At this send-off, emotion is in tears of the beholder

JOHN STEADMAN

October 07, 1991|By JOHN STEADMAN

Watching the sun set on an old ballpark, even if this one is far from an antique, creates a torrent of contrasting emotions, offering both torment and elation. Memorial Stadium was closed with proper dignity. It became reminiscent of a decommissioned battleship. Not to be detonated and blown to smithereens but, instead, temporarily stored in mothballs to await its final fate.

The Baltimore Orioles delivered an appropriate eulogy and gave their field a formal farewell. It was different in that players on

both teams and a capacity crowd couldn't wait for the game with the Detroit Tigers to be over so they could see the grand ceremonial finale.

Immense organizational effort, along with sparing no expense, went into staging the program. But, from a production standpoint, the show lacked the cohesiveness to deliver the emotional wallop that had been anticipated. Seventy-eight players (members of the alumni) were aligned on the field and then joined by the present Orioles club.

It would have been better to have introduced each one by name so the audience could have appreciated their presence and offered the individuals, who came by invitation from all parts of the country, appropriate recognition and a going-away ovation. The theme from "Field of Dreams," strictly make-believe, was used as background, but this didn't need to be.

There was too much authenticity for this kind of a mix, as the Orioles from the past, each wearing the uniform that was in vogue when he played, be it 1954 or 1984, jogged out for one last time in the stadium. These heroes were real; they didn't need to be linked to fantasy.

The club played host to an enormous cross section of its former performers, dating back to the opening season, when Bob Turley, Chuck Diering, Joe Durham, Gil Coan, Billy O'Dell and Billy Hunter were on the roster. Wild Bill Hagy didn't show up, as the club had hoped. He became the most prominent of all personalities among the multitudes of spectators -- 50,406,212 -- who watched the club in the stadium over 38 years.

The ceremony lagged because it took 10 minutes for the grounds crew to dig up home plate and transport it, via police escort, to the new downtown location. From a programming aspect, the drama was missing. It just never happened as everyone hoped it would. Too bad.

But, then again, beauty is all in the misty eye of the beholder. A stadium, because it's such a personal keepsake, is what each and every individual wants to make it -- the endless telescope of memories, or the time you saw Gene Woodling hit Whitey Ford as if he owned him and of when Frank Robinson got up from a knockdown pitch and answered the opposition with a hooking line drive into the left-field bleachers.

Or of the time you and your brother climbed the fence or when Willy Miranda and Bob Turley signed an autograph book. Yes, that's what memories are made of and, for almost four decades, Memorial Stadium provided a treasury of them. The best yesterday transpired on the field, which is as it should be. Isn't that what baseball is all about?

Mike Flanagan wanted to be a part of the party and manager John Oates complied by bringing him in to face the last two hitters. He struck out Dave Bergman and Travis Fryman in what was a storybook kind of an ending, even if the Orioles pitchers before him were being hammered as if it were batting practice.

That splendid warrior, Rick Dempsey, returned to entertain with his imitation of Babe Ruth's called home run in the 1932 World Series. He also led cheers and belly-flopped across what had been home plate. Always the pleasing showman -- remember, his parents were in vaudeville. Then he said, "Players don't realize how lucky they are to play for a city like this."

It was a masterful touch having Brooks Robinson and John Unitas, Hall of Fame members in baseball and pro football, deliver simultaneous opening pitches. Robinson threw to Cal Ripken Jr., now the greatest player in the history of the franchise, and Unitas passed to the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, who was an outstanding football player at City College and Yale.

With so much history being re-enacted, Gordon Beard, a former Associated Press sportswriter, quipped: "I'm glad they aren't replaying Donald Kroner's crash landing," a reference to the plane that pancaked into the top deck after a Colts playoff game in 1976.

The Evening Sun's Jim Henneman, once an Orioles batboy and later a scout for the club, has seen more games than any other sportswriter. He showed up yesterday in a glowing tuxedo. Tears may have flowed from those who were deeply sentimental, but, let's face it, across the street, Eastern High School closed and there wasn't any crying then. And the same with fire stations that protect public safety.

Memorial Stadium served its purpose. It had a modest life when compared to other stadiums in Boston, Chicago and Detroit. Cherish the memories, but don't get emotional. And this from an old romanticist who saw the stadium built and believes it's time to change to a new address.

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