Stadium just grows on you

Phil Jackman

September 30, 1991|By Phil Jackman

Welcome to Nostalgia Week.

It begins with the ballclub on the road, finishing up in Detroit tonight, then heading for New York. All the better for the folks on the home front to get rid of the few remaining tickets for the season wrapup against the Tigers here.

Besides TV, every radio station with at least 100 watts of power has a special ready to go. And it's all about a place that for years was regarded as an ugly duckling, a misfit, a place only the architect, the builder or football fans could love.

As I recall, it was a bit chilly and the air was laden with moisture that September evening in 1961 when I gathered in a first glance. First impressions die hard and I remember thinking Memorial Stadium seemed a lot older than a place should after just eight years of service.

It proved a memorable evening, though, because Roger Maris belted his 59th home run and, as an added attraction, the Yankees clinched their 917th pennant, give or take a few.

Move ahead a couple of years to 1964 and it's time to take the trek out to 33rd Street again as the Red Sox are in for an April series. It's cold, wet and what ballpark would look inviting under the circumstances, especially with so many empty seats.

At that point, a visitor puts the stadium in the same category as the ballparks in Cleveland and Chicago: Utilitarian.

Move ahead a couple of years and, as the saying goes, to know the stadium, intimately, was to begin to appreciate it. Not for the bricks and mortar, the splintery wooden benches in the upper deck, the general uncomfortableness of the place, the often non-functioning old scoreboard, but for what was taking place there.

Memorial Stadium, truth be told, had a lot to do with the Orioles, just a decade or so after appearing on the scene as the rag-tag orphans from St. Louis known as the Browns, becoming "the best damn team in baseball."

After a few years in steerage, the O's made it to first class for good in 1966 and remained there for the better part of two decades.

Pitching, hitting, defense, organization and attitude, the team had it all. It had to to attain the success it did performing in a completely fair ballpark. Playing on the road was often an advantage, one team going so far as to win a pennant with more away victories. The stadium rarely accorded special privilege to the home team, rather treating friend and foe as equals so long as they played the whole game.

Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, on his final swing around the circuit, said what he liked most about the Baltimore stop were the fans ("they appreciate a good play no matter who makes it") and the park dimensions (equal justice for all).

The Orioles proved how balance pays off emphatically during their glory days, piling up an unbelievable record of success in "big games" over that stretch. Count 'em:

Two victories over the Dodgers to complete the improbable four-game sweep in the '66 World Series . . . a two-game blitz of the Twins in the first American League Championship Series followed by a 1-1 standoff with the Mets in the '69 Series . . . a third-game win over the Twins in the playoffs again before winning two of three from the Reds to clinch the '70 Series . . . two more playoff wins, this time over the A's, before winning three of four from the Pirates in the '71 Fall Classic.

L That's 13 wins against three losses, an .813 win percentage.

Football, on the other hand, was a different story. It's amazing how, with baseball, Memorial Stadium comes close to qualifying as a neutral site while in football visiting teams will tell you it was a snakepit, aptly named as "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum."

Several years ago, I had the pleasure to be on hand for the opening of new ballparks in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and don't recall hearing so much as a whisper about the abandoned fields known as Crosley and Forbes. When Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Braves Field in Boston and Shibe Park in Philadelphia closed to baseball, the tributes were restrained.

Old Comiskey Park got a pretty good sendoff last fall and so did the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field when their time had come. The crown jewel of Waverly is obviously in pretty good company.

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