'It's never just about baseball'

Generations of Orioles fans reflect on passing down a love of the team

September 30, 2014|By Julie Scharper | The Baltimore Sun

Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop listening to the Orioles on the radio on the front porch. Grandpa keeping score with pencil and paper. The yells of the fans floating over from Memorial Stadium. Chuck Thompson saying, "Ain't the beer cold." Kids falling asleep on the ride home from the game.

For many Baltimoreans, the story of the Orioles is the story of their family. It's a way for fathers and sons to talk, for mothers and daughters to connect, for grandparents to pass down traditions.

Through the dark years of losing seasons, these families kept the Orioles magic alive. They were the specks of orange and black amid a sea of Red Sox and Yankees fans at Camden Yards. Each year, at Opening Day, they would say, "This year will be different."

And then, finally, it was.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Orioles have clinched the American League East, and are making their way to the postseason for the second time in three years.

Four families talked with us about their Orioles traditions, memories and hopes. From 85-year-old Mary Kay Shock, to 4-month-old Camden Sroka, here are their stories.

The sound of summer

For as long as the Baileys of Howard Park can remember, if the Orioles were playing, a relative was listening to the game on the radio.

On summer trips to the old family cottage in Shady Side in Anne Arundel County, the family would sit in darkness on the porch — the house still didn't have electricity in the 1950s — and listen on a "big, old battery-powered radio," recalled Lydia Bailey, 59, and her brother Kenny Bailey, 52.

At home, exclamations of "Whoa" and "You gotta be kidding me" would filter up from the basement room where their father, Frederick A. Bailey Jr., listened to the game while puttering on household projects.

Their step-grandfather, "Daddy John," sat at the kitchen table drinking Tab and playing solitaire while the game crackled over the radio. Their grandmother carried a transistor radio so she could listen everywhere she went.

"My grandmother would listen to the ballgame ... at the ballgame," said Kenny Bailey, a Baltimore police sergeant.

Bailey could rattle off batting statistics before he was old enough for school, their mother, Vivian Bailey, 79, recalled.

"We'd say, 'How do you know that, Kenny?' and he'd say, 'I read it in the newspaper,'" said his mother, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher.

The Bailey children watched plenty of games at Memorial Stadium, too. Their father would sometimes get prime seats, courtesy of Maryland National Bank, where he was the first African-American assistant vice president.

As members of the Junior Orioles, Kenny and his friends watched many games from the nosebleed bleacher seats.

"Once you sat down, you better not slide or you'd get a splinter," he said. The boys folded newspapers to make hats to keep the sun off their heads.

Kenny Bailey still listens to games on the radio. If he gets home during the eighth inning, he'll linger in the car to listen to the rest.

Lydia Bailey, a Baltimore Museum of Art employee, moved back into the family home a few years ago to care for their mother. The sounds of the game still fill the home on summer evenings, but now they come from the TV.

"It's just nice to hear it," she said.

More than baseball

Each year at Opening Day, the three Sroka men — John and his sons Josh and Matt — would say this was the year things would be different. The year the fans wouldn't lose hope and the crowds wouldn't dwindle throughout the season.

"We always look around the stadium and say, 'One day, it's going to look like this in September,'" said Josh Sroka, 34.

The three have seen nearly every home game together for the past 20 years, since John, 58, became a season ticket holder.

After the Orioles made the playoffs as the wild card team in 1996 and led wire to wire to win the division in 1997, there were some rough years.

"The worst games were the Yankees and Red Sox. [Their fans] would take over the stadium," said John, a chief financial officer who lives in Arnold, where the boys were raised. "But we would still show up."

The three remained loyal to the team, in part because it is a way to show their loyalty to one another.

"It's never just about baseball," said Matt, 30, an English teacher who drives over the Bay Bridge from his home in Queenstown to watch games with his dad and brother.

"It's always been how we related," said Josh, a control systems programmer.

John Sroka's father, the son of Polish immigrants, was the first member of the family to fall in love with baseball. He played catch with John every afternoon and took him to see games at the old Memorial Stadium.

When Josh and Matt joined Little League, John was always there. These days, the three play on a church softball team.

Josh and Matt started a sports podcast a couple of years ago called Section 336 — the area where the family has season tickets. Their father has made several guest appearances.

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