At this time next week, I’ll be sitting in Camden Yards (hopefully) watching my first Opening Day in eighteen years, close to the same number of years I went without missing one.
In elementary school, I remember on the mornings of Opening Day, handing over to my teacher my mom’s note excusing me from class that afternoon. Without a note you couldn’t leave. At my school, many students left early for the game, and too many pathetic others didn’t. Too self-absorbed in my own joy, I admit to having little empathy for those left behind as they looked on, visibly covered in envy, when the teacher released us, “Everyone going to Opening Day can leave now.” Ahhh!! Sweet release. We weren’t concentrating on the lesson anyway. The minute we heard those words, the classroom was filled with the loud screeching of chairs as we pushed away from our desks, hurriedly gathered our things and rushed out of the building as fast as we could. The walk home was more of a jog and sometimes an outright run from the west side of the stadium parking lot where my school was, to the north corner, where my home was.
Now it’s six days before Opening Day and, like a little kid again, my anticipation is building. It’s getting harder to think about anything besides my visit to Baltimore. Today the weather forecast predicts the game temperature will be 54 degrees. Brrrr. Yesterday, the forecast was for rain, so things are looking up. I’d be mighty disappointed if the game was rained out after all this.
I can’t remember an Opening Day when I wasn’t cold despite my mom’s diligence in always remembering a blanket. Even on the warmer days, if you were lucky enough to have a seat in the sun, it would only be lovely for a brief time until the earth’s rotation slowly moved you into the shadows, making the reliable breeze all the more noticeable and chilling. Sometimes, I admit, I just didn’t dress warmly enough, overly enthusiastic about Opening Day symbolically delineating the start of warm weather…
For me, Opening Day had more significance than just a chance to see the Orioles play. It marked, to my mind, the first day of Spring, the end of winter, a time to shed the heavy winter clothes and don the brighter, more cheerful ones. The start of baseball was a return to all the fun and excitement that happened right there in my neighborhood. The energy from the throngs of crowds walking up my street to the game, swinging their coolers and seat cushions as they went, the traffic and horns on 36th Street, Rex Barney’s announcements over the PA, the cheers of the crowd, even the crack of the bat that echoed through the stadium on the quiet days.
I learned to distinguish the sounds of the crowd. When I was trying to study and couldn’t listen to the game, I knew from the intensity of the cheer when to turn on the radio to catch Chuck Thompson announcing a grand moment. I learned to distinguish the cheers for a hit from an RBI or an outstanding catch. The simultaneous swell of an excited, anticipatory “HUUUUUH” followed by the deflated “awww” as thirty or forty thousand fans lamented in unison when the ball fell just to the wrong side of the foul pole. All beautiful sounds from my childhood.
I knew Memorial Stadium better than the back of my own hands. I sat in every section, played on the ramps with my best friends, Betsy and Cathy, as we raced up and down them, just because, ran through the rows after the games collecting left ticket stubs, again, just because. Sometimes I was in the box seats, sometimes in Section 34 with Wild Bill. My brother and sister-in-law met there, in Wild Bill’s section, and have been married for over twenty years. That says it all about the magic of that place and time.
If we weren’t at the game, we were often listening to it on the radio. Some of my favorite memories are of the times my family sat together on our back porch eating my father’s delicious grilled hamburgers, perfectly flavored with Big Boy’s Seasoning and perfectly done, a little on the rare side. To this day, no one’s burgers match dad’s. Or, we’d eat a couple dozen crabs. Mom would cook corn on the cob to go on the side, cover the table in newspaper, put out the mallets, fill our water glasses, load up the table with napkins and we’d start picking away for hours to get every bit of that delicious meat. All the while, the little radio at the end of the table broadcasting the game as we listened simultaneously to the cheers across the street and Chuck Thompson’s gripping and enthusiastic commentary.
I marked the seasons by baseball. I didn’t realize it until I moved to Tampa. The first Spring came so undramatically, as fittingly subtle as the change in weather. I felt like something was missing in my life for a long time, though I couldn’t figure out what it was. I attributed it to the contrast of seasons and change of weather from the North. I would attend public events, like street festivals or the State Fair and leave feeling vaguely like it was all anti-climactic. Where are the fun things, the “happening things?” Why could I never seem to find them? Where were the people and the real crowds?
It wasn’t until Tampa hosted a Superbowl that I realized what I had been searching for. In an instant, the energy and excitement took me back to home. It was only then that I realized that for my whole life, the crowds had come to me. For twenty-two years, activity buzzed about outside my window all spring and summer and I grew up in the middle of it all.
Baseball. Do you wonder why I love it? The Orioles are intertwined with priceless family memories and good times with my friends. The Orioles are not just a sport, they’re an integral part of my being. No one can really know me without understanding that these experiences and events were such a rich and important part of my formative years. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult for me to watch a game and pretend like the outcome doesn’t matter. On an intellectual level, I know it’s a sport, but on an emotional level, I’m deeply tied to the Orioles.
This will be my first Opening Day at Camden Yards. I don’t know OPACY or what to expect in terms of my seat. What does Club Box mean anyway? The cost of the seat suggests that I will have my own personal tushy warmer and space heater. Maybe even a waitress. My head is filled with imaginings of sitting in the stands, sipping a Sam Adams and biting into a relish and mustard loaded hot dog on a perfectly soft potato bun, neglected scorecard laying in my lap while I eat.
I look forward to things that other people probably don’t care about, like the peacefulness of watching the grounds crew smooth the field and paint the lines before the game. I’ll relish the sounds of the crowd, the undulations of sleepy silence when no one seems to be paying attention with the bugle calls for Charge! and raving, clapping, and stomping. The sounds of each player’s song as he comes up to bat. And most importantly, my favorite two sounds…the O in the last verse of the anthem and the seventh inning stretch with “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Every few minutes I update my travel list with another item to pack: binoculars, baseballs, pen for signatures, Orioles t-shirt…COAT, blanket…
It’s almost here. Six days, twenty hours, twenty-nine minutes to go…