Bullet Bob and Scrapiron: Orioles' past flavors their present

April 02, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT SUMMER in a thousand neighborhoods, the baseball rituals took on new meaning. You raced across a schoolyard outfield and imagined you could be Chuck Diering. You threw a fastball and thought it was Bullet Bob Turley's. One time, when you got yourself dirty diving for a ground ball, you heard one of the old men on the block holler, "Look at you. You're playing like an Old Oriole."

I didn't know what he was talking about. I was 9 years old that summer of '54, and I only knew about these new Orioles, reborn out of the dismal legacy of the St. Louis Browns. But the sound of the old man's voice was clear: He was complimenting me, and connecting me to something.

"You never heard of Wee Willie Keeler?" he said.

I shook my head.

"Hit 'em where they ain't," he said.

I shrugged and went back to fielding grounders. The old Orioles, the championship turn-of-the-century teams of Keeler and Hughie Jennings, of John McGraw and Uncle Wilbert Robinson, seemed impossibly ancient when I began hearing their names. They went back 50 years, for Pete's sake, to a time that seemed primordial. How could any human being remember back that far?

But now, I see by the calendar, the Baltimore Orioles will open for business this weekend. And, by the same calendar, I notice that precisely another 50 years has passed since their rebirth, in what seems an impossible miscount of time.

The schoolyard kids today will connect to Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez, as they should. But I want them to know about Willie Miranda and Gus Triandos, who once meant so much around here, and Connie Johnson and Bob "El Ropo" Boyd and Clint "Scrapiron" Courtney, too.

And it strikes me that the names will seem as distant to them as Wee Willie's sounded to me.

We live in the present tense, but it connects to our past. When the Orioles first made Baltimore feel big league again, we heard them everywhere on the radio. Nobody had air-conditioning then, so on summer nights you grabbed snatches of play-by-play as you walked past open neighborhood windows. And you played twilight ball at the schoolyard, but, in a time when transistor radios were beginning to appear, you heard Chuck Thompson and Ernie Harwell providing a kind of portable soundtrack.

There was something beyond victory and defeat. You discovered the sports pages in the morning newspaper and began to notice a generation's narrative being written. You were learning the art of storytelling, learning to measure time across specific seasons.

Fifty years ago, worlds began opening up. Government you didn't yet understand. But when you saw an 18-year-old kid named Robinson had two hits in the box score, it was like unearthing a secret code connecting you to something beyond your little block.

Politics you didn't yet understand. But Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckler, and the tilt of his head as he threw it -- this you not only understood but could imitate, and you began to forge an identity, as an individual and as part of a specific community in which you had an emotional investment.

I've spent the last few days watching hours of Orioles highlight videos from the past 50 years: There's Ripken in '95, the night he caught the ghost of Lou Gehrig and Palmeiro and Bonilla made him run that victory lap around the Yard. There's Weaver, standing outside the third-base dugout after that heartbreaking final loss to Milwaukee in '82, when 50,000 fans refused to go home. There's Wild Bill Hagy up in Section 34, orchestrating cheers and teaching everybody to unleash their inhibitions at Memorial Stadium.

What strikes me -- what still makes the heart swell -- isn't so much the ballplayers as those people up in the stands. The city with an enduring inferiority complex learned a whole new self-image. We were the town of Brooksie and Frank and Palmer, and then Eddie and Cal, national symbols of excellence across a couple of generations.

But we also saw ourselves as the tough little guy, as the collective embodiment of Weaver, who challenged all immovable authority figures. In the first wave of free agency, when Reggie Jackson dumped us for huge New York money, we were still "the best team money can't buy." For a town with deep working-class roots, a town reaching for an unanticipated modern renaissance, the Orioles fleshed out the image that we were fighting the good fight, no matter the long odds.

On the night Cal Ripken Jr. played his record 2,130th straight game, you could see his father, Cal Sr., up in Peter Angelos' suite behind home plate. The two older men glowed. They were like the men from all the old neighborhoods half a century ago, who had watched the kids diving into the dirt and told them they looked like "old Orioles."

And, in the blink of an eye, old man Ripken's gone, and Junior, who seemed as if he might play forever, has become an old Oriole himself. It happens that way. The calendar says it's 50 years now since the modern Orioles arrived, and calendars don't lie.

I want today's kids to know about Bullet Bob and El Ropo and Scrapiron because they meant something to a community's sense of self -- the same way the old men in my neighborhood wanted me to know about Wee Willie and his gang, and the same way these kids today will want their own offspring to know about a fellow named Ripken who played here years earlier.

The kids will say, "Ripken? Who could remember back that far?"

And their parents will think: "But it was yesterday. Wasn't it?"

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