A place where dreams were made

Joe Nawrozki

September 19, 1991|By Joe Nawrozki

WHEN the wind was just right, it danced northwesterly over the new left-field bleachers at Memorial Stadium. It swirled like a dervish around and out of the concrete and steel bowl, across the campus of Baltimore City College and over the greens and fairways of the Clifton Park public golf course.

That summer breeze would wing up Cliftmont Avenue, my street, and turn left at Annetta Avenue. There, and in a nearby alley, we sweaty 8, 9 and 10-year-olds would have our ears finely tuned to the rhapsody the wind carried to us from a little more than a mile away.

When fans at the stadium cheered our new professional baseball team -- and it didn't happen often in that 100-loss season of 1954 -- our imaginations went ballistic. Fists hit mitts, a scraped hardball with a few red stitches dangling went into the sky and Dicky Dorsey went into his best Ernie Harwell.

"Mantle swings . . . there's a long belt deep to left center field, Chuck Diering races back to the fence . . . it's going, go- ing . . . Diering leaps, he catches it!" And at the precise second that thrilling roar would be drifting to our alley wonderland, bodies would dive across a citizen's fence and somebody like Barry Duff or Louie Duschell would make a prime-time grab. And drop into a petunia bed.

Pre-Nintendo imagination was wonderful. It was before Little Richard and Elvis, slow dancing and graduation, before Pleiku and Da Nang and the other paths we took.

The time and the opening of the new stadium marked a period when children like us became absolutely devoted to professional baseball, blue-collar kids on a serendipitous flight. Our heroes even carried the names of children: Willie Mays. Bobbie Avila. Nellie Fox. Whitey Ford. Johnny Antonelli. Minnie Minoso. Dusty Rhodes. Mickey Vernon. Richie Ashburn. Weren't they like us, we them?

From our neighborhood at night, the stadium glowed like a distant mystery. People sat on steps and porches, sipped Arrow Beer or lemonade and listened to the voices of Harwell and Bailey Goss on the radio. Until we had to go in, we sat along the curb tossing stones into the sewer drain, wishing we were on 33rd Street.

In Decembers that followed, my father and I would walk to the stadium and pick out a Christmas tree from stacks lined against the outside walls. We would carry the tree back home. It was a tradition repeated numerous other winter mornings.

Then, when I was 13, I would go to the front of the stadium at every opportunity and sell newspapers. By the sixth inning, sometimes earlier, a benevolent usher would let hawkers like me in and occupy an empty box seat.

Sitting there behind home plate or the visitors' batter's box, I must have resembled a figure in a Norman Rockwell painting. Being 15 feet from Ted Williams or Larry Doby on deck was heady stuff, status for twilight talks on the corner.

There were other fibers of myself and my pals that ran through that stadium on 33rd Street. My cousins lived on Ellerslie Avenue, and when we visited, there always seemed to be an Orioles or Colts game in progress. I also recall sneaking into morning batting practice, jumping on the occasional ball smacked into the bleachers and being chased by a stadium worker named "Moony."

When Willie Miranda played shortstop for the Orioles, we knew that he lived in a house on Venable Avenue, three blocks west of the park. On one occasion, my buddies and I actually had the gall to knock on his front door. We were met by the smiling Cuban, who gave us autographs.

Came the giddy Colts years -- when people put their season tickets in their wills and new parents named their babies after offensive tackles or halfbacks -- and our imaginations sharpened.

One game-day plan went like this: Eddie (whose last name shall be protected here) picked a gate where there were the fewest ushers. We'd be on the fringes of the milling crowd, waiting like a pack of hyenas. At the precise moment, Eddie would fall to the ground in front of the ushers and pretend he was having a convulsion. The two ushers would rush to the fallen teen's aid, and we would squirt through or over the turnstiles and melt into the masses. This strategy lasted about a season.

There were other special moments. My surprised and slightly embarrassed son celebrated his 11th birthday in the stands, serenaded by an entire lower reserved section on the third-base side. Remember Hyman Pressman's 1969 "Decency Rally" for teen-agers that turned into a full-scale riot?

So, with the final game scheduled for Oct. 6 against the Tigers, there certainly are memories -- fond and otherwise -- of the place a Chicago football writer once called the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum." This last season is a reminder that things must be done in the name of progress, a favorite expression of politicians, club owners and corporate presidents.

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