Spring renews spirit of '66

April 01, 2002|By Raymond Daniel Burke

TO FULLY comprehend the relevance of Opening Day in Baltimore, one needs to understand the emotional connection between a brilliant fall afternoon in a jammed-packed stadium and a quiet overcast spring day 35 years later, when a few souls gathered on the defunct field in what was left of that same ballpark.

It was the top of the first in the first World Series game played in Baltimore. The Orioles had returned from the West Coast with an improbable 2-0 lead in the Series over the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bunting draped Memorial Stadium, augmented with temporary bleachers behind the wire outfield fence, which seemed overflowing with giddy fans.

With two outs, Dodgers' center fielder Willie Davis launched a high opposite-field fly toward the left field corner - the place where the 14-foot-high concrete wall met the foul line and the lower stands in a collision of angles. The crowd rose and held its collective breath as the Orioles' 23-year-old left fielder, Curt Blefary, raced across the sun-drenched grass toward the gray cinder-covered warning track.

As the descent of the ball became nearly unbearable to follow in the glare of the October sun, Mr. Blefary disappeared into the darkness of the shadow-shrouded corner. What seemed like a long silence was followed by the thump of his 195-pound arrival against the barrier, then a sigh of collective astonishment, then a cheer rising to a thunderous ovation.

Ignoring the treacherousness of the corner, overcoming the conspiracy of the sun and shade, Mr. Blefary had somehow made a running catch and emerged still holding the inning's third out. The catch would be critical on a day when there would be no margin for error.

The Orioles were to score only once, but it would be enough to provide the first of two consecutive 1-0 shutout victories that would result in a stunning four-game sweep of the 1966 World Series.

On May 24, 2001, Curt Blefary, who in January of that year had died of pancreatitis, returned to Memorial Stadium. Fulfilling his wishes, his widow, Lana, brought his ashes to be spread across the former location of home plate, where they would be mixed with the dust and rubble of the stadium's demolition.

That Mr. Blefary would choose this spot for his earthly eternity is understandable. His years as an Oriole were the apex of his career. But his choice reflects more than a remembrance of the height of his athletic achievements.

It also graciously acknowledged a special time in the history of Baltimore, its baseball team and the forum where they came together.

In those days, long before the Colts left for Indianapolis and Baltimore developed a paranoid obsession with supporting its baseball team that, ultimately, resulted in the cash-generating palace at Camden Yards, utilitarian Memorial Stadium provided the venue for the bond that grew between an old city in changing times and a young team reaching for the national stage of excellence.

While the struggle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam opened the nation's divisions, Baltimore faced a future of uncertainty and lost identity.

What is now the famous Inner Harbor tourist magnet was then a forbidding place where dark and dilapidated buildings hid the water from view. White flight to the suburbs was in full swing, and open housing would become the incendiary issue of the 1966 state gubernatorial campaign. An old manufacturing and railroad city saw the sand shifting under its traditional pillars of support.

But on summer evenings, the troubling and often bloody dinnertime news reports gave way to the distraction of Orioles baseball.

At the stadium, with its metal bench seats and view-obstructing pillars, the town came together to cheer the unassuming and likable young men who represented their hopes for recognition and a place in the new world evolving around them.

When they became champions, with such dramatic October flourish, they lifted the city and gave it faith that its best days had not passed.

Each Opening Day is a remembrance of that communal bond and an opportunity to again immerse ourselves in its spiritual balm.

The economics of the sport have changed immeasurably, but the beauty of the game and its power over our senses and recollections remains.

We embrace each new season, not only for the stirrings of hope in what might lie ahead, but also for its connection to our collective past.

And so we understand why Curt Blefary wanted to come back to us. As his ashes swirl among the dust and memories of our long ago, the gift he and his teammates gave us lives on as a reminder that we have the capacity to accomplish much together - even the improbable.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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