A reprieve in Memorial Stadium memories

October 18, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IT LOOKED LIKE the alumni association of our youth.

Two by two the old buffaloes marched out Tuesday night, listening to the cheers on Memorial Stadium Night in a suburban country club dining room the way they'd once heard them at an old, vanished ballpark on 33rd Street.

"Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor," said Fred Manfra, the Orioles radio announcer, his voice instantly drowned out by several hundred folks who'd ducked in out of the evening's rain and gathered to benefit the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

"Lenny Moore and Lydell Mitchell," said Manfra, who grew up in East Baltimore, and played ball at Patterson High, and shared a community's joys and heartaches watching these ballplayers in their prime.

And the names kept coming -- Mike Curtis, still looking as though he were searching for Roman Gabriel's head to snap it off; and Brooks Robinson, still looking fit enough to dive behind third and stuff a double in his glove; and the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, once part of the immortal Sack Pack and now given to life's gentlest pursuits.

"Now, more than ever, we need peace and healing," Ehrmann told the crowd gathered at the Suburban Club in Northwest Baltimore.

"The terrorists' acts," added Manfra, "have changed us all. They've brought us together."

And there it was: On a night to remember the glorious years at Memorial Stadium, and raise a few bucks for the Babe Ruth Museum, there was something else in the air, which the war has given us like a tap on the shoulder. We have shared histories, shared emotions, and now a sense of trying to get on with our lives in a time of shared vulnerability.

The terrorists' acts have brought us together -- if only we will allow ourselves.

"We've got to be like the British," State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer was saying as the big crowd gathered. "They went through the wartime blitz, they've gone through terrorist bombs. They got on with their lives. We've got to get on with our lives and not be afraid."

And then, on this splendid evening put together by the Babe Ruth Museum folks, the old warriors came marching out: Tom Matte and Don McCauley, Rick Dempsey and the hometown kid Dave Johnson, Stan White and Rick Volk, Curt Motton and Tippy Martinez.

Some of them walked on gimpy knees or new store-bought hips. Or they'd put on a few pounds, or a few dozen. But, with each name came a memory, and a reminder: The ballgames aren't just about athletic endeavors. They're about hours spent in a safe place, in innocence, tossing off the cares of the day.

The cares were never like this. Now we open our mail with anxious hands. Now we come unsettled at the sound of an airplane overhead. Now we listen to the Pentagon briefings about airstrikes over Afghanistan, and hear assured voices telling us of overwhelming American military superiority, and we ask ourselves: Is there bad news they aren't telling us? Are we hearing the truth, or is this Vietnam again, with the generals inventing body counts and every light at the end of the tunnel an oncoming train?

So we leave the house now with mixed feelings. Are we abandoning our loved ones to attacks from crazed terrorists with bombs strapped to their bodies? If we go to a theater, or a community walk for charity, or a day at the ballpark, are we endangering ourselves merely by being part of a large crowd?

Our sense of reasoning is distorted by the clang of panic in our heads, and we forget that isolation builds on itself, and fears gain credibility in that isolation -- and that we gain strength when we mix with our friends.

In a time of national anxiety, it was lovely to celebrate the years of Memorial Stadium. For now, someone was mentioning the '58 game where Spats broke that long one late against San Francisco to clinch the Colts' first conference title. And somebody else said, what about DeCinces' homer in '79 to beat the Tigers and start the thing called Orioles Magic? Or the day the Orioles lost the '82 pennant but the whole crowd stayed to bid farewell to Earl Weaver? Or No. 19 throwing that last touchdown pass to Eddie Hinton back in '72, at the precise instant a plane flew overhead, pulling a banner that read "Unitas We Stand"?

We can speak to each other in shorthand about such things because the memories are shared. Such things sustain us in nervous times, and we draw strength not only in the memory of the act but in knowing that so many others share it, and thus we are not alone.

That was the real magic Tuesday night: the sense of community strength. For here came not only the athletes but the people who led the cheering for them: Wild Bill Hagy in his cowboy hat, and Reds Hubbe and Bill Gattus carrying the Colts banner they used to haul around the ballpark on Sunday afternoons, and Chuck Thompson and Vince Bagli and Fred Manfra, too.

We enjoy the comfort of old friends in anxious times. And so they marched out Tuesday night, two by two: Ordell Braase and Jim Mutscheller, Doug Eggers and Buzz Nutter, Bruce Laird and Tom Matte, Toni Linhart and Rick Volk, Elmer Wingage and Sisto Averno, Dick Bielski and Sam Havrilak and Earnest Byner and all those who did more than play ball here.

They made us feel part of a community, which sustains us in a tough time.

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