The ghosts stand guard at Memorial Stadium

March 14, 2000|By Michael Olesker

IN THE RUINS of Memorial Stadium, Mike Gibbons gestures through a raw Saturday mist toward the place that used to be the Baltimore Orioles dugout.

"Come here," says Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum, leading a farewell tour of the old 33rd Street ballpark before the wrecking balls prepare to muscle up this year.

We trudge through the wet gravel and weeds that have turned the old playing field into something resembling an unkempt graveyard, until we reach the tunnel by the first base dugout and step down into the darkness.

"Just stand here for a second," Gibbons tells a couple of us. He gestures toward the big empty stands all around. "Imagine Sunday afternoons around 2 o'clock, and Unitas is standing here in the dark waiting for his name to be called, and 60,000 people are out there roaring. Imagine what that moment felt like."

It's all that's left now at Memorial Stadium: imagining Baltimore's yesterdays, remembering not only the ballplayers but all those ghosts in the stands, and remembering what it felt like to be utterly swallowed in sound.

They've removed almost all the memorabilia from the old ballpark, but they let several dozen of us in last weekend, and they did it up right. Some of the old Colts and Orioles types were there -- and so was Eugene "Reds" Hubbe, holding up a Colts sign and yelling, "Gimme a C" the way he did when he led cheers in the football glory days. The Baltimore Ravens' band struck up the old Colts' fight song.

"God," said Vince Bagli, the old broadcaster, "this is more poignant than that last game the Orioles played here."

He meant nine years ago, when the baseball club played its final regular season game and then trotted out the O's of yesteryear to the strains of the "Field of Dreams" theme. Saturday had the same haunting quality. This wasn't just a ballpark closing its doors, but a community recalling its collective youth and then trying to let it go as gracefully as possible.

"Stand here a minute," Mike Gibbons said now.

A few of us found an area that looked like the old home plate, and figured where the pitcher's mound must have been. Gibbons pointed toward the outfield fences. As boys, we imagined sending baseballs far above them. As middle-aged men, some of us wiped the day's mist from our eyeglasses and peered through the scattery raindrops.

"To me, standing down here, it seems so much bigger now," Gibbons said. "Could you hit a ball that far?"

"I couldn't carry a ball that far," I said. "I can't even see that far."

Chuck Yealdhall stood a few feet away. Nearly half a century ago, home from the service and working for Belsinger Sign Co., Yealdhall's the sheet metal worker who made the lettering on the huge "Time will not dim ..." stadium dedication.

"It's come to mean a lot to me," Yealdhall said. There are no definitive plans for the memorial. "I'd hate to see anything happen to it. My sons said they should take it down and put it in my back yard."

Included in Saturday's tour: visits to the Orioles' and Colts' locker rooms. In their ruin, they were dumps. And yet, some of the old Colts remembered, they didn't look much different from years ago.

"The place looks better now than it did then," said Stan White, the old linebacker. "We didn't have any ceilings, any carpet. My first time in here, seeing John Unitas, it was like playing with Babe Ruth. And you go out on the field for that first time, and you just hope you don't fall down or hit your head coming out of the tunnel."

"When it rained, it leaked in," said Rick Volk, the old defensive back. "But there was a lot of cutting up. On Saturdays, kids would come into the locker room and Bubba Smith would push them around in laundry carts. They all loved it. It was a family affair."

"There was never a better place to play pro football than this place," said Jim Mutscheller, the old tight end.

He was thinking about the crowds, not the locker room facilities. It was a time when ballplayers stuck around, when you knew them by name and by idiosyncrasies. In the trainer's room Saturday, somebody found an old rubdown bench.

"Let me get my ankles taped," said Lenny Moore. The old halfback sat himself down. Nobody had to explain the connection: Lenny wore his tape outside his shoes. Spats, everybody called him.

A third of a century after his retirement, we still remember nicknames. In a wet, decaying ballpark on a raw winter day, we remember the sun shining on Sunday football afternoons, and humid summer nights of baseball, and a community gathering on 33rd Street when everybody was young.

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