Ghosts of Kirk Field linger in rubble

August 27, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

An old photograph captures Jim DeWald in an instant of youthful exuberance and utter futility. He's No. 50 for Poly, chasing the quarterback from City College named Kurt Schmoke. DeWald will never get near him. It's Thanksgiving Day 1966, and history says City's on its way to a 42-6 victory.

"I'm forever immortalized trying to attain the unattainable," says DeWald, a property administrator. "Trying to catch up to Kurt Schmoke."

It couldn't be done then, and DeWald couldn't do it later, aside from a chance meeting on the street about a decade ago, when Schmoke was running for re-election as mayor of Baltimore. Campaigning downtown one afternoon, he asked for DeWald's vote and stuck out his hand. DeWald reached back.

"Kurt," DeWald said, "it's been 23 years, but I finally caught you."

He should have been so lucky with the mayor's housing department. Two weeks ago, the thinkers at housing sent wrecking crews to Northeast Baltimore, to a place where Schmoke, and DeWald, and thousands of high school football players and track and field competitors from all over town once did some of their most spectacular growing up: Kirk Field.

There's not much left now. Yesterday morning, a work crew ripped at the remains of the north-side grandstand. The south side's already torn down, with twisted steel cable lying everywhere like snakes coming out of Medusa's skull and huge cement chunks rimming the football field.

There's one goal post still standing, as though waiting to be pulled down by some giddy crowd celebrating an upset victory. But there are no crowds, and a vagrant morning breeze carries not a whisper of yesteryear's ghostly cheers.

Hey, it's only a football field. Big deal. They put the place up in 1955, and it had its day: big throngs from every school in town, televised football games of the week, Maryland Scholastic Association track and field championships.

"You know what Kirk Field was like," DeWald says. "In our day, Memorial Stadium was the cathedral, but Kirk Field was the little corner church."

When you played there, it felt like a religious experience for high school kids with godlike dreams. Three nights ago, DeWald went to the Ravens' exhibition game at the Stadium That Dares Not Whisper Its Own Name.

The new place is nice. It's just not home yet. Such things take time, take the creation of shared memory. As much as anything, that's what hurts about the loss of Kirk Field.

Green Spring and Cloverland dairies will develop the 4.2-acre site along Exeter Hall and Kirk avenues. Dairy employees are happy, because there had been talk of job cuts. But neighborhood residents are concerned that turning the old field into a dairy expansion will create daily traffic and noise and reduce their property values.

DeWald's thoughts are mainly sentimental -- and they reflect several decades' worth of local prep athletes who remember school bands marching through the streets, and classmates cheering and cameras perched atop a small press box to make teen-age boys feel like the most important people in the world for a few ticks of the clock.

Yesterday, three or four concrete steps stood at the base of the remains of one grandstand. But then they stopped. All the rest was rubble.

DeWald drove over to the old field a few days ago, looking for traces of a lost era.

"My brother Bob played at Poly from '53 to '56," he says, "and I'd go over to Kirk Field to watch him when they played there. I remember, it was such a nice neighborhood. And then, when I got to Poly, it was a dream to play there."

DeWald was a center-linebacker who wasn't seeing a lot of action. But three guys got hurt against Loyola High, and Poly Coach Bob Lumsden sent him in at Kirk Field.

"I was like a tiger let out of his cage," DeWald says. "I was all over the place. And Lumsden saw me at school the next week and said, 'I was impressed. You really fired out.' "

You hear this? DeWald remembers these words more than three decades later, as though they're inscribed on stone tablets. For him, and for thousands like him, Kirk Field was a place where memories became indelible. It was as close as they got to feeling big-time.

"I had a dream," DeWald says. "I go back to Poly, and Lumsden's still coaching. And he's yelling at me, 'You had your chance. You can't come back as a ringer.' "

If that's not every aging athlete's fantasy, it's pretty close. And Kirk Field was home for a lot of those dreams.

The other day, DeWald went back and looked through the rubble to an empty field.

"I remembered my brother," he says, "and I remembered when I played my last game here in high school. I was the last one out of the locker room when it was over. I remembered sitting there as a little boy. And I pictured all those ghosts playing ball there."

As Kirk Field yields to the wrecking ball, its ghosts haunt many a memory today.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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