'The skies are alive tonight' O, those Orioles crowds!

Dennis Bartel

April 16, 1993|By Dennis Bartel

ONE summer night in 1986, just days after my wife and I, alight with new hopes, had moved to Baltimore, we were on the Johns Hopkins campus, walking back to our car after a string quartet concert. As the sigh of Ravel lingered at the edge of our thoughts, there burst from the warm night an odd, rolling sound, as if the underbelly of the black sky were being joyously scratched.

It was the crowd at Memorial Stadium. Perhaps an Oriole had hit a home run. From where we stood we could see the glow of stadium lights over the treetops. My wife said, "That must mean we've really moved here now."

In the years since, the sound of Orioles crowds has helped to define my life in Baltimore. It hasn't always been a welcome sound. In our first years, when our adjustment was proving more difficult than expected (we're both Los Angelenos), we sometimes went to games and rooted for the visitors. That was easy for me. As a teen-ager, I had never paid attention to the faceless team from Baltimore until the O's met my beloved Dodgers in the 1966 World Series. We all know what happened.

The philosopher Spinoza said, "He who repents is twice unhappy and doubly weak," and so it was that even after a few years in Baltimore I refused to repent my enmity for the Birds. Late one summer afternoon, as I sat high in the cheap seats, sweating beer and watching the Orioles flounder through the final stages of a season that started with 21 straight losses, I fervently added my screaming voice to the jeers that cascaded down on the players. In doing so, I gave voice to my own inner wretchedness, which I somehow blamed on the city I'd adopted but had failed to love.

By 1991, my circumstances had changed. I was no longer in a job I hated. We had moved to South Baltimore, and I found myself passionately alert and stimulated by ultra-urban life -- from the resident panhandlers outside my door to the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the Cross Street Market; from porch-stoopers to whores; from weekend entrepreneurs renovating townhouses to Jehovah's Witnesses canvasing the neighborhood; from the lacy white sprawl of a wedding spilling from a church to the angry curses of people in nearby homes.

At the end of that baseball season, a quarter-century almost to the day after the Dodger debacle, we were invited to a Goodbye-To-Memorial-Stadium party. I stood in a crowded den watching the closing ceremonies on TV. All around me were lifelong Orioles fans, many with tears in their eyes. Confronted by this unequivocal sign that time was passing, I took a slug of beer and gulped down the lump in my throat. When Rick Dempsey led the O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer, I could not help but join those around me in a heartbreaking collage of mournfulness and celebration.

And then the circle closed.

Our house is within earshot of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. During several warm nights last summer, while we were sitting together in our tiny bricked backyard, my dear wife and I came to the conclusion it was time to start a family. Our discussions were often punctuated by a roar rising in the distance and carrying over the rooftops. It happened so often that we were able eventually to distinguish between the home-run roar (building fast to a starburst crescendo) and the spectacular-defensive-play roar (erupting suddenly, full-blown

and astonished).

After a while we looked forward to hearing the crowd, listened for it. And I recall one night when the Birds were shattering some hapless foe, my wife turned to me, the moonlight on her face, ZTC and, smiling, said, "The skies are alive tonight."

Dennis Bartel will be listening tonight, if it doesn't rain.

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