Nostalgia and memories of blackmail

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 09, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Minutes before game time at Memorial Stadium yesterday, Bullet Bob Turley stood in the muggy sunlight along the third base line and opened a memory book 37 years old.

"Remember that first game?" somebody asked.

"Which inning you want?" said Turley.

"I can give you any one of 'em."

He was the Opening Day pitcher in the first home game ever played at Memorial Stadium and now, at the final opener on 33rd Street, the Orioles of Baltimore had brought him back for an encore ceremonial toss.

"First pitch in '54," he said now, "Fastball to Chico Carrasquel. It was nerve-wracking. Carrasquel got a single, but I only gave up seven hits all day and I struck out nine. How's my memory so far?"

He was a baby-faced kid who won 14 and lost 15 that year. He struck out 185 and walked 181. He made $9,000. In that opener back in '54, Turley and the Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

The game of baseball has changed a little over 37 years. Today, $9,000 is maybe a week's meal money for a major league ballplayer. The Orioles played the White Sox again yesterday in a little touch of nostalgic symmetry, but this time Chicago won 9-1. OK, so nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

The game of baseball is called timeless, but it's a misnomer. Time began running out on Memorial Stadium yesterday. One game down, 80 to go, and then we all start scrounging for parking spots in South Baltimore.

This is the place where we've always kept our memories, good and bad: Not only of Turley and his fastball but of Edward Bennett Williams holding a gun to the city's head. We either built a new ball park for Williams or we risked losing the Orioles the way we lost a football team called the Baltimore Colts.

Williams is gone now, but not really. His legacy lives on at Camden Yards, and it will live on when this community remembers names like Bob Turley's but no longer has a reference point for its nostalgia. It's like closing down an athletic house of worship.

Standing a few feet from Turley yesterday was Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore. He remembers the stadium not only for the Orioles and Colts, but for magical Thanksgiving afternoons when he quarterbacked City College against Poly.

"This stadium is so much a part of the fabric of life in this city," Schmoke said. "Most folks can't even remember a time when it wasn't here."

His eyes scanned the packed stands for a moment, to more than 50,000 spectators who'd come out to watch a ballgame and also to put a few memories away for some time down the road when they can tell the grandchildren, Oh, sure, I was there on that last Opening Day.

"Why did they close the old place? Well, I guess, you'd call it . . ." Blackmail is what you'd call it.

Schmoke wouldn't quite say it yesterday, as he is a diplomatic man who has to live with the current Orioles' ownership. But he did say this:

"I thought this stadium should have been renovated. But renovation just didn't make sense if we didn't have a team to play."

And so, for better or worse, we began saying goodbye to the old 33rd Street ballpark yesterday. Yeah, yeah, it's just cement and steel. Yeah, it's just a ball field where overgrown kids toss a ball around.

Yeah, sure.

For 37 years now, this is where we spent our seasons in the sun. It's where we celebrated youth. You close a ballpark down, it means one thing: You've outlived your very own youth.

"Who says we're leaving?" Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach asked yesterday. "There's always something wrong with a new home. They're never ready on time."

He was joking, but only a little.

Hendricks goes back to most of the glad days at the stadium. He remembers pennant winners sure, but also the delighted cries of the home crowds.

"I hate to see this one go," he said. "Personally, this is in the same class as Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. You don't hear anybody talk about moving out of those ballparks, do you?"

Nobody talks about it because of the warm histories surrounding the parks in the Bronx and Chicago and Boston. What, Baltimore doesn't have warm memories? We don't have six American League pennants, seven divisional titles and three World Series championships in the last 25 years?

Baseball people love talking about nostalgia when it suits them, when it brings more people into the park. In Baltimore, though you can hardly fit any more people in: Nearly 2 million in attendance year after year now, and prices that take your breath away and now we're building this $200 million ballpark that we don't need, with money we can't afford to spend, in a crippling economic time.

In the stadium press box yesterday were some acquaintances of Eli Jacobs, the current Orioles' owner: Vice President Dan Quayle, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, some other White House and Capital Hill types. That's what baseball's all about for the new ownership: It's a place to schmooze with powerful acquaintances. It's a home for expensive sky boxes.

Nostalgia, yeah, sure. They showed a video on the big scoreboard yesterday with shots of great Orioles of yesterday racing around the stadium while a guy sang a baseball version of "Thanks for the Memories."

Problem is, it's the Orioles who are relegating this stadium to the past tense. But, probably, we weren't supposed to remember that part of it.

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