, the tables will turn. It may take a few decades or it may just take a few years, but they will turn. Some of us still believe.

Cathie Glover said...

Thank you so much for your comment. Your story about your son and the game brought a tear to my eye, the good kind of tear, though bittersweet given the outcome of the series. Tell your son that other Nats fans are proud of him for sticking through the whole game. I was raised a Reds fan but also a baseball fan and the one thing my mother never ever did with my two sisters and I was leave a game early. Magic could happen at any moment. You are teaching your son the right way!

Count me as one who cursed Williams for pulling Zimmerman. It was weird - before the infamous walk came up, I suddenly had this sinking feeling, and then the missed strike calls and the walk and the pull and bam. But - even though it hurts, one of the things that make baseball great is the heartbreak.

I'm actually writing something this very minute about my boyfriend Chris, born and raised in Rockville, Senators fan turned Orioles fan turned Nationals fan. Howard was the first mlb homer he witnessed.

Also, no offense, but I hope your son isn't on the team that breaks the WS drought, because I'm hoping that happens in the next couple of years!

Thank you so much for your comment. Warmed my heart, truly.

bg said...

Thanks Cathie! You have a good blog here.
The Reds have a great history. Were you at any of the World Series games in the 1970s or 1990?
True, one of the things that make baseball and sports great is the heartbreak. It feels that much better when you finally win one. The White Sox winning its first WS in almost 90 years in 2005 was a big moment.
I was upset when the Rangers didn't win it in 2011 - the old senators team within one strike to the hated Cardinals.
I too hope it is next year that the Nats win it all.
That's interesting your boyfriend's first home run to see was Howard's. Frank is still a lively character.