With old park shutting, we can't go home again

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 07, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The last baseball game at Memorial Stadium's been over for 40 minutes now, and most of the players are slipping away. They've sounded "Auld Lang Syne" on the public address system again and again, but 50,700 spectators just don't get the hint. The party's over, folks. Everyone go home.

Slight problem: Where do you go home, when this is the place we've called home for the past 38 years?

Let the record show that they played a baseball game at the 33rd Street ball yard yesterday, which they never will do again. And let it also show that almost nobody particularly noticed that Detroit scored seven times, and Baltimore only once.

Forget the score. Game called on account of darkness.

When it was over, the boys of summers past took their old positions, scores of Orioles dating back to the spring of '54, as the theme from "Field of Dreams" sounded eerily through the chilly late afternoon haze. A dreamy kind of time-warp effect kicked in, and you knew that something irretrievable was passing in front of your eyes. It wasn't a funeral exactly. But maybe it was your youth.

You could sense it in the ninth inning when, all through the big, darkening ballpark, a chant began to sound: "We want Flanagan, we want Flanagan." And then, as ordered, here was Mike Flanagan, the veteran left-hander, trudging in from the distance.

It wasn't baseball at all, it was raw sentiment. Flanagan seemed to arrive not only from the bullpen but from some other time, from the late '70s and early '80s, from playoffs and World Series

victories and that Cy Young Award that now seems like another world ago. As he struck out the last two Tiger hitters, his mere presence was a reminder: Oh, yeah, that's what it used to be like around here.

Give Orioles management some credit. They tried to bring off their move to Camden Yards with grace yesterday. They brought out some guys in white tuxedos who dug into the earth to pull out home plate. But the job took longer than expected. Home plate wasn't budging without a fight. And upstairs in Section 40, a guy's angry cry split the air: "Hell no, it won't go."

The sentiment was pretty general. When it was announced, "We'll take home plate to your new home at Oriole Park at Camden Yards," the crowd booed lustily.

It was not a day for easy goodbyes.

"Don't call any errors today," a guy told official scorekeeper Bill Stetka before game time.

"How can I see errors when I'm crying?" Stetka asked, and then walked away.

"It's a heartache," a city cop named Donald Martin said early in the day. Out in pre-game center field, the Baltimore Colts Marching Band suddenly struck up the first rousing notes of the old fight song.

"Chills," said Martin, turning his head. "It just gives you chills."

It was a baseball field spread before him, but you knew he looked out and saw the ghosts of Gino and Big Daddy, and Lenny and Artie, and Berry and Parker and the guy who wore No. 19. They won't be back this way again.

Later, as shadows began spreading across the diamond, almost like some curtain going down, an usher named Doug Hood stuck his head into the press box and asked if Al Kaline was around. If you have to ask the connection, you don't know baseball or you don't know Bawlamer.

Kaline, the great Detroit outfielder turned baseball broadcaster, was a kid out of South Baltimore. So was Doug Hood.

"I was Al's batboy," Hood explained yesterday. "He played left field for Gordon's Stores. I saw him throw out a guy at home plate on the No. 3 diamond at Herring Run Park. Al was on Diamond No. 2 when he did it."

Hood's never talked to Kaline in the ensuing 38 years, but yesterday he said, "Al's not here? Well, if you see him, tell him his old batboy said hello. And tell him how proud he made us every time we saw him here."

You want pride? After they'd flown home plate down to South Baltimore, they started the eerie procession of old Orioles out to their former positions. Here came the music from "Field of Dreams." And here came Brooks Robinson, loping out to third base.

If it didn't break your heart, then you have none to break. For 22 years, Brooksie's the one who brought summer to us, and now he was back, a little thicker through the middle, a little slower of gait. He seemed some ancient warrior, standing all alone for seconds that seemed like minutes.

And then came the other Robinson, Frank, jogging a little gimpily out to right field. The first row of bleacherites all leaned over the railing, bowing like emissaries to a sultan. The heart thumped.

"I saw the first game here," 69-year-old Bernard F. Smith, in Section 40, declared. "I never thought I'd see the last."

A few seats down, a local social worker, Suzy Ricklen, 43, said, "There are enough things that change in the world. People come in and out of your life, but you figure buildings will stay."

In front of us, though, the people who had gone were now coming back en masse: Not only Brooks and Frank, but those from long ago, like Bob Boyd and Billy O'Dell and Chuck Diering and Bullet Bob Turley, who was there on that very first April 38 springs ago.

So we'd come full cycle. People began filing out quietly as dusk settled. And you remembered back to the morning, as rain spilled out of a grimy sky and landed on Memorial Stadium. It seemed appropriate, actually. It seemed like an act of poetry written by God, a final weeping over a dying ballpark.

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