Chapter 4: Got any 33rd Street memories? Time will not dim the glory of mine – or yours!

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(Originally published in Sept. 2006 as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout, this is Part 4 of a 19 Chapter Series on how baseball and the Orioles created WNST.net.)

So, today I wanted to write and think about and talk about Memorial Stadium and 33rd Street and the wonder of baseball as a child in Baltimore.

Thirty-third street. The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum. The memories, the stories, the things we saw and experienced, the words we said and heard, and the people we shared it all with.

At the end of the day, Memorial Stadium was about people.

But, honest to God, I don’t know where to begin!

Look I don’t want to get too deep, but go ahead and show me a place where more people in this community have gone, worshipped without regard to race, color, creed, religion — and all came together in a common civic bond. There were only two colors that ever mattered on 33rd Street. Orange in the spring and summer; blue from fall through the cold of winter and that was that!

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As for its significance and impact on our community, there must’ve been a reason why grown men wept in the aisles there on Oct. 6, 1991 when the Orioles walked away from 37 years of history on 33rd Street. Or literally, a MILLION different reasons to ponder, reflect and pay tribute to the good times of our lives, especially for those who experience our lives through this prism that is “sports” over the last century.

Memorial Stadium is one of those places: if you were ever there and experienced any of the “Oriole Magic” then you just know what I’m talking about. And if you weren’t, there isn’t a columnist alive or any old grainy clip or any soundtrack that could ever make it as vivid and real and clear as it is to the rest of us who felt “The Magic.”

As it turned out, that giant sign with the steely letters was indeed prophetic. Major League Baseball has been gone for 15 years now and the sign said it all:

“Time Will Not Dim The Glory Of Their Deeds!”

So, instead of getting even more poetic, I’ll just tell you a few of my favorite stories.

Hopefully, they’ll remind you of yours.

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And, hopefully, these incredible memories will trigger a voice pulling you downtownon Sept. 21 in our rally to FREE THE BIRDS!

Following the early 1970’s Aparicio stuff with the Red Sox, my favorite nights at 33rd Street were in the earliest incarnation of what would become the Camden Yards “club level” snobbery.
My Uncle Nelson, one of my Venezuelan relatives, worked at Chesapeake Cadillac. His son, Nelson Jr. (we called him Nelcito) was my best friend, like a big brother to me when I was that age. Once a year, Uncle Nelson would get the company “box” in Sect. 5 and we’d all go to the game. It was literally a box with railings, kinda like a horse-racing track has or R.F.K. Stadium still has them for you “young’ins.” It was a few rows behind the Orioles third-base dugout. The night I’ll never forget was the night he had tickets in the summer of 1975 when the Indians were coming to 33rd Street with Boog Powell in the other dugout for the first time. I was geeked up, sitting so close to Brooks Robinson that I could’ve played catch with him from our seat.

Of course, I ordered a 7-UP — they always were TOTALLY watered down and they came in those green cups with a tiny cellophane wrap that you had to peel the top off of gently. I took one swig and the notorious 33rd Street killer bees came after me. I got stung on the hand, blew up like beached whale and wound up leaving the game before the fourth inning. So much for those great seats! I opted to be a bleacher bum after that.

The only other time I can ever really remember having a really good seat at 33rd Street for an Orioles game was in the Spring of 1979.

For my Pop and I, going to an Orioles game wasn’t a “special” occasion. Heck, I had friends in the neighborhood that loved baseball and didn’t have a father who would ever take them to a game. Some of my friends had NEVER, EVER even been to see the Orioles play at Memorial Stadium, but still watched on TV and played Little League.

After an exhaustive search, I have come to realize that I have ZERO pictures of my Dad and I at 33rd Street. ZERO! It just never occurred to us to take pictures at an Orioles game.

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Going to Memorial Stadium was something we just did — like going to the mall or something — a major part of our lives and our family. It wasn’t a “special” occasion like a birthday party or Christmas where you took pictures.

My Pop would’ve made fun of me if I had taken a camera to a game, like a Sunday tourist. He would tell me to bring my glove to the game instead, and even that annoyed him after a while because I’d make him “glove sit” while I ran around the ballpark looking for “Wild” Bill Hagy.

Sometimes Mark Elliott and I would play “aluminum foil” ballgames against the wall behind Sect. 16 and we’d always smash mustard packets on the ground with our heels and do the “cup pop,” where you folded down the ends and — “BANG” — the sound was thunderous, especially if you went up to the green lower reserved seats under the overhang.

“You wanna horse around, I’ll leave you home next time,” my Pop would bellow. “If I bring you to the game then you’re gonna watch the game or I’ll come by myself next time.”

But for my Mom, anytime she was going to the game it WAS a special occasion.
I can probably remember 10 or 15 games when my Mom went to the games with us, but there were only two times when she and I went together, alone, just the two of us.

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They were both in 1979 and, being the young opportunist,  I absolutely milked it.

My Dad was working a Sunday shift — when you worked at the ‘Point you got like double time for working Sundays and holidays, so he was making some extra money — and my Mom and headed out to the ballpark.

She didn’t know any better, so when she asked where I wanted to sit, I said, “Let’s get box seats, Mom!”

Next thing I know, I’m sitting in the terrace box seats right behind home plate, Sect. 40. Dennis Martinez threw a five-hit shutout against the California Angels on that Sunday in May 1979. You can look it up!

The other time my Mom went with me, we wound up sitting up in Sect. 34 (another place my Dad would NEVER venture with me, but he did allow me to run up for one inning, usually early in the game and it was always fun running up the ramps and looking out and seeing Eastern High School through the fence along the wall.) It was during a very lengthy rain delay on a Saturday night later in 1979 and was the night the O’s clinched the AL East, but they backed in because the Red Sox lost that afternoon. Kinda anti-climatic! And I think my Mom smelled marijuana that night and thought it best that we sit “where Pop sits with you.”

Actually I had smelled marijuana once before — at the Colts game on Monday Night Football against my Houston Oilers the night before Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States.

But it’s not like I have a vivid memory of my childhood or anything, right?

The summer of 1979 was the greatest summer of my life.

It started on the second day of the season — Safety Day, and I was in the sixth grade at Colgate Elementary at the time — and it was the day that my favorite new Oriole Gary Roenicke was hit in the face with a Larrin LaGrow wild pitch. After that, he wore a football-style facemask the remainder of the season and that made me like him more — “Rhino,” and he looked kinda like one too!

My Pop and I went to 46 games that season, including Game 2 of the World Series, where the late game time put me to sleep out in left field (lower reserved, obstructed view — hey somebody had to sit behind the poles!) somewhere around the sixth inning.

I’m going to share this one more time, because I’ve told the story a lot over the years.

I went to 31 consecutive games that summer before the Orioles lost, which has to make me eligible for the Guinness Book of World Records. I was 31-0 going to games at Memorial Stadium that summer before I finally suffered my first loss of the season when Chicago’s Steve Trout threw a six-hit shutout in August.

It was just an uncanny, unbelievable run.

There was one night early on, in May I think, when my Dad begged me to go to a game to see the Brewers play. And despite the fact that Sixto Lezcano was there (he was my favorite player from 1976 to about 1982), I told him that the Orioles were going to lose. Not only was my Pop subjected to a one-hour rain delay — and I, to this day, STILL despise rain delays — the Orioles also lost that night. He took our neighbor Mark Elliott, who was a frequent companion of ours at O’s games (but my Pop would take any kid to the game as long as they had their parent’s permission). They both suffered their first loss of the year and I rode it out another two months before I fell.

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But the memories are still etched in my mind, everything about that season. There was the night my Junior Orioles name was picked to go to the Hit and Run Club to meet and get an autograph from the biggest star of the game. Turned out Kiko Garcia got the game-winning hit against the Red Sox and I still have the autographed little 3X5 card. I was actually a two-time winner through the Junior Orioles — I once got to sweep the bases in 1975 when the Texas Rangers were in town and Frank Lucchesi gave me a hard time and chased me on the field. I got to keep the broom. It had a long orange handle and black bristles and it was the same ones the sexy ballgirls used to sweep the bases on other games.

I was never a big autograph hound as a kid, but I did get a name scribbled sometimes when the mood struck me. I’ll never forget my first football autograph, signed by the great Joe Ehrmann at J.C. Penney’s second floor sporting goods shop in 1977. He came out on a weeknight, shook my hand and still does whenever I see him.

My first baseball autograph was, of course, Brooks Robinson, also at Eastpoint Mall at the sporting goods store at Hochschild Kohn’s on the second floor (I think the store was called the Brooks Robinson store!). He signed his book, “Third Base is My Home,” for me one Saturday afternoon. I must’ve been about 6 at the time and I still have that book.

The only autograph I remember my Pop getting was that of Scott McGregor, who also signed autographs at Eastpoint Mall at the Games store. McGregor, without a doubt, was my Pop’s favorite player of that generation of the Orioles and it made him doubly happy No. 16 was on the hill when they finally won the World Series in Philadelphia in 1983. But 1979 was MY summer. The memories still flood back to me 27 summers later.

The night John Lowenstein did his best faux-World Cup injury move, reaching skyward with the thumbs up from the stretcher. My Pop and I were there.

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The night Doug DeCinces hit that famous Charley Eckman-called home run against the Tigers in Game 1 of the doubleheader. My Pop and I were there.

The night that that players all came out of the shower — Dennis Martinez and Doug DeCinces were in street clothes — and did the “Wild” Bill Hagy O-R-I-O-L-E-S cheer from the home plate area led by Rick Dempsey. We were in the house!

The many nights Dempsey went crazy in the bullpen with the towel. That rocking, jolting bounce the whole building got when Hagy led us! The “Roar from 34” would literally hurt your ears. I always thought it would have been so cool to live in the neighborhood around the stadium. I always begged my Pop to move into that neighborhood, because there was really never a game I didn’t want to go to.

We got to the ballpark early every night, watched batting practice and absolutely TORTURED the visiting leftfielder once the game started. Most nights my older neighborhood pal Charles Pearcy (he was kinda the white Fat Albert of our neighborhood — great guy, loved by all, loved baseball) and I had insults for Lou Piniella, Bombo Rivera and Willie Wilson that would have made Robin Ficker’s ears bleed.

Even though “Rhino” was my favorite Oriole in that “Magic” summer of 1979 — I only had two autographs on my Tom Seaver-styled Rawlings glove — Mrs. Debbie Roenicke and “Wild” Bill Hagy.

The teams that came into Memorial Stadium were always so exotic and so faraway feeling.

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Those early 1970’s Oakland A’s teams with white shoes, yellow polyester pullovers and all of those star players — Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, John “Blue Moon” Odom, Ken Holtzman, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris and Rollie Fingers.

They were the first team I was ever willed to hate! I remember the pain on my Pop’s face when he bought me an A’s batting helmet (remember those crazy little plastic hats?) to complete my collection. The guy actually charged MORE for the hat: first, because we bought it and it was almost treason, and second because everyone wanted that disco-looking Kelly green and gold. It would go on to be a significant sports color pattern for me: my Pop Warner football team’s colors (we were the Packers, basically) and high school colors at Dundalk High were green and gold.

In the mid 1970’s, I always liked seeing the California Angels come to town because they had Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana, and my then-favorite player, Bobby Valentine.

One time my Pop took me to the ballpark against his will to see Valentine play, just to shut me up. (He’d later get stuck doing this with Sixto Lezcano as well, every time the Milwaukee Brewers would come to town).

Valentine thanked me by getting thrown out in the top of the FIRST inning by arguing balls and strikes. Every time I’ve ever been in a room with him, he talks to me and we laugh about it.

I must’ve wanted a brick pretty bad, because one time early on — let’s say 1974 or so — I cracked my head open on the cement portals trying to cut the corner tight (and remember those goofy, one-inch steps the joint had?). I got stitched up in the first aid office and they brought me a bag of cool Orioles stuff to take home. I still have a feint scar near my eye from the facer I took into the wall.

So, I suppose I have an actual “war wound” from Memorial Stadium. That’s even better than a brick, I think!

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Not everything about baseball was fun or limited to 33rd Street.

I was with my paternal grandfather in the car the day Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. The Orioles were the first team to play the Yanks after his death.

The experience of going to 33rd Street wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tell you the most fun part that didn’t include the stadium at all.

Taking the No. 22 bus outta Highlandtown from Bank Street behind Epstein’s was an adventure onto itself. The bus rides were legendary in one way or another.

Drunks, fans, kids, people just trying to get home from shopping or work. I saw it all. And again, my parents NEVER, EVER drove, so the bus was a very routine part of our lives. Later in the 70’s, My Pop and I both had Mass Transit Administration monthly passes and he bought them the first of every month at the Hochschild Kohn’s at Eastpoint Mall.

First we’d walk up to Eastern Avenue and grab the No. 23 bus and we’d get off on the first stop through the bridge in Highlandtown, across from Goldenberg’s.

Every night I’d work to carve my name on the red brick wall on Bank Street before we grabbed the No. 22. Maybe I oughta go over there and see if it’s still there?

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We’d go to G&A Coney Island Hot Dogs and load up. Or we’d stop into Rivera’s Pizzeria, still the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, probably because I can’t have it anymore. He had the game on the radio EVERY night, he had Orioles posters and pennants and schedules behind the oven (probably a fire code violation!) and he’d stay open a little later knowing that people would be getting off at the end of the bus line in front of Zang’s Bar. He had this amazing yodel in his Italian voice. To this day I can emulate him, hear his voice, see his face.

“Daaaaa, Oooooooodddiooos,” he would shout. “Deeeey a NOOOOO goooowddd! Paaaalllma….ahhhh, yaahhhh, yahhhh…Weeeevaaaa, he a NOOOOOO goooooowddd! Ebbbbbaaaareeeeebooooody lovvvvvaaah daa Oooooooooodddios!”

What a character! And man could that old man spin a pizza!

There was this crazy great candy store on Conkling Street in Highlandtown that had all sorts of goodies, kinda like the candy store in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It always made me want to break into a chorus of “The Candy Man” and look for Gene Wilder around each corner in Highlandtown.

Or sometimes — but very rarely — we’d go to Gino’s on the corner. That was ALWAYS reserved for nights when my parents and I piled onto the No.10 bus on Eastern Avenue en route to the WWWF matches with Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund. Wrestling and the NFL were without question my other loves, but there was nothing but baseball and Memorial Stadium and the Orioles from April 1 through my birthday, when the LCS was ending or the World Series was beginning.

And those days were awesome!

I would literally run up my street from the bus stop on the days when the AL and NL Championships Series were being played at 3 p.m. in the late 70’s when the Yankees, Royals, Phillies, Reds and Dodgers were always playing tight, well-played games.

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Look I could sit here all day and recount Memorial Stadium memories.

We all can.

I think that’s the point.

The night Tippy picked off three. Something special that happened during “Why Not?” in 1989. The Fan Appreciation Miracle Night from 1988 that we’re trying to somehow, someway, reenact at The Rally on Sept. 21 at 4:05 against the Detroit Tigers.

Thanks Brooks Day (I was there, Sect. 16). Thanks Palmer Day (I watched on TV and listened to Barbra Streisand!). Thanks Earl Day, which was one of the worst days of my life after seeing Don Sutton beat Jim Palmer for the 1982 AL East title. I watched that one on TV from the Bolk’s house across the street because I couldn’t get a ticket and my Pop was not the kind of guy who could ever afford a scalper ticket!

He really did enjoy the games on TV and radio every bit as much as going to the game, and it was free and easy. It wasn’t a loyalty issue — he loved the Orioles all the same as long as he could follow the game and keep score.

Whatever your “special” day was in Memorial Stadium lore, today is a day to think about it and what baseball means to us — all of us as a community.

We want to create one more great memory and make a grand statement about Baltimore baseball in 2006 and what we’re going to tolerate and accept and demand for our community.

I hope you’re circling Sept. 21 on your calendar and I hope we get to say hello one more time as a community downtown.

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