Memories become stadium's memorial

December 16, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the final wheezing gasps of the life of Memorial Stadium, you could hear the old dinosaur's bones breaking apart.

Out there in Section 30, in the former right field general admission section, they were tearing entire bleacher planks right out of their roots and then waving them in the fading daylight like prehistoric bones wrenched from the earth. In normal times, this is called vandalism. On a moment such as this, in the final breaths of a dying ballpark already marked for the wrecking ball, folks were simply taking owners' possession of a piece of their very own history.

For whatever it's worth, there was a football game on 33rd Street Sunday, but for those of a certain generation, the game itself -- a team transplanted from Cleveland to Baltimore playing a team transplanted from Houston to Tennessee -- felt more like an extended overture to the real drama, which was the dropping of a curtain on an entire era.

This was the final gathering at graveside for those who remembered not only the wondrous age of the Baltimore Colts, but summer evenings with the wondrous Baltimore Orioles, and with a cabdriver out of Dundalk named Wild Bill Hagy who conducted a ballpark like some massive chorus and thus taught a generation of baseball followers that they could unleash their inhibitions precisely like football fans.

We live in a throwaway society now, where ballparks are discarded not only because better models can be built, but infinitely more profitable ones.

There is a variation of this in the life of cities, as well. Pieces of communities die, but others previously pronounced dead are reborn. An Inner Harbor area rots for years, but then a Jim Rouse imagines a wonderland, and out of this grand success comes a ballpark to the west and neighborhood rejuvenation to the south and new development to the east and reverberations that may yet spread north through a downtown pronounced dead the way the Inner Harbor was once prematurely pronounced dead.

On 33rd Street, directly across the street from Memorial Stadium, the old Eastern High School has sat vacant and decaying for years. All those generations of teen-age girls sent into the world have slipped from our collective consciousness, and the building's become a blight on a boulevard that should be one of the handsomest in town.

Soon, we're told, the Johns Hopkins University will renovate Eastern's interior and open offices there. Life will return. From this, might the thinkers at Hopkins gaze across the street to the Memorial Stadium site and see a future to be developed?

A campuslike setting, perhaps a natural park, and here and there on the landscape small plaques marking final resting places: Here is where Frank Robinson once launched a fly ball into an afternoon's sunlight, and it never returned to earth until it reached this exact spot on a distant parking lot. Here is where Brooksie dived to his right, and here is where Blair raced across a center field prairie. Here is where Ripken tossed to Murray. Here is where Palmer stood at the top of his little hill, and here is where Weaver bolted from his dugout to rage against the night. Above here is where Wild Bill stood in Section 34 and seemed to conduct the whole sky.

And here is where a fellow named Unitas pitched to Moore, who ran with a football in the most astonishing ways. Here's where fellows named Marchetti and Donovan handed a legacy to those named Curtis and Miller and Smith, who handed that legacy to those named Cook and Ehrmann and Dutton and Barnes. And on this spot was a corner of an end zone they used to call Orrsville.

And a larger monument, too, to the military veterans whose memory the old park honored, with these words that should never be tossed aside: "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."

To young people who arrived on 33rd Street and first read those lines, it turned Memorial Stadium into a kind of holy place. It was just a ballpark, sure, but it was also a place whose builders meant its name to stand for something and could never imagine selling that name to some corporation seeking a commercial profile.

The stadium had its flaws, including some big ones: It never had a Fenway Park-type intimacy. Its concrete pillars blocked lower deck views. Its restrooms were cramped, and its walkways (especially after the arrival of Camden Yards) now induce claustrophobia. Its parking lots could be a mess.

But it was the place where we gathered and found our identity as a community. We went there as children and returned there with children of our own. We felt part of something bigger than ourselves, and maybe it was only ballgames, but such things become part of our history, and part of our collective consciousness.

And we'll clutch those things, and take with us what we can. Even if it's just a bony plank torn from the body of an old dinosaur.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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