A lunch eaten at ballpark lands in win column

July 24, 2002|By ROB KASPER

LUNCH IS OFTEN the highlight of the workday, especially during this languid period of the year when half the workforce has officially shed its duties by going on vacation and the other half is daydreaming about doing the same.

The other day, I came up with a scheme for an ideal summer lunch -- playing hooky for an hour at the ballpark. I had a free pass to a daytime Orioles game, yet I vacillated about putting my ballpark lunch plan into action. Work routines, like blue blazers, are hard to shed, at least early in the day.

In the morning, I had put on my blazer and tie and showed up at an 11 o'clock meeting just as I had promised, just as it was written down in my appointment book. Shortly after noon, I made an appearance at the office and did those things that dutiful office workers do. I checked messages, returned phone calls, punched the computer and conferred with bosses.

Then, a little after 1 p.m., I slipped off my coat and tie and bolted for the ballpark. It was liberating yet stifling out on Calvert Street. While the Baltimore humidity had not reached its infamous full-suffocation status, the sun was searing. It was so hot that even the panhandlers refused to leave shade to make their pleas for spare change.

This was not going to be a low-cost lunch. If I had been hunting for a bargain, I would have joined the queue at the lunch cart set up in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Some of the folks in line were at the courthouse to get married, some were waiting for justice to be meted out, but all were waiting for the fat, steamed sausages sold for a mere $1.25. I kept walking.

I also walked right past Burke's Cafe at St. Paul and Lombard streets, where on similar searing days I've ducked in and grabbed a crab cake or a fried-clam sandwich.

By now my shirt was stuck to my skin and sweat was trickling down my back. This midday unpleasantness could have been remedied by cold beer downed in a welcoming pub. Yet when I came upon the Wharf Rat on Pratt Street with its seven spigots spewing homemade ales, I kept moving.

It was the fourth inning by the time I got to Camden Yards. The Orioles were playing a rare midday contest, which had started at 12:30 p.m. Their opponent, the Seattle Mariners, had one of the best records in the American League. Fans with long memories recalled that on a summer afternoon back in 1993, the Orioles and the Mariners had gotten into one of the nastiest baseball brawls in modern baseball history.

But this day, the mood was pleasant and memories were short. Youth groups, troops of kids clad in yellow, green and blue T-shirts, filled the upper deck and filled the ball yard with noise. It reminded me of a summer afternoon decades ago when I was a kid sitting in the stratosphere of Kansas City Municipal Stadium, delightfully cheering for the Athletics, specks on the field below me.

At Camden Yards, I headed to the flag court beyond the right-field fence, where the crowd was young, tan and firm. Most wore shorts and T-shirts, but a few daring women were in halter tops and a few uninhibited fellows shed their shirts. The air smelled of sunscreen and hot dogs, the timeless aromas of daytime summer baseball. In my button-down shirt, slacks and loafers, I was definitely overdressed, yet I knew I had made the right decision about lunch.

I had been in the ballpark for a mere three pitches when Marty Cordova sent a 3-2 pitch over the left-field wall for a two-run home run, pushing the Orioles to a 4-1 lead.

Before I had a chance to grab a hot dog or a beer, I had seen a home run. Not bad.

After a leisurely wait in line at a Eutaw Street sausage stand -- the pace of service seemed to slow down with the heat -- I got a sizzling grilled hot dog, an Esskay all-beef weighing 1/3 pound, with a natural casing, smothered with peppers and onions, on a toasted bun for $5.

Five bucks is a lot for a hot dog. It was an indulgence. But as I chomped into my sandwich, sipped a cool, crisp beer -- a $5.75 Wild Goose India Pale Ale -- heard the crack of the bat and watched the white ball soar into the blue summer sky, it seemed like money well-spent.

The sun was so intense that, taking a clue from the downtown panhandlers, I, too, sought the shelter of shade. From a reasonably cool spot under the centerfield scoreboard, I watched the baseball leave the hand of Mariner pitcher Joel Pineiro, collide with the bat of Orioles hitter Gary Matthews and fly over the right-field wall for another home run.

Thirty minutes later, I was back in the office, punching a computer. Even in the summer, the world is filled with burdensome responsibilities and ugly possibilities, including the scenario of a labor dispute shutting down Major League Baseball this year.

But for a few innings on a summer day, I escaped all that. I had a hot dog with bite, a beer that had character, a view of home plate and a home team that was winning. Lunch and life don't get much better than that.

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