The Greatest Thing that Almost Happened Orioles Baseball 2012
“Experience makes good people better.”
“How does it do that?”
“Through their suffering.”
“I’ve had enough of that …”
– Malamud, “The Natural”
From the wild-card win in Texas to last night’s loss in Gotham City, none of it was especially pleasant. But that is the nature of true love.
With each and every pitch over a full week of games: The gods of baseball love me, they love me not …
As is the case with amour, you win some, you lose some and some slip away from you in the Big City despite your best efforts.
And yet, even with the taste of green pennies at the back of the mouth after falling to the pin-striped robber barons to the north, love – exuberant, soul-stirring, insane – has finally returned to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The kiss-off of ‘wait ’ll next year” will arrive before the Fourth of July.
O is for October.
These are the circumstances in which I experienced the most exciting week of baseball in Crabtown in a generation.
Friday the 5th of October alone in my girlfriend’s basement with a radio (more on this later); Sunday and Monday – the 6th and 7th – catching a cold in the rain while screaming myself hoarse at the Yard; Wednesday the 8th in a South Philly bar with my son Jake, hating a bald-headed pinch-hitter; Thursday back home in Baltimore with a radio and last night wishing and hoping in front of a flat screen Langermann’s in Canton before the cursing and gnashing of the and the final five frames back with my sweetheart where it had all started a week before.
The hat trick.
Friday, October the 5th was the night the Baltimore Orioles faced a “sudden life” play-off against Texas in an American League wild card game – I was in a house full of my girlfriend’s relatives without a television.
The occasion was a dinner preceding a weekend memorial service for patriarch Julian Stein. Friends and relatives, several of them baseball fans and a handful of those Orioles’ fans, had come from around the world to honor the great man.
Nick Stein, now living in Los Angeles, told the story of his father taking him to the fabled 1966 World Series at Memorial Stadium against the Koufax Dodgers. Frank and Brooks and a wisenheimer named Moe led the Birds to an improbable four-game sweep.
It cemented the adolescent Nick’s love for the home team no matter how far afield life took him.
In between heaping plates of spinach and sausage lasagna from Trinacria, I found a radio and retreated to the basement for the first pitch of an Orioles’ post-season game in 15 years. These years are known to members of the Bleeding Orange cult as “the suffering.”
Inning after inning, the game inched forward in a 1-to-1 tie as the WBAL-AM broadcasting team of Joe Angel and Fred Manfra relayed the action from Arlington, Texas.
It was nerve wracking and stomach aching. Trying to sit, not being able to sit. Pacing the floor with each pitch – good Lord don’t let this season end tonight – holding my breath on ground balls that blessedly became the pitcher’s best friend – a double play – for Oriole starter Joe Saunders.
Know-nothings say baseball is boring. Perhaps Chinese water torture is too.
I ran up the steps during commercials to be social – shaking hands, returning niceties, updating the game – though I refused an Emily Post request (more of a demand) to remove my baseball cap while inside the house.
“It’s the play-offs,” I explained.
“I don’t care,” said the woman, like me a guest in a house though unlike me she presumed to have the run of the joint.
“Play-offs,” I repeated, heading downstairs for another scoreless inning, smiling cartoon Bird happily on my head.
I didn’t endure 15 years of the suffering to pretend I am something I am not.
By the 6th inning the Orioles were ahead 2-to-1 on an Adam Jones sacrifice fly and all of the guests had left. My sweetheart – exhausted from helping organize a long weekend with more than 200 guests – had put the game on the clock radio in her bedroom and called for me to join her.
Giddy as the Birds went ahead 3-to-1, we awoke on the morning of her father’s memorial to a 5-to-1 victory, the hated Yankees in our sights and a gift to me from an old friend. Dean Bartoli Smith had bought a ticket for me to attend the opening game against New York at Camden Yards.
The game fell on October 7, a year to the day that I’d interviewed Julian Stein about his cousin Gertrude over soft crabs at Tio Pepe, a lunch to which he brought his daughter Phoebe in whose house I refused to take off my Orioles cap.
Oct. 7, 2012 Game One versus New York Camden Yards
The Adam Bombs of centerfielder Jones have yet to be launched in the post-season.
[Who could have guessed that they never would, that the recognized team leader, who hit 32 home runs in the regular season, would joke in the spotlight?]
Fan favorite Matt Wieters – the only jersey I see more than No. 32 on Eutaw Street is Brookie’s No. 5 – not only stopped hitting but his golden defense sputtered a bit.
Jim Johnson, who led the major leagues in saves this year, had a rare 9th inning collapse and the Light Rail car that took me home at damn near 1 o’clock in the morning was silent and scattered with other cold and wet and orange-clad faithful.
I went to the game with the aforementioned Bartoli Smith, friend and fellow Catholic writer with whom I shared mutual and life-changing confessions in Camden’s left-field bleachers back in the dark and Trembley days of Baltimore baseball in 2007.
Smith’s wife, a take-no-prisoners nursing student from New England, still holds the best quote in history in regard to sorry-ass, bleeding orange Baltimore goofs like me and her husband. A few years back, in the depths of the pre-Showalter “suffering,” Bartoli and I kept despair at bay with memories of glory days on 33rd street, the beauty of “The Blade,” and our long-gone youth.
Squaring up, Mrs. Smith aimed and fired: “Three hundred people a year are murdered in Baltimore and all you guys care about is that they tore down Memorial Stadium.”
Guilty, your honor.
Bartoli brought his son Quinn, a newly minted 6-year-old immersed in the traditions of Crabtown since birth. While waiting out a two-hour crappy weather delay, I took Quinn down to the edge of the field to watch raindrops ping and puddle on the white tarp covering the infield.
Who knows what a kid will remember on the other side of here-it-comes-ready-or-not adolescence.
Hopefully the attention of his old man, his father’s crazy friend dressed in a Department of Correction orange jumpsuit and the strange excitement of a game (known to some as “controlled failure”) he is too young to understand.
Back in our seats – Row 10, Section 81, almost dry beneath an overhang near the left field foul pole – Bartoli watched the rain fall with a moody smile on his face.
“It felt like a cleansing of the last 15 years,” said the poet. “It was time to savor the moment with an energized and boisterous crowd more suited for a Ravens game. I put my arm around my son to keep him warm and held back tears thinking about my father at [the Orioles’ first] Opening Day back in ’54.”
October 8, 2012 Game Two Camden Yards
For this engagement – the battle to tie the series at one game apiece – I sit in the upper deck behind home plate with friend and editor (how rarely are those words mentioned in the same breath?) Ron Cassie.
We sat in Row 16 of Section 332, beautiful seats, and Ron told some of the best baseball stories I’ve ever heard, which is saying something since I came-of-age in the Baltimore Sun sports department when the likes of James H. Jackson roamed the Earth.
Cassie’s best was how he talked his mother into letting him take a bus from Allentown, Pa., to New York City when he was still a middle school kid back in 1977 to see the great Reggie Jackson play.
[The year before, as an Oriole, Jackson tied the American League record for home runs in consecutive games at six. This year, Oriole slugger Chris Davis tied that record. Alas, Davis didn’t have a single blast in last week’s series against New York.]
Looking back, Cassie is astounded that his mother let him catch a Greyhound to the Big Apple as such a tender age. Her reasoning, said Ron, was that the buddy who went along with him was “a smart kid.”
Yeah Mom, chuckled Davis all these years later, “but he was 12 too!”
The pair got off at the Port Authority, couldn’t find anyone to tell them which subway went to Yankee Stadium and simply followed a bunch of guys wearing the regalia of the home team. In the Bronx, they got tickets via a scalper: A nine-year-old straight out of the Dead End Kids.
Fast forward 35 years: Jim Johnson, who had allowed the roof to cave in the night before, strikes out Alex “I’m Washed Up” Rodriguez for the last out in the top of the ninth and the Birds win 3-to-2.
On the train ride home, a Bird of a different color from the night before, I met a man who’d lived in New York in the early 1950s when the town boasted three beloved teams: the Giants in the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and the you-know-whos from you know where.
Now he is a Nationals fan and neither of us could know that his pain would throb somewhat deeper than mine in the days to come.
Oct. 10, 2012 Game Three Yankee Stadium
Since my son Jake moved to Philadelphia after college several years ago, we’ve had a tradition of getting together each October during the play-offs and World Series to have dinner and watch a game or two together.
It was especially exciting in 2008 when the Phillies won the World Series and would have been doubly delicious the following year had Philadelphia beaten the Most Hated Team in the World in the world championship.
The morning the Orioles’ played game three against the Yankees I had breakfast with Charley “Horseface” Scalies in the actor’s old South Philly stomping grounds.
We were there to talk scripts but baseball crowded the blue cheese frittatas on our plates.
“I was 14 when the A’s left Philly at the end of the 1954 season and moved to Kansas City,” said Charley. “I was a Phillies fan and you were one or the other, never both. But I did get to see a few A’s games and can still see Connie Mack sitting in the dugout wearing his high collar and straw hat.”
Scalies’ father, who ran a pool room and was also a Phillies’ fan, was angry when the Athletics left town four years after Connie Mack retired.
“I never understood why anyone would be bothered by it since the A’s were such a lousy team,” said Scalies. “But my Pop knew them in the great years, when the A’s fielded championship caliber teams from 1910 through 1914 and ’29, ’30 and ’31.
“When they abandoned the city he felt as though an old friend had died.”
I knew the Orioles in their great years of the modern era – ’66 through ’83 – and I did my best to pass that love onto Jake, who was born 29 years ago, over the summer before the Birds won their last World Series.
Sitting in a bar a block from his house off the corner of Broad and McKean, we had the place to ourselves for the first few innings of game three. Around the 5th inning, an astoundingly drunk middle-aged woman stumbled in proclaiming it was her birthday and ordering double-shots of vodka while her “gentleman friend” kept insisting he was going to call a cab.
“But baby,” she slurred. “It’s my BIRF-day …”
By the time I’d danced with the woman to the “Theme from Shaft,” the Orioles were ahead 2-to-1 on a superb performance by rookie pitcher Miguel “The Matador” Gonzalez. To avoid saying “Happy Birthday” for the 10,000th time, Jake and I repaired to a couch out of harm’s way, holding our breath on each pitch.
It’s the 9th inning and we’re almost there.
But this birthday party turns out to be anything but happy.
I have a couple of cuss words for you.
Ibanez & Ibanez.
Oct. 11, 2012 Game Four Yankee Stadium
We win in 13 innings, using a total of seven relief pitchers to support starter Joe Saunders.
A recently maligned Pedro Strop – a Dominican whose last name comes from his step-father, a Dutchman, gets the win.
My best friend from the old days, Richard “Senor Guantes” Snyder, whom I bumped into during Game Two at the Yard, texts me the next morning after getting only a few hours sleep.
“I can’t do this anymore. I’m spent.”
But we must.
Tomorrow will decide who goes forward and who goes home.
Oct. 12, 2012 Game Five Yankee Stadium
Bartoli Smith was in New York on business last night and found it easy-peasy lemon-squeezy to get a ticket to the game.
I’ll just let him tell you about it.
“There’s a park before you get to the stadium and someone airbrushed “Murderer’s Row” on a wall with the faces of Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio,” he said. “So you’re walking up and you get a real sense of where you are in the world of baseball. This is not the mausoleum that is Tropicana Field.
“Those Yankee fans were uneasy the whole game. They were impatient and they were very quiet”
[This means they were afraid of the black and orange bunting on Showalter’s Baltimore Clipper. And I love how Bartoli calls them “those Yankee fans,” the way outsiders refer to groups they don’t like or respect as “you people.”]
He continued: “So if you’re going to lose a championship game, losing it at 161st street in the Bronx is better than anywhere else. We pushed the Yankees to the limit and almost went out like champions. There is no disgrace in losing an elimination game in New York.”
I love Bartoli like a brother and his sports acumen and prose are second to none.
But you know what?
Fuck the Yankees.
Rafael Alvarez has lived in Baltimore his entire life except for a brief and cautionary exile in Hollywood. A former City Desk rewrite man for the Baltimore Sun, Alvarez has published books of fiction, memoir and very provincial history. Best known works include “The Fountain of Highlandtown” and the on-going “Orlo & Leini” stories, each detailing life in Crabtown, USA. Alvarez also worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun prior to starting a career in television. He has worked as a writer and story editor on the Home Box Office drama series The Wire and a writer and producer on the crime dramas Life and The Black Donnellys. He has written several books including a guide to The Wire, a non-fiction guide to the archdiocese in Baltimore, a short-fiction anthology and two collections of his journalism. He can be reached via email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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