O's win, spring's here and the ballpark's beautiful

IT'S A HIT!

April 07, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Ballparks have been her family's home for nearly a quarter of a century. Some were a little shabby, and others were planted out on interstates like so much corn. But she had never seen a place like this, a palace built in the shadow of a warehouse.

So she wrote. For a month, the rhymes and lines tumbled on to paper.

"Ballparks aren't just buildings to us," she said. "They're a place we raised our children."

Gloria Oates finally finished the last verse and handed it to her husband, John, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. And now the poem hangs in a frame on a brick wall underneath the stands in the best ballpark in America.

"Welcome Home."

If you wanted to understand why Opening Day 1992 was different, why four years of construction and hundreds of millions of dollars added up to a place named Oriole Park at Camden Yards, you could talk to players and fans and politicians, you could look at the parties on nearby rooftops or the kids clinging to wrought-iron gates, but all you really had to do was read the lines of a poem written by a manager's wife:

"She's built of bricks and mortar/ And yet really built of dreams."

The dreams and memories began to fill this this home yesterday. They began with a 2-0 Orioles' victory over the Cleveland Indians in front of 44,568 fans. The sky was blue. The temperature hit 63. It was spring, again.

And everyone, from the president of the United States to a 10-year-old Little League pitcher who says she wants to grow up to become an Oriole, took away a memory.

There were no traffic jams.

And no home runs.

Fans scalped tickets. And programs.

Beer cost $3 a cup. Hot dogs went for $1.75. The mustard was free.

Bet you won't see this again: the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, dressed in tuxedos, playing the National Anthem. The Morgan State University choir signing. Artists joined together on grass in short center field.

George Bush threw out a first pitch. A curve in the dirt. Still, he smiled and later said of the day, "Just beautiful."

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer heard cheers. And boos.

Molly Maddox, a 10-year-old pitcher from Millersville who vows to play for the Orioles, saw people.

"Millions of them, all looking at us," she said after carrying a flag in the opening ceremony.

Norman Leslie, of Randallstown, saw a gate, a picnic area, and a swath of the upper deck from his spot on the sidewalk along Camden Street. He was stuck outside, holding a video camera but not a ticket.

"I'm just recording it all," he said, ignoring the kids who were climbing the gates for a closer look at the picnic tables. "Look at it. Listen. The roar. The little children. The bright day. Even though I'm out here I feel like I'm in there.

For two excruciating hours Mike Joyce of Ellicott City and his 9-year-old daughter Kaitlin were stuck on the outside. He held up a sign: "Need two tickets. It's my daughter's birthday." The crowd passed by. The daughter wept. Finally, a man approached, and sold two extra tickets for face value. The father said: "The stadium beckons."

The place was gorgeous. Green grass laid like carpet. Red, white and blue bunting along the gates of the box seats. Green seats. Goodness, even the advertisements along the outfield walls looked as if they belonged.

"We don't have football here," baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. "This is a park for baseball."

While the millionaires in stirrups played, Larry Jackson of Severn sat in a bar named Bambino's and sipped a drink. He was celebrating.

His game is demolition and excavation, and for four years he was the best in the business, helping blow apart warehouses and level fields, cutting a jewel into this patch of land on the edge of downtown Baltimore. Now, the worker, one of the men who built the stadium, was celebrating.

"This place is sweet," he said. "A lot sweeter than 33rd Street and Memorial Stadium. This is the ultimate big day. The fans here love the Orioles. That's all there is to it. They could move the team to Dundalk, the fans would still love the Orioles."

The game was a gem. Another proof that in baseball, fans and players yearn to go back to the future. It was two hours and two minutes. A 36-year-old veteran named Rick Sutcliffe, trying to prove that his career wasn't over, threw a five-hitter

Afterward, he said: "The only thing I regret is I didn't get the president's autograph."

First baseman Randy Milligan didn't play. But he watched. And savored each moment.

"Everyone I knew wanted to be a part of this," he said. "It will last in their minds for years to come. I understand the people of trying to climb fences to get in here. They wanted to be a part of history."

For Cal Ripken, the shortstop of steel, this was more than just another opening day, more than just the 1,574th consecutive game he has played in.

"It takes some getting used to, being here," he said. "It didn't seem like it was our home field. It was like we were opening on the road. But give us a few weeks. We'll feel like we're at home."

But to Gloria and John Oates, Oriole Park at Camden Yards already has the look and the feel of a home. An hour after the game ended, the manager made his way underneath the stadium in a tunnel, and hugged his wife and thanked her for the poem. Asked his favorite line, he recited: "Today, her gates swing open."

"That's what it was, and I walked in along with 44,000 others," he said. "This day was special. So very special."

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