The miracle on 33rd Street

Gwinn Owens

April 06, 1992|By Gwinn Owens

DEAREST Wendy,

Because you were there -- more or less -- for the unforgettable Opening Day of 1954, I regret that you can't be with me for Opening Day II, the official birth of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. You have moved to Quebec, but at least it has baseball, though it's in the other league. I wouldn't want you to do without baseball because it is, in the most literal sense, part of your birthright.

That's why I said you were present "more or less." In April 1954, when your six-months-pregnant mother struggled up to those splintery boards in the highest reaches of unrefined Memorial Stadium, we didn't know if you were a boy or a girl. Three years passed before you and I went to another game together. You became -- obviously because of that prenatal exposure -- a raging Orioles fan. Your younger brothers and sisters caught the fever as, over decades, we all watched Memorial Stadium become encrusted with tradition.

That 1954 Opening Day was unique not only because we had an incipient daughter; only through a genuine miracle were we there at all. You see, my idolizing of the Orioles began when I was very young. The team was in the International League and played at the old Oriole Park on 29th Street. So naive was I that when I asked your grandfather why Baltimore never played in a World Series, he told me, apologetically, that the Orioles were a minor-league team.

My team minor league? It was humiliating. From then on for some 25 years I was obsessed with the hope that some day Baltimore would be major league. When, in September 1953, the American League voted Baltimore in, the old minor-league office immediately began taking ticket orders for Opening Day 1954. On the morning the sale began, I, check in hand, was the 11th person in line, establishing that I was Baltimore's 11th most determined baseball fan.

All winter long, while the contractor was working day and night to finish Memorial Stadium (and didn't quite make it), I anticipated the ultimate joy -- the first major-league baseball game in my home town.

Winter turned into spring, March into April, and every day I anxiously yanked open the mail box to clutch my precious tickets. And every day they weren't there. "They'll come," I said.

But they didn't. The morning of Opening Day I desperately checked the mail. Nothing. Vibrating somewhere between fury and hysteria, I told your mother that I'd hop on a bus (we had no car) and go to the stadium to demand my tickets. The ticket office was in chaos -- no one could tell me a thing. In a rage, I marched toward the Oriole executive offices. I was standing at a doorway and ready to punch some executive in the mouth when a young man tapped me on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," he said. "Do you know where you turn in tickets you can't use?"

"Huh?"

"I gotta work, I can't go."

"I'll buy them, I'll buy them!" I shrieked. "How much?"

"Four dollars." (That was the price of two good seats in 1954.)

My heart fell all the way to my hips. I didn't have $4.

"Wait," I pleaded. I reached in my pockets. Two dollars in bills, a handful of change. While he watched, I counted it out: Three dollars . . . three-fifty and, finally, $3.87.

"That's all I have."

"That's good enough," he said. "Enjoy the game."

This was the only time in my life I believed in the supernatural. But in my euphoria, I had forgotten that I now had no money to get home. No matter; I had a close friend who lived three blocks away. He lent me bus fare, and I arrived at our apartment deliriously waving the ducats before your expanding mother.

As you've learned, Wendy, there was a gigantic parade in the rain to welcome the team; the rain stopped in time for the first pitch and the Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox 3 to 1.

In the intervening 38 years I've attended 37 opening days, missing only the one when, that very morning, your cousin Janet died. That was a time when even Opening Day seemed of no importance.

But even though none of us is immortal, somehow baseball seems to make us feel alive, especially when it blooms with the daffodils every April. Now we have arrived at the most important Opening Day since 1954. A few days ago I visited Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and I am convinced Baltimore has the grandest ballpark in the solar system.

Here, in the city of your birth, we miss you up there in Expo land. But remember, the cycle goes on. You and Peter must commit your new-born twin daughters for a visit to Baltimore in, let's say, 1995. Their grandfather wants to take them to Opening Day. That would be another kind of miracle.

Affectionately,

Papa

Gwinn Owens, retired editor of this page, writes from Baltimore.

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