Leave it to Babe to start new home run

September 04, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

TALL SHIPS in the Inner Harbor and water taxis puttering toward Fells Point told me I was in the right place.

Baltimore.

So did the Maryland Terrapins basketball fan whose chest bore a "Fear the Turtle" T-shirt and the Harborplace maintenance worker wearing a cap emblazoned with the Colts logo.

Not the Ravens.

Colts.

But fresh off a plane from Seattle - another harbor city that had the sense to follow Baltimore's lead and also set a gorgeous baseball theater downtown by the water - I was in search of a starting point.

Where do I begin?

For the past eight years, I wrote a sports column in Seattle.

Seahawks fans, by the way, are still infatuated with Trent Dilfer and thank the Ravens and Brian Billick for casting off their Super Bowl QB. Oddly, Dilfer's speedy and complete recovery from a knee injury may be crucial to Mike Holmgren's job security.

As for the Mariners, it's not as if a late-season swoon is unheard of.

In 1997, Mike Mussina and the O's demoralized Randy Johnson and the M's not once, but twice, to win that American League Division Series, 3-1.

Come to think of it, weren't the O's supposed to win the World Series that season?

Whatever happened to all those guys anyway?

Alomar? Anderson? Cal? Anyone?

Before Seattle, I wrote sports columns and news stories in Albany, N.Y. (and Baltimore likes to think of itself as a gritty, blue-collar kind of town).

But this is something new:

Writing a sports column in a city where March 28, 1984, is one of the most important dates in world history; where Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell once went 1-2-3 in the AL MVP voting; where fear and loathing lurk any time there is mention of major-league baseball making the Expos the Beltway's newest attraction.

Where is the best place to commence this awesome enterprise for which I have been chosen?

And then it hit me.

It must begin right under the statue of George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the one that stands sentry outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

It seemed the only natural place to start this new incarnation in this great American city.

So I walked to Eutaw Street, stood stone still and looked straight up into the blue skies, where the Babe's barrel-chested figure loomed.

The sun was shining down on him, like the universe's biggest spotlight could not resist highlighting him to this very day, even after Roger Maris, Hank Aaron, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds had eclipsed him in the record books.

But no one can diminish the Babe's place or legend as god among baseball's immortals, which might explain why the sun's glare almost looked like a halo around his bronzed head.

And so I prayed.

OK, I did not actually pray, but that's only because a cute couple on their honeymoon asked me to snap their photo with the Babe.

Otherwise I definitely would have prayed.

You see, for the past month, ever since I accepted this job, I've had this recurring dream.

OK, it's more like a nightmare, but in this dream/nightmare, I am Elyse.

You know Elyse, of Eddie and Elyse from the classic Baltimore movie Diner by Barry Levinson.

Elyse has to pass the Colts football quiz Eddie will administer under LSAT conditions, otherwise the marriage is off.

You see, in this business, you don't worry so much about getting fired or making editors unhappy - all bad things, of course. But the worst thing you can do is disappoint the readers.

Making readers mad or happy is one thing; making them believe you're a knucklehead is unspeakably bad.

Which is why I don't want to fail the test, like Elyse, who did not know that George Shaw was not a first-round draft pick (he was a bonus pick) but did know that Alan Ameche had the longest run from scrimmage of any Colts rookie (79-yard run, Opening Day, 1955) in his first game.

Now you can understand the decision to pray to St. Babe.

You may also understand my decision to follow the painted baseballs on the sidewalk that led me to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum.

It was the best place to begin this job, this journey, this high-wire act.

The time line of Baltimore's sports history is rich. It's so rich, it's a little daunting - particularly for someone who might be experiencing a touch of the "Elyse" syndrome.

But this is going to pass.

From broadcaster Ernie Harwell, the one-time voice of the Orioles, to the late John Steadman, the esteemed historian and sports columnist, the story of Baltimore sports is well-chronicled.

My job, my vision, is to be a witness and a voice for the next leg of this race.

I know I don't come from this place. Nowhere on my birth certificate does it say "Baltimore" or "Maryland."

But it's tough not to feel at home here.

People call you "Hon."

They try to lure you to live in their particular neighborhood, be it Mount Washington or Catonsville, city or county.

And underneath it all, aren't we all connected in some big way?

You don't think a native New Yorker like me didn't grow up fascinated with B. Robinson? Or feel as if big Boog was like one of my cut-up uncles?

Broadway Joe might have predicted that Super Bowl win, but Johnny Unitas was always the first, the greatest.

It says so at the museum at Babe's old Baltimore house, the place where it all started, first for him, now perfect for me.

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