For big fan, an O's moment

Outing: A vintage team pennant and secret plans unite four generations at Camden Yards.

April 26, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

The score was 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning, and a .300 hitter was stepping to the plate. Forty-one thousand packed the stands. Slanting sunshine warmed Camden Yards on a late afternoon, turning the outfield grass the brightest emerald. In short, it was an ideal Orioles moment Saturday when the wave began.

It started behind home plate, where a section of fans stood up to roar. It swept the stands down the third-base line, undulated through left field, cascaded into right. By the time it reached the right-field bleachers in Section 96, it had swept up Clara Brown's 61-year-old daughter, her 42-year-old granddaughter and her 15-year-old great-grandson, all on their feet, applauding.

But the happiest fan in the ballpark didn't leap. At 78, Clara Brown isn't as nimble as she used to be. Or maybe it was just that after 50 years of Oriole fandom, the great-great-grandmother from Canton--at Camden Yards for the first time -- was overwhelmed. Certainly, she was still stunned by the moment before the game when, sitting in the home dugout as a guest of the Orioles, she saw her favorite player step seemingly out of nowhere, plunk down beside her and greet her by name.

That surprise meeting with veteran Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff a few hours before had shocked Clara Brown, all right. It was part of a day full of surprises, all made possible by the chance discovery of a forgotten but valuable symbol of Clara's lifelong love for the team.

Though she didn't stand now, she still had the power to holler.

"Let's go, boys!" she cried, the wave spreading across her face in the form of a grin.

At the plate, Oriole hitter David Segui dug in. The wave moved down the right field line and kept going. The din grew.

"All these years, I thought I'd rather see a game in the comfort of my own home," she said. "But TV can't capture all this. Look at all I've been missing."

A dream game

It's hard to say where, exactly, Clara Brown's wave began.

She remembers the old days, 40 and 50 years back, when Gus Triandos was behind the plate for Baltimore, Don Larsen toed the pitching rubber and Gene Woodling roamed the outfield. Those O's seemed like family men to Clara, and that made them seem real, and worth rooting for. Back then, she'd made it to just one game at old Memorial Stadium, but she remembers meeting the players when they'd come to the old Gwynn Oak amusement park for picture and autograph sessions.

"They loved being with the fans," she said, shielding her green-gray eyes beneath an orange sun hat. "What a wonderful place to take kids."

She had grown up in Dundalk, then a rural area where you got to know your neighbors. She married one. James I. Brown never became a baseball fan, but the construction worker and his wife did give birth to a few. Four, in all, and all sports fans.

Clara Schmidt, now 61, was their first. Schmidt's daughter, Robyn, now 42, was an O's fan almost from birth. The family still has a recording of the elder Clara teaching Robyn, age 2, to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

"She learned quick," Grandma Clara recalls. "Good pair of lungs."

At Saturday's game, Robyn, now Robyn Cox, gyrated in a black Orioles jersey alongside the two Claras and her own son, Tony Hickman, 15, a sophomore at Dundalk High who's been to dozens of Orioles games. Between bites of his sandwich from Boog's Barbecue, he pounded a fist into his glove and offered a running commentary on the team.

"If [O's slugger Rafael] Palmeiro hits one up here, just stand back," he said. "I've got it."

"You'd better," Robyn replied. "I don't want to break a nail."

Robyn couldn't say who knew the most about baseball in their group, but it seemed to be a close call.

"I'm glad Grandma's not still in the dugout," she said. "She'd be telling [manager Lee] Mazzilli when to take the pitcher out."

She shook her head in wonderment. "Four tickets, four generations. How'd we all get together like this? It's a dream come true."

The '60 pennant

The dream was Robyn's, one that began almost two years back, when the family was moving a recently widowed Grandma Clara out of her Dundalk home and into a Canton seniors complex. Sorting through her belongings, they happened on a boxful of Orioles memorabilia.

Among the artifacts in the box were all the clippings Clara had saved on her all-time favorite Oriole, Cal Ripken Jr. But something else caught Robyn's eye: a vintage O's pennant. In pristine condition, it featured a glossy photo of then-manager Paul Richards' 1960 club.

After putting it aside for a while, Robyn began wondering what do with it. After a little research (which told her it could be valuable) and reflection, she decided to offer it to the team.

"I wanted Grandma to be a part of O's history," she said.

The Orioles, though, decided there was a better home for such a memento: Baltimore's Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. Today, after a journey back to Baltimore from Robyn's home in Tennessee, the flag officially becomes part of its collection.

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