Friday, August 30, 2013

The Old Ball Game

Yes, it had been years. Then my buddy Wis gave me the heads-up. Sunday, August 25. Orioles v. A's. Primo seats for matinee. As we used to say in Beepo, "I'm down!"

Still unfamiliar to Coal Country geography, I thought we were in for a real trek. Not so. After 2.5 hours, rolling from colm banks to the "metropolis" of Harrisburg (which looks like every TJ McOlivechilibys on the globe spawned there), through York and into Maryland, we pull into Lot A, which requires a separate sticker, a window-hanger, a blood sample and sworn oath that we are of the right provenance.

The day is glorious in its cloudlessness. In a few steps, we are on Eutaw Street. Now, this may provide confusement for some, but the street is inside the stadium. Instead of a pat-down and full-body scan, a smiling attendee took a cursory look at my fanny pack. [Please keep snarky comments to yourself.] I can see a bit of the greensward, partially blocked by batting-practice onlookers. I have never ceased to marvel at transition from asphalt to field; it stunned me as a kid; it still does.

Into Rick Dempsey's huge groggery for a pre-game Yuengling (at only eight bucks!), where we meet an Orioles staffer named Chuck. He is an actual employee of the Birds. His job: to sit in the bar, help people (!), and man the outside door lest any malefactors tried to sneak into the bar...and thus the game. He's pushing eighty and regales us with stories of Jim Gentile and Gus Triandos, his voice drenched in Bawlmerese. He even offers to hold on to a purchase I made until after the game.

All over Eutaw are well-spaced employees, each holding a pole on top of which are signs that say:


As a veteran of too many Gotham ballgames, I shudder at this anomaly.

Wis has this small, engaging smile that he allows infrequently. He displays it as we take our seats. They're right at the edge of the screen, between the dish and the O's dugout. The fourth row. I can see the stubble on Crush Davis's mush as he plays soft-toss a few feet away. The seats are padded; people say hello. And smile. By now, I am terrified. It's just too nice here.

It's all good cheer at home when lineups are presented. Laughs, smirks are exchanged between coaches and arbiters. An usher gently removes pre-game, Canon-laden gawkers from the first two rows. No complaints or contention.

A man named Glenn Donellan regales us with the anthem. He plays it on the viol--wait, it's an electrified Lousiville slugger with four strings! And he gets down with some eloquent riffing. The throng go Irwin Corey when he climbs up the neck for some high notes on "red glare" and "land of the free." I realize that they are conditioned to froth at musical fireworks by dint of OD-ing on American Idol.

Although the O's give up a run in an interminable first inning, they bounce right back, to go up 5-1. Davis crushes one--albeit foul--a zillion feet. It sounds like Navarone.

Then I get lost, in the best of ways.

I remembered going to Yankee Stadium in the early 60s on a PAL bus trip. We sat way up in the nosebleeeds, with posts obstructing our views. When it was time to leave, I tarried, so wanting to get a souvenir for my brother. I bought him a Mickey Mantle pin outside the stadium for a quarter. A Bridgeport cop snarled at me to get on the bus. On the way, I tripped and skinned my knee. I think I cried. But my brother got his button.

On Father's Day in 1964, Dad took us to a double-dipper at Shea. The Phillies were in town. In the lid-lifter, Jim Bunning, on the slab for the visitors, was twirling some magic. He didn't pull a rabbit out of his cap, but he retired all 27 batters he faced. I remember the electricity in the air when he came out for bottom nine. My father said, "You'll never see this again." He probably was right. I know I never saw another game with my dad.

Mid 80s: The Black Rock Bums' Club had a box at Shea. I was there when Jesse Orosco jumped toward the heavens at the end of game seven in '86. [Apologies to Sawx faithful.]

Eight years ago, I took my daughter Ellie down to Charm City. It was her first ballgame and my initial visit to Camden Yards. The day was more pure than Bunning's gem: She was picked to accompany a player (Steve Kline, a reliever) onto the field where he gave her the shirt off his back in a pregame ceremony. She slept in it.

Snapping out of it, I begin to enjoy the leisurely pace that is baseball. By the third, I can call pitches for dish ump Jordan Baker, a big, raw AAA call-up. There are no close plays, no rhubarbs and little drama. The entire tapestry is one of serenity, accompanied by glove-thumps, bat-cracks and the distant roar of the crowd above and behind us.

As I smack my lips after receiving a cold Lager (i. e.,  Yuengling), a concessionaire remarks, "Enjoy that beer, sir." I think: "You would see Derek Jeter at bat in a kimono and Manolo Blahniks before a vendor even hinted at politeness in the Bronx."

The usual intermezzos ensue: a kid has to grab second base and haul it back to the outfield in a minute (he does). Mr. Donellan hops on the O's dugout with the mascot (oddly named "The Bird") and throws down some chops in "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." And right in key. It is announced that the fiddler plays with the B(altimore)SO. No wonder.

The people around us are--need I say it again?--nice. And no fat cats. I figure they must be like Wis and I: regular shlubs who lucked into primo seats.

The vendors in the aisles dare to smile express their thanks. One looks suspiciously like a Connecticut mayor I know.

The Birds have the game well in hand. Better than than two at the Busch. No bullpen collapse. I go back to Dempsey's and claim my stuff from Chuck, who retrieves my bag as soon as he sees me--all smiles. Another staffer beams at the gate, asking if we had a good time.

On the way home, the setting sun accompanying us on the left, racing through the tufted green hills of Pennsy, Wis gives me that small smile again. There isn't too much to talk about.

I see those games gone by with clarity. The perfect booster button. Perfection by Jim Bunning. The perfect smile of a young girl at her first game.

And the perfection of a simple, unremarkable day at the ballyard.

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