Private moments are ones we'll miss the most

JOHN EISENBERG

October 05, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

That Memorial Stadium would be shutting down has struck me again and again at the same curious place and time in these last few months: in the late afternoon, a couple of hours before the first pitch, as I made my way through the stadium's beautifully tacky, Fiftiesomething front foyer heading toward the Orioles' clubhouse.

For a while I couldn't figure out why my heart kept hiccuping there of all places. Then, it came to me: This was the stadium as I knew it and few did, full of bustle hours before a pitch was thrown. It was part of my ritual, part of the stadium as (it seemed) only I knew it. To imagine silence and emptiness instead of this bustle was equal parts strange and sad.

The recalling of such private moments and rituals are, to me, at the core of this Last Weekend on 33rd Street. Goodness knows, after a six-month onslaught of memory-thanking and memorabilia-hawking, we have offered sufficient thanks for Brooks, Frank, et al., and what they represented. But there is another collection of memories, ones that go unrecorded yet may be those that truly endure: the private memories we all carry.

I'm not talking about the home runs or no-hitters you saw. I'm talking about the moments or rituals that made you feel franchised at Memorial Stadium, as if the place suddenly were your own. Everyone has them. They do. It's what happens at a ballpark: You go and something grabs you. Something.

Maybe it was your favorite seat or section or view or vendor. Maybe it was the night you stood outside waiting for an autograph, or caught a foul ball without a glove, or went to your first major-league game. Maybe it was just the way the late-evening sun slanted in from behind the left-field bleachers just before going down. Or maybe the night you screamed O-R-I-O-L-E-S.

Philip Roth once wrote that "a baseball game is different from every seat in the stadium." Thus, the stadium is different for every person. The Memorial Stadium that was mine -- that, more than home runs or no-hitters, is what I find myself thinking about as the park shuts down for good.

I know I will remember Memorial's sharply angled ramps, on which I invariably slipped when I wore loafers, drawing me within a grasped railing of a headfirst, spread-eagled sprawl as I made my way down from the press box.

I know I will remember the imperfections. The chipped concrete. The single row of red box seats six rows behind the Orioles' dugout. The way a hard rain flooded the runways leading from the clubhouses to the dugouts, forcing millionaire ballplayers to tip-toe through puddles to keep their free shoosey-woosies from getting wet.

I know I will remember the night in 1987 when I sat with a group of neighbors down the left-field line and Bo Jackson dropped a game-losing line drive right in front of us, and someone a couple of rows behind me threw a football onto the field.

I know I will remember watching the lights come on in the neighborhood behind center field as darkness settled, a

next-door marriage of everyday life and professional sports that just doesn't occur anymore.

I know I will remember taking my daughter to the playground behind right field on a lazy Sunday afternoon this summer. You couldn't see the game, but you could hear the unsettled rustling of the big crowd in the bleachers as the California Angels circled the bases again and again, another blowout building.

I know I will remember sitting in the front row of the press box on a night so hot and humid that sweat dripped off my chin onto my computer, and someone said I better watch out or I might electrocute myself.

I know I will remember the beat-up couch in the visitors' clubhouse, where I wiled away hours waiting for various superstars to grant me my five minutes.

I know I will remember the night in August 1989 when Cleveland's Brad Komminsk jumped up to catch a long line drive and disappeared over the center-field wall, dropping the ball as he fell to the ground on the other side.

I know I will remember the June night in 1986 when I sat in the upper deck and the Orioles were playing the Red Sox and the grass below was so green and there was just the right touch of cool in the air, and everything seemed so perfectly ordered.

I know I will remember buying a pizza during a rain delay, opening the box and knowing with absolute certainty before the first bite that I'd made a terrible mistake.

I know I will remember trying to leave the park early one Opening Day and discovering that cars were crammed bumper-to-bumper for a hundred yards in either direction, ensuring that I had at least an hour to wait -- and that was without extra innings.

I know I will remember the old man selling peanuts from a shopping cart outside the parking lot.

Half price.

There won't be video highlights of any of this, of course, no TV specials or stirring, emotional tributes. But it is the Memorial Stadium that I will remember, as much so as Fantastic Fans Night or the "Why Not?" season. The Memorial Stadium that was mine.

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