Hold wine, cheese: Baysox bring out city's real sports fans

Bill Tanton

April 22, 1993|By Bill Tanton

"Hey, what's that like -- the Baysox?"

There was excitement in the voice of Chuck Allen, a local radio time salesman, when he asked that question one day this week.

He was at least the 10th person to ask me what it's like to go back to Memorial Stadium and watch the Double-A Baysox.

I've been there twice. Each experience was very different from the other. And both were totally different from watching baseball at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The first time was last Friday, Opening Night. The atmosphere was fairly festive. A Dixieland band played as more than 7,000 fans returned to the familiar, horseshoe-shaped 33rd Street park.

That's a lot of people for a minor-league ballgame, in case you didn't know. Hagerstown, where this franchise played last year, averaged 2,000. Frederick, a fabulous success story, averaged 5,000 in its new park.

What seemed eerie to me was the crowd at the Baysox game. The spectators -- people who couldn't get tickets to Camden Yards or who didn't want to pay the high prices there -- were like the people who, for more than 30 years, cheered the Orioles and the Colts at the stadium.

They wore bowling jackets and jackets advertising liquor stores and softball teams. One plump white-haired woman in a white sweatshirt with 'The Pubs of Ireland' on its front huffed and puffed as she went up the aisle past my seat.

"These steps are killing me," she said.

"You should be in one of those pubs in Ireland," I told her.'

"Yeah, they'd bring it to me there," she said.

A man in his late 20s arrived carrying a cardboard tray with a large beer stuffed into each corner. As he joined a group of friends, one of them called out loudly: "Where's Steve at?"

"His muffler fell off," said the guy with the four beers. "We left him down there."

"Down where?" his friend asked.

"Down Back River Neck Road," he was told.

"Aw, for [blank's] sake!" snorted the friend, totally disgusted by the prospect of doing without the pleasure of Steve's company for the evening.

That's when it hit me: this was Baltimore, all right. The real Baltimore. Why, that wine and cheese crowd at Camden Yards couldn't find Back River Neck Road if their lives depended on it.

These were the kinds of people who made pilgrimages to the stadium all those years to worship Brooks and Frank and Boog and John and Artie and Gino. I was seeing them again, and I loved it.

The Baysox team is a plus. It's a talented club.

Jeffrey Hammonds, the marquee name, is an attraction. "He has a sweet swing," Brooks Robinson told me.

Hammonds is not going to spend a whole lot of time in Double-A ball, but Keith Lupton, the Baysox general manager, says, "I think it was a good decision to start him here rather than in a higher classification."

Baseball can't get much more exciting than an inside-the-park ,, home run to win the game in extra innings. That's what Kyle Washington hit in the Baysox's 2-1 win over Binghamton Tuesday night.

The fans here should enjoy Gregg Zaun, who is Rick Dempsey's nephew -- and approaches the game the way the ex-Oriole did. They have to like Jimmy Wawruck, a hustling left fielder, and Stanton Cameron, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound outfielder who hit 29 home runs at Frederick last year to lead the Orioles organization.

Of course they're not as good as the major-league Orioles. That's why they're in Double-A. But these are professional ballplayers.

Children, who get in Baysox games for $3 -- for free in Little League uniform -- are not going to know the difference between major league and Double-A.

Illustration: The Baysox's shortstop, Tim Holland, is a big guy -- 6-3, 188 pounds.

"What other shortstop does this guy look like?" I asked Paul Wallace, an 8-year-old second-grader who was with me.

"Cal Ripken," he said. He studied the big guy for a minute. Then he said: "Maybe they snuck him in."

Going to a Baysox game when there are fewer than 1,000 fans in 54,000-seat Memorial Stadium is sad. It's also lonely.

"The crowds will come out later," Lupton told me yesterday. "We told the police there'd only be a few hundred people here on week nights in April. We have our big promotions starting in June. That's when the crowds will be here."

Playing here is only a one-year deal for the Baysox. Next year they'll be in a new park in Bowie.

Go see this team. But, unless you're a fanatic, do it when there's a fair-sized crowd. It's more fun then.

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