Slipping away on a baseball vacation, for a final pre-strike fix

August 16, 1994|By BILL TANTON

Who knew how long the players strike would last? Who knew how long it would be before we'd see major-league ball again?

Nobody.

So it seemed a good time to take a trip, not a farewell tour, exactly, but a see-you-later tour of some old baseball haunts.

Into the family jalopy with the wife and sons, ages 14 and 10, and off we head for Boston.

We bypass New York and Yankee Stadium. The South Bronx of today is not my idea of vacationland.

But Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox? Ah, that's a different matter.

Despite having the smallest capacity in the majors at 34,142, Fenway remains my favorite, Camden Yards notwithstanding.

Fenway, built in 1912, is a genuine old ballpark, as opposed to our faux old one.

The Red Sox are the soul of consistency. Every year, the same thing -- early promise, then collapse.

The Sox haven't won a World Series since 1918. They're not going to win anything this year either. They were 17 games out of first when the players walked.

Dan Shaughnessy, author of "The Curse of the Bambino," swears the Red Sox are permanently jinxed for having sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.

The Red Sox won three World Series with Ruth pitching and batting. For the rest of this century, the Yankees have won 22 World Series, the Red Sox none.

Does Shaughnessy, a former Evening Sun baseball writer, actually believe his Olde Towne team will never, therefore, win another championship?

"Not in my lifetime," says Shaughnessy, who, according to actuarial tables, can expect to live another 40 years.

So we're in Boston while the Red Sox are losing to Cleveland and manager Butch Hobson is going bananas, trying to get at umpires. Deja vu all over again.

It's time to move on to Montreal.

When we get there, at 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, the Expos own the best record in the majors.

Even so, there are plenty of tickets available for that night's game with the Cardinals. That shocks us Baltimoreans, who are accustomed to sellouts at home.

We go to Olympic Stadium and buy four tickets. For me, this is a return to the site of some fond memories -- the '76 Olympics (I can still visualize Bruce Jenner running to the decathlon gold) and the National League playoffs in '81.

For some reason I became emotionally attached to Montreal and its Expos during those '81 playoffs against the Dodgers.

I like Montreal and its French flavor. I wanted to see that city go to the World Series for the first time. The Dodgers have been there enough.

The '81 Expos were a club with great talent -- Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, all in their primes, and Steve Rogers pitching.

The fifth and deciding game of the playoff was rained out on Sunday and played on Monday afternoon. Ironically, a home run by Monday -- Rick, of the Dodgers -- won the game and sent that club into the World Series, which opened the next night in Yankee Stadium.

The Expos never again regained that lofty height until this year, with this gifted, young team led by Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Wilfredo Cordero. They're wonderful players, though they are largely unknown to Baltimore fans.

Olympic Stadium will make any ballpark look good. Though it held 75,000 for the Olympics, capacity is 46,500 in its present configuration. There were 16,000 empty seats at the game we attended.

The seats at Olympic Stadium are too far from the field. The turf is artificial. Batted balls bounce over outfielders' heads. And there's that huge opening in the roof, covered by a canvas secured to the perimeter of the opening.

Montreal may lose more than anybody because of this strike. The Expos, good as they are, have only recently been able to draw -- and even now they can't sell out. This was the season of revival that was to have rescued the franchise.

Now it was off to Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Baseball Hall of Fame, a six-hour drive from Montreal.

Cooperstown is a lovely village of 2,800 souls in upstate New York that each year attracts 400,000 visitors. The strike seems not to have affected that.

"I haven't noticed any difference in the crowds since the strike began," says Bill Guilfoile, onetime Yankees publicist, now Hall of Fame vice president. "We may get even more people here than usual. The fans need an outlet."

If you've never been to the Hall of Fame, go. It's 5 1/2 or six hours from Baltimore and nobody is disappointed. The visual displays get better and better.

For us there are the plaques honoring the familiar ex-Orioles -- Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, George Kell (right next to Brooks, appropriately), Luis Aparicio, Hoyt Wilhelm, Robin Roberts, Reggie Jackson.

There's Chuck Thompson in the scribes and mikemen exhibit.

And there are things you might not even know are there -- the bat with which Jim Gentile hit consecutive grand slams, the oversized catcher's mitt Paul Richards created for Gus Triandos.

You may learn, as I did, that when Jack Dunn, of the minor-league Orioles, signed Babe Ruth out of St. Mary's Industrial School he paid him $600 for the 1914 season. You may also learn there that what sold Dunn on Ruth was a 6-0 win he pitched against Mount St. Joe -- when Ruth struck out 22 batters.

There's no big-league baseball anywhere now, including here, but the Hall of Fame helps fill the void.

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