Longtime season-ticket holders carry-deep-seated personal memories MEMORIAL STADIUM: FANTASTIC FANS


September 29, 1991|By DAN FESPERMAN

They sat through the cold, the gray and the wet, when the metal seats of Memorial Stadium offered no more comfort than slabs of ice. They sweated through the heat of summer, squinting in faint exhaustion as lazy fly balls disappeared into a merciless sun.

But ask them now about their memories, and Memorial Stadium's most faithful fans -- the longtime season-ticket holders -- suddenly recall everything bathed in the golden light of late afternoon.

First they speak fondly of the classic moments everyone seems to remember: The young Brooks Robinson frolicking like a boy chasing butterflies, leaping for joy at the final out of the '66 World Series. Raymond Berry in brilliant Colts blue, stretching his body impossibly, yet still dragging his tiptoes across the end zone corner while clutching a Johnny Unitas pass. A tired, rumpled Earl Weaver, shuffling up from the dugout shadows to doff his cap to the roars of 50,000, and then, yes, crying, on an October day when the Orioles said goodbye to both a pennant and a manager.

But for all their greatness, those moments owe some of their staying power to film and videotape, and will survive long after the stadium beams have been pounded to scrap.

The same cannot be said of the more personal memories that will survive only in the mind's eye. No one, for instance, will ever log an archival reference to describe the strange mixture of smells that, for Richard Clark, still summons up the pleasant afterglow of a Colts Sunday. Nor is there any videotape around that will replay an angry young Yankee named Lou Piniella flipping up his middle finger at a startled Neal Hoffman, who was then in his teens, sitting behind the dugout. And no one but Cheryl Clements is likely to remember the time she looked onto the field and twice "called the shot" for two home runs by non-slugger Rick Dempsey in the same game.

For them and others among the most faithful, the desertion of the stadium means deserting part of their past, and Clements may have summed up the feeling best: "I've been going there for so long that I feel like part of my life will die when the Orioles go to the new stadium."

She should know. Not only has she held tickets for 18 years, but she also lives in a stone home just beyond the center-field parking lot. She and her husband moved there in 1960, partly because they wanted to be close to the stadium.

So, even on nights when they stayed home from the game, the game came to them. There was the other-worldly spillover of luminescence, pooling in the yards and alleys of their neighborhood like a comforting night light. There was the murmur and roar of the crowd, washing over the walls and down Yolando Street so often that she and her husband learned to read its every message.

Hearing some of the louder outbursts, her husband would leap to his feet. "He would jump up and say, 'That's a home run, turn on the radio!' and he was always right."

Her husband died last year, taking some of those memories with him. Their son and daughter, born and raised in the house, have both gotten married and moved away. Now the stadium is closing down.

But many moments remain.

There was Dempsey's game with the two home runs, which she really did predict, even if it happened mostly as an optimistic answer to a skeptical fan sitting nearby. "This man said, 'Oh, what's Dempsey going to do?' His tone suggested that he figured Dempsey would ground out weakly, or worse. "So I said, 'Oh, he's going to hit a home run.' "

Dempsey swung and connected. It was outta there.

The skeptic figured it was a lucky break, then Dempsey came back to the plate. "Well, he might as well hit another one," she said, blithely predicting an event about as likely as the Orioles offering free season tickets.

Dempsey obliged and hit another one.

But even more than those moments she remembers the faces around her at the park, her neighbors in the community of the everyday fan. "There were people who, even if the Orioles weren't playing good, would still be fun to talk to. Not the one-timers, but the people that were there a lot. You get to know certain faces, and you have a rapport. Some of the ushers, too. You get to feel like friends." After a while, she said, going to the stadium became like visiting "a friend's home."

As for the new ballpark, she's all against it, and she's decided not to order season tickets, concluding, "The new place will be strange and cold."

* For Richard Clark, 37, there are also many Orioles memories from the stadium. But his favorite moments are all about the Colts, the team he grew up with.

He was born the same year the stadium opened, and when he was a kid he went to every Colts game from as far back as he can remember. He sat on the home side near the closed end of the stadium, down in the section known as Orrsville, for all the touchdown catches made near there by Jimmy Orr. Through luck and some ticket upgrades, he eventually ended up in the mezzanine, near the 40-yard line.

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