Chapter 10: Imagine a Baltimore without the Orioles

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(Originally published as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout in Sept. 2006, this is Part 10 of a 19 Chapter Series on How Baseball and the Orioles berthed WNST.net. This is an unedited version of the original post without updates regarding Mike Flanagan’s suicide.)

Mike Flanagan is as close to an Orioles’ kindred spirit as I have in the world. Maybe Jim Palmer and Elrod Hendricks and Jimmy Tyler could be thrown in there as well, because they’ve seemed as omnipresent as my fandom of the Orioles.

But, Flanagan is really ” The One,” because in real terms, he’s been with the Orioles as long as I’ve been with the Orioles. And no one else I know, other than my Mom, has stayed in my life all of these years and still keeps popping up.

He came up in 1975, and I really started regularly going to games around that time, when I was 6.

I remember when he first came up, the expectations, the rotation — with Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez, every night was trouble for some AL team — and I probably spent 80 nights of my life inside Memorial Stadium watching Mike Flanagan pitch.

From 1977 to 1984 he never had a sub-par season, only many very good ones and a couple of great ones. He left the Orioles just once — for two-plus years, pitching for the Blue Jays after a trade deadline deal in 1987.

In 1979, he won 23 games and led that magical team every time Earl Weaver threw him out there. It was his best year in baseball. It was mine too!

In 1992, he began his broadcasting career. That’s the same year I left The Evening Sun and went on the radio.

In 2003, he became part of “management”. In early 2005, I did the same thing.

But, even though we’ve gotten to know each other over the years — with him at one point walking up to me (when I didn’t even know he knew I existed) in the late 1990’s and admitting that he was a fan of MINE and addicted to “Nasty Nationwide” and listened every day with his daughter — on that last game at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 6, 1991, Mike Flanagan was just a childhood hero to me. He was, in some ways, larger than life because when I was 10 years old, he took the hill every couple of nights for the centerpiece of my life, the Baltimore Orioles.

Mike Flanagan was one of MY guys! My mood hung on every pitch he threw!
So on that sad-yet-uplifting and chilly October afternoon in 1991 — surrounded by a disgusting Redskins fan actually watching a football game on her laptop TV in Sect. 34 — it was me, Mike Flanagan, my memories of my youth and my best friend Kevin Eck (he keeps popping up doesn’t he!), along with 54,000 others just like us gathering for one of the biggest public tearjerkers in the history of this city.

If you didn’t spend your childhood at Memorial Stadium, you can probably stop reading or listening right around now.

Because you just won’t understand it. You couldn’t possibly think it is anything beyond silly.

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It is truly a “Ball’mer thing.”

But EVERYONE who has ever loved the Orioles remembers that day.

Flanagan on the hill…The last out…The “Field Of Dreams” music…The players coming onto the field…The tears flooding everyone’s eyes in the ballpark…And, finally, Brooks pops out of that dugout!

(Incidentally, the guy who orchestrated that entire afternoon, Rick Vaughn, who now works in public relations for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was one of the first to leave the Orioles when Peter Angelos bought the team. He was a SUPER person and he really understood BALTIMORE and the Orioles and that community connection. The Orioles of 2006 went the entire season ignoring the 1966 World Championship team. THAT’S how things change in a city and community in 15 years and that’s one of the major problems with this ownership group.)

My Pop was not on 33rd Street that afternoon, he was getting pretty ill later in his life and lived just eight more months. He was watching on TV, but his spirit and soul were there with me just seven miles apart from where we sat that afternoon because there wasn’t a memory I had of that place — even then, when I was 22 — that didn’t in some way completely unravel and disable me and flood my tear ducts because of him.

I actually attended all three games against Detroit that weekend, and on the Saturday afternoon, all by myself, I walked over to that portal of Sect. 10 — where I walked with my father 30 to 40 nights a summer for a decade — and just sat and openly sobbed there in the corner. They didn’t have any tissues in those smelly old bathrooms and the vendors were out of napkins because the stadium was so full and it was late in the game and they were running out of everything. A hot dog vendor saw me breaking down and came over and offered me some of that waxed paper they use to serve the Esskay Orioles franks in.

I was snotting all over the place! It was a disgraceful scene!

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Even then, I thought my Pop would have thought that the whole episode would be pretty funny and it kinda cheered me up. He would have told me to stop blubbering and be a man!

There was just nothing like Memorial Stadium and there never will be anything like it again.

Which, of course, brings us to Camden Yards — the best (and worst) thing that ever happened to the Orioles and the City of Baltimore.

On the Friday before the Orioles were to open Oriole Park at Camden Yards in April 1992, the media was given the grand tour. There were hundreds of reporters from all over the area and the country who wanted to be there and snoop around the ballpark on that chilly morning. Remember, Camden Yards was the first retro-ballpark in the world.

Even 14 years later — that stadium — its location, its design and its Warehouse are the absolute GOLD STANDARD for every ballpark (baseball or otherwise) that’s been built since. The team even invited celebrity Orioles’ fans like Joan Jett to come along because the interest was so high. Be honest: the first time you COULD see Oriole Park, you DID!

Everyone was delectably curious!

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I had just left The Evening Sun three months earlier and was finding my way on radio on WITH-AM 1230 (let’s be honest, I had about eight listeners at that point), and that day the first person I ran into was my mentor, John Steadman.

“Senor, you excited about this ballpark?” he asked me. I didn’t know what to make of the place and I honestly was a little miffed that they left Memorial Stadium, even though I realized the grand economics of it all.

I think I told him that I didn’t know what to think — and I think we both ALREADY missed 33rd Street — but there was some anticipation and expectation about this fresh new palace and it was certainly something to see.

We spent the entire day together, just John and I. We walked down the third base line and saw how bad those box seats were down in the left field corner. We walked the club level all the way to The Warehouse wall, and realized there were seats there that were actually OUT of the ballpark and had a better view of the home of the Blast than home plate. The clubhouses looked like a country club. The signs were all “old-timer” looking. The nostalgia jumped out at you immediately.

I remember very vividly that we both pointed out that no one stood to benefit more than that Holiday Inn and its giant green sign in center field. That following Monday, when Rick Sutcliffe would toss that gem against the Indians, I actually did my show from the circular rooftop bar out on the outdoor deck looking into the stadium.

They called it the Bird’s Nest Café. I called it the Bird’s NESTOR Café.

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I swear I can still feel the energy of that day — the air, the sounds, the electricity downtown!  I can still see from that ledge at the Holiday Inn into the stadium as it filled up.

It was like I was now living in a DIFFERENT CITY!

This wasn’t like the Baltimore I knew, this palace that everyone in the country was talking about.

But from the minute I walked into the bowl of that place with John Steadman, it felt very “foreign,” like that rich new home you always dreamed about having but then realized once you did the walk through and it was actually YOURS that the place is a just “house” and not really a “home.”

At least not YET, and that’s the way I felt in 1992.

And I’ve gotta be honest with you — even 14 years later I can’t say that I much disagree with my initial impressions. Sure the baseball has been mostly lousy since 1992, but I think most of my EXPERIENCES at Camden Yards have been equally as unfulfilling and unsatisfying like the first dates you have after you’ve had a long-term relationship.

It’s just not the same.

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In baseball parlance (and can’t EVERYTHING be put into a baseball vernacular) for anyone who ever saw games at Memorial Stadium — and again, I’m sure I’m just geezing at 38 now — most would absolutely say with 100 percent conviction that “Camden Yards couldn’t hold 33rd Street’s jock!”

It would be like comparing the promise of a Jeffrey Hammonds to the production of a Frank Robinson.

Camden Yards held all the promise in the world — it was a five-tool stadium, it had everything — speed, power, average, glove and arm. But, in the end, the blue-collar, workaday grinding that a ham-and-egger like Memorial Stadium had kinda won you over with its moxie and its character and its charm.

It had that intangible quality that can’t be measured with a timepiece or a statistic or a number. It had a baseball intellect, a sixth-sense, and dare I say a “heartbeat.”

It had more “soul” than any place I’ve ever been.

Like the mantel high above 33rd Street said, “Time Will Not Dim The Glory of Their Deeds.”

Of course that was written for our American war veterans as the “Memorial” in “Memorial Stadium,” but it could hold just as true for any of us who saw any of our heroes make the memories that we would share with loved ones — father and sons,
mothers and daughters, friends and lovers, winning seasons and losing seasons, spring and fall, summer and winter.

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From Johnny Unitas at first to Brooks Robinson to Bert Jones to Cal Ripken. From Lenny Moore to Frank Robinson to Lydell Mitchell to Eddie Murray. From Don Shula to the Earl of Baltimore — she was a grand old lady on 33rd Street!

Memorial Stadium — and all it’s tentacles, from Orioles to Colts, from TV to radio, from reading about in the newspaper to taking the No. 22 bus there from Bank Street in Highlandtown — was a focal point for our families and friends to share a piece of life in a way no other place of gathering could.

It was a temple for people of all races, colors and creeds to come together as a community and worship the fact that we could all be pulling the rope in the same direction.

And isn’t that when a sports franchise — forgetting all of the bluster of economic impact and urban development — really becomes “valuable” to a community?

When it can make people throughout a given area feel connected to something that’s bigger than them?

Imagine a Baltimore without EVER having the Orioles. No Brooks…no Frank…no Boog…no Cakes…no Eddie…no Cal…no Earl!

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Imagine a Baltimore where Art Modell takes his football team to Los Angeles instead of Baltimore. No Ray Lewis…no Jon Ogden…no Brian Billick…no stadium downtown…no parade in 2001…even NO Steelers fans!

Imagine a Baltimore where the Dallas Texans stay in the Lone Star state in the early 1950’s. No Johnny Unitas…no Lenny Moore…no Artie Donovan…no Bert Jones…no Bob Irsay…no Super Bowl I or III!

Baltimore would immediately become Albuquerque. Or Des Moines. Or Fargo.

And no knocking those places because I’m sure they’re nice.

But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there with baseball and football!

What the hell kind of life would that be for people like you and me?

What “community” memories would this city have if it didn’t have sports? A 4th of July fireworks show? A glitzy New Year’s Eve show? Or maybe a lame City Fair?

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When would 70,000 people EVER get together in one place at one time for one common community cause and another million or more would be watching on TV?

For me, almost everything in my life that I would refer to as a hobby would be taken away.

One night about a year ago Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and I engaged in a deep conversation about why we love sports and where it comes from and I told him this: “You may be a gazillionaire and own the team forever but if the Ravens ever win the Super Bowl, it can’t possibly be any more joyous, emotional, spiritual and fun for you than it is for me. It just CAN’T! Because, in my mind, I OWN the team, too!”

That’s what a sports team does for the community. It gives EVERYONE from a homeless guy on the street wearing a Super Bowl sweatshirt to the owner of the team who is flying private jets and eating the best meals and is actually making money off of the endeavor — the EXACT SAME FEELING!

THEY OWN THE TEAM THAT NIGHT!

WINNING IS EUPHORIC — like no other feeling in the world!

We’re ALL wealthy and rich when our team wins. There’s just no better feeling in the world.

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I learned this best through baseball, first on television and then in person.

If you go onto my website in my hokey bio there is an equally hokey (if not hokier, if that’s a word) quote about why I first took a job in the sports media business.

“All I really wanted was a press pass to cover the All Star Game, the World Series and the Super Bowl” is what it says.

And, as silly as it may seem, it’s just VERY, VERY true.

It’s the reason I did all of this work and built this radio station. I just wanted to have a
chance to be at the big events that I always saw on TV as a kid and dreamed about attending.

I thought that those events were the ultimate stages for sports fandom. In baseball, the best of the best all gather in their colors on the first and third base lines and there before you stand the current version of the ultimate achievers in the Midsummer Classic. And, when there was no inter-league play and when you NEVER got to see Johnny Bench face Nolan Ryan or Reggie Jackson face Steve Carlton, EVERY at bat was MUST SEE TELEVISION!

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And, then as a kid, you’d think “HOW COOL WOULD IT BE TO BE THERE IN PERSON!?!?!??!” I might be sending a smattering of tickets/press passes for these events to display and add some color…

As for the World Series, the red, white and blue bunting alone would be worth the trip, no matter who was playing. Chilly weather, lights on (again…I only saw three World Series in daylight before Carlton Fisk was waving the Game 6 homer fair at Fenway Park in 1975, and I DID see it live, which my wife still thinks is pretty nifty along with the Red Sox bobblehead) and the NL best vs. the AL best. Pitchers and batters who’ve never faced each other battling for the WORLD’S championship! It’s the WORLD series! And when you’re a kid, it’s kinda like the team who wins lives in a real-life “Hall of Justice” — like a superhero would on Saturday morning TV.

Superman had NOT A THING on Reggie Jackson, who I always thought was kinda cool, even if he was a Yankee afterward.

My first World Series memories were of the 1972 Oakland A’s. Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Bert “Campy” Campaneris, John “Blue Moon” Odom (still my favorite baseball nickname that Chris Berman didn’t invent) and the straw-who-would-later-stir-the-drink, the man who sold me a thousand “Reggie” chocolate bars, No. 9. — the one and only, Reggie Jackson.

Lemme first say this: My Pop, an old-school 60-something man who stood the soup and bread lines after the Depression in Scranton, Pa., ABSOLUTELY HATED hot dogs.

And I don’t mean Esskay Oriole franks, I mean showboats, showoffs, attention-grabbers, braggers, boasters and assholes.

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Most of my childhood, I took his side in any debate. He thought Muhammad Ali was a jerk, so I did. He loved Sugar Ray Leonard, so I did.

He loved Johnny Unitas, so I did. He HATED Howard Cosell, so I LOATHED him!

HE HATED — ABSOLUTELY HATED — Reggie Jackson, thought he was the biggest jerk of all time!

But I fought the house law on Bank Street on this one.

But, once again, my Pop would be proved correct.

Mr. October and I would cross paths one day further on up on the road.

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