Coming Home to Camden Yards

April 03, 1994|By TIMOTHY MULLANEY

The meeting with the boss to quit was just taken care of, the congratulations on my new job in Baltimore just beginning when I announced the real reason I was so happy to leave New York: "Now I can go see the Yankees without paying George Steinbrenner."

Sure it's dumb, this business of binding up your sense of where home is with the sports teams you root for. But who among us hasn't had moments where sports tell us so clearly that we are where we belong?

Once, they told me I belonged in New York. I grew up falling asleep on the couch autumn Sundays watching the Giants on television. Like any true son of northern New Jersey, I know which fumble you mean when you say "The Fumble." And, if possible, I reacted even more outlandishly than the Knicks general manager (who pounded a table on national TV) when my team won the lottery for Patrick Ewing.

The best moments reward you so for your dopey loyalty. The night of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series I was in a bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side, just another homer drowning his sorrows at the Red Sox's imminent win. But then Mookie Wilson's grounder skipped between Bill Buckner's ankles and there I was racing up Second Avenue with a buddy, screaming not-so-various F-words followed by "Metties!!!!" (which is Mets plus five drinks) and high-fiving what seemed like dozens of people roaming the streets in groups as we were, who high-fived us right back.

But in 1989 I told myself all that had happened when I was a child and cared about childish things. I was getting married, and I worried about housing markets, not free-agent markets.

So I signed on at The Sun and crowed about how I could see the Yankees without subsidizing George. I never gave the Orioles a thought. New York was home, and I knew it would stay that way. But when that changed, it was sports that made me understand.

In 1989, loyalties at a Yanks-O's game were simple. Three weeks after our wedding, my wife and I went to see the Yanks on her birthday at Memorial Stadium. We rooted for the Yanks. But maybe the shift began then.

The Orioles couldn't have been nicer. They even let the Yanks win. Since the Orioles wouldn't put your name on the scoreboard for those occasions back then, they sent someone to our seats to make the section sing Happy Birthday and give Kim a package of cards and memorabilia you throw out as soon as you get home, if your 13-year old nephew is not there. It was neat, not to mention that it was our introduction to the remarkable good-naturedness of this town.

But while my wife was checking out her loot, the Yanks' Mel Hall sent the ball looping toward our section. "Here baby here!" everyone around me was saying, in the tone of people who have spent their entire lives hoping Mel Hall would hit them just such a fat, catchable ball, their one chance after all these years to make Rex Barney yell "GIVE THAT FAN A CONTRACT!"

I couldn't catch the ball because the kid next to me thought it would be keen to jump on my back, put one hand over my face for leverage and make the grab with his gloved hand. But the ball only flew as far as the head of the most surprised person in our section, the aforementioned wife, still reading the aforementioned baseball cards. Thunk, and into the next section, a good 40-foot rebound in a different direction. Give that fan a soccer contract.

It's the Revenge of the Yankees, I told Kim. We're Baltimoreans now. But I was lying.

Things became much less simple when I went to see the Mets at the curtain-raising exhibition game of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in April 1992. I'd begun to root for the Orioles, even though they went 0-10 with me in the stands in 1991, but I still had a place in my heart for the Mets and for New York.

The game cleared up these conflicts nicely. As Sid Fernandez no-hit the Orioles through five innings, I found myself getting ticked off. By the time the Orioles rallied in the sixth, scoring the winning runs on a Chris Hoiles grounder that went as cleanly through Dave Magadan's legs as any ball ever sneaked past Bill Buckner, I was near-delirious. I half wanted to run past Harborplace yelling "F-in' Birdies!!!"

But the transition wasn't final until Kim and I trooped her family off to Camden Yards in June 1992, three years and six days after the Mel Hall incident, in upper-deck seats well out of Mr. Hall's (we call him Mister now) reach.

When All-Star ballots came around, I found myself looking for reasons to vote for Orioles. Cal, of course. Rickey Henderson? Nah, I'll vote for Brady Anderson. Wade Boggs? Leo Gomez's batting average is higher so far this year. (Yes, it really happened, though it didn't last long). Then the Yankees fans came around and I saw in them -- Big Hair, Pontiac Trans Ams, a sort of walking collection of "Jersey? What exit?" jokes -- a lot of what I don't miss about New Jersey.

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