Chapter 5: The Orioles and Colts weren’t the only teams that mattered to a kid who loved Baltimore sports

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(Originally published as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout in Sept. 2006, this is Part 5 of a 19 Chapter Series on How baseball, my father and the Orioles created WNST.net. We are planning some civic action on Thursday, April 5. Please plan to join us…)

This is probably the story that I hate to admit the most on the radio. It involves youthful ignorance, disgusting twists and turns and, ultimately, I think more than just a tad bit of old-fashioned adolescent rebellion.

I don’t think anyone could ever picture me as a rebel, right?

If what I really say about comparing the Baltimore sports scene is true  — “the Ravens are my girlfriend, but the Orioles are my wife” and I DID warn you that I can find a baseball analogy for virtually ANY situation in life, or vice versa — then at one point I had a few “flings.”

A couple of those steamy, whirlwind romances that feel so good you don’t even feel GUILTY about it in the morning. It’s a “new” love, a satisfaction that only something “fresh” will give you.

My first one occurred back in the 1970’s, really the first day that the “fan” came out in the fanatic.

My Pop took me to my first Colts game on Sept. 23, 1973 to see “Broadway” Joe Namath and the New York Jets. No need to run you through the whys and wherefores of Super Bowl III (if I gotta do THAT, you probably shouldn’t be reading or hearing this!), but suffice to say this city had what my Pop would describe as a “hard on” for the Jets — to say the least!

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I was three weeks shy of my 5th birthday, so I was technically 4 years old and off to a Colts’ football game we go. Unlike my memories of my first Oriole game being a little more cloudy and distant, my recollections of my first Colts game is so vivid it’s really kinda spooky.

The Colts lost that game 34-10, and even though I don’t need to look that up, I AM staring at the program from that game just six inches to my left. The fact that I can move my left hand and touch this program and, somehow, touch my father through it and touch the smell of the air that day is incredible — a powerful, powerful thing.

But that’s just how good sports can be and why The Rally on Sept. 21st downtown is important.

On that day in September 1973, Johnny Unitas had just left, the franchise was in a shambles and the embryo that would birth an exit from Baltimore, “Tiger” Bob Irsay and his drunken ownership hijinks, was gestating. Marty Domres was the starting quarterback and Bert Jones was a puppy, but the team had the key compenents to what would go on to be a fabulous team to watch from 1975 through 1977 — a team that gave Pittsburgh and Oakland a run for their money each year as a solid AFC East team. Lydell Mitchell, Ken Mendenhall, Joe Ehrmann, David Taylor, Mike Barnes — they were all there that day.

Stan White knocked Joe Namath out of the game that day and, 33 years later, I get to compete with him every day on Baltimore radio.I just think that’s kinda cool, even if he never has! Stan White was a hero of mine as a kid because he smacked Joe Namath in the mouth (or in the case, the shoulder).

My Pop didn’t think that sucked, either!

We sat in the middle of centerfield — or at least that’s what it was to me, the bleacher seats. I thought it was kinda nifty that we got to actually WALK on the baseball field. I remember how BIG everyone was and how gigantic the stadium looked from centerfield. I remember the band and I’m sure it was the first time I ever heard the “Colts Fight Song.”

At some point during the blowout, my Pop and I left, resigned to grabbing the No. 22 bus back to Highlandtown. En route, I wanted to stop and get a souvenir. I wanted to get something that had something to do with Johnny Unitas. I didn’t really know who Johnny Unitas was but I knew he wassignificant. My Pop HATED the fact that he was gone — just HATED it — so he bought me a San Diego Chargers full-size pennant. I still have that pennant to this day — the Super Chargers 1970’s thunderbolt!

But a VERY significant thing happened at that vendor’s stand right in front of the main gate, where those bushes sat and that black fence stood.

I saw Columbia blue.

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And that was it!

My first crush came because I thought the powder blue looked cool. I was 4. I begged my Pop to buy it for me, and he probably rightfully thought that one NFL pennant on my first Colts game day was sufficient. But I put a little extra squeak behind the wheel and, he gave in and bought me my first Houston Oilers’ pennant.

Simply put: I treasured it!

I put it on the wall and it NEVER left my wall during my childhood.

I always went to Colts games — probably six a year on average from 1974 through 1983 — but the Oilers’ line on the scoreboard was ALWAYS significant to me. Love the Colts, follow the Oilers — that was the “company” line in my house. And it worked out just perfectly for me. The Colts were awesome from 1975 through 1977 and in 1978 Earl Campbell fell onboard and I rode Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Dan Pastorini, Bum Phillips AND “Luv Ya Blue” right on up to when the Colts left — which made it easier for the Oilers and I to stop seeing each other in dark alleys late at night.

When Irsay bolted for Indianapolis, the Oilers and I moved in together, shacked up, shagged our eyes out we did all through the first half of the school year every year right on up until 1996, when I traded in my silly, childhood baby blue for a more regal color: purple!

But I still feel my Pop’s pain every time I see a Mayflower truck or that picture from the snowstorm in March 1984. The Colts were his whole world for four months of the year, especially if the Orioles weren’t headed to the playoffs come August.

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Even after John Steadman would crush the league’s policy in The News Post time and again over the price of preseason football games, my Pop and I STILL went out to many preseason games because it was easy to get tickets and, even if the football stunk, we’d still rather be at Memorial Stadium hanging out than most anyplace else.

We would also take advantage of watching a cool, visiting team from the NFC that we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. I vividly remember seeing the Vikings, Bears and Falcons play in the preseason during that time!

Even then, I was bored with the Jets, Dolphins, Bills and Patriots coming to town every year.

I also vividly remember vomiting in the upper deck bathroom behind Sect. 35 before a Bears preseason game that we never made kickoff for.

The really neat thing about my Pop at that time was this: he had no other priorities in the world after work. So, if I asked my Pop if we could go to a game — any game we could take the bus to — we just went. He NEVER, EVER said “no” to going to a sporting event when I was a kid.

I had plenty of Baltimore Colts gear in the 1970s…

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As much as he didn’t really care for hockey, I remember MANY dark nights downtown in the mid 1970’s when the corner of Howard and Baltimore Streets was a much scarier place to be for a 60-ish man and his 10-year old boy. This was a few years before the Inner Harbor and tourists downtown. It was a THREATENING place (like something out of Gotham City in that first “Batman” movie), even for a little boy who felt protected by his Pop. And we waited for buses on those dark, cold corners ALL the time!

But if I wanted to see the Nova Scotia Voyagers or the Hershey Bears or the Richmond Rifles on a Tuesday night, my Pop was pretty much “in,” as long as it wasn’t too cold. But we did even do a few memorable nights in the snow.

And NOTHING stopped us from getting to the WWWF matches!

But the Oilers were my MAJOR “thing” when the Orioles weren’t playing, pretty much all of my life until that day when Art Modell showed up in Parking Lot D with the Browns in tow.

When I got into my late teens and early 20’s and finally started making a few bucks, any Oilers game within an eight-hour ride of Baltimore was fair game in the fall. The Jerry Glanville-era Oilers were a lot of fun, with Warren Moon, Mike Munchak and the run and shoot offense! I saw them play in Pittsburgh and Cleveland most every year, and had done driving road trips to Buffalo, New England, New York and Detroit as well.

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And as a kid, it was fun to have a couple of semi-successful teams to root for and follow.

I also followed and loved the Washington Bullets during that era. My Pop called Abe Pollin “Satan” and “the anti-Christ” for moving the Bullets to Largo. I don’t ever remember going to a Bullets game at the Civic Center. They left in 1973, right on that bubble where my realsports memories begin. Because my Pop didn’t drive and because there was no public transportation to Largo, I NEVER, EVER went to the Capital Centre as a small kid. So I never got to see Wes Unseld or Phil Chenier or any of those sweet Bullets teams of the late 1970’s. I only watched on Channel 20, with the rooftop antenna.

The first time I ever sat foot in the Capital Centre was in 1980, and it was for WWWF wrestling. Believe it or not, Hulk Hogan fought Bob Backlund for title that day. Hogan was a heel managed by the great “Classy” Freddie Blassie.

So for me as a kid, all of my Bullets and Capitals memories were from watching on a very grainy Channel 20 (For the record, that nerdy Captain 20 couldn’t wear WBFF’s Cpt. Chesapeake’s jock…I once met “Captain C” at the Lionel’s Kiddie City for an autograph near Eastpoint Mall…he was my main man for a number of years there in the 1970’s).

We also followed the Maryland Terps’ basketball seasons RELIGIOUSLY in my home. We never missed a game from 1973’s disappointment against N.C. State (and I remember the David Thompson busted head game vividly!) right through the Len Bias era. Those teams with Buck Williams and Albert King and Greg Manning were the best! And Terps football was kinda “there,” but they were rarely on TV, so they didn’t win my heart.

And again, my parents NEVER drove. I had no idea where Byrd Stadium even was until I got into my teens. And Cole Field House was a mythical place to me. The first time I ever went to Cole was when I drove my Pop there for a Duke-Maryland game in 1988 (we scored tickets through my connection at The Evening Sun, Molly Dunham.

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So you must remember the rule before I was 16: if the bus couldn’t take us there, it didn’t exist.

And other than a trip to Venezuela in 1972, the only place my parents ever went was to South Carolina to see my Mom’s family during the summer. And we took a Greyhound bus through all of those little southern towns just to get there. It took what felt like two days each way!

All of my late 1970’s memories of All Star Games came in Myrtle Beach in my brother’s green Prowler camper watching on a black and white TV set with rabbit ears. I always liked Ken Griffey Sr. (one of my NL favorites before I’d ever even been to an NL game), so when he won the MVP in 1980 at Dodger Stadium, I think my Pop and I celebrated by roasting marshmallows!

But we just didn’t travel at all much past Highlandtown or Essex. We didn’t even DRIVE for God’s sake!

My paternal father went back to Venezuela for good in 1978. But he showed up at my door in Colgate late one night in the summer of 1981. He left the country owing people money and stuff, so it was very unexpected.

He brought a Venezuelan friend who was a baseball scout, a really neat man named Gonzalo Contreras. My best friend at the time was Kevin Eck, who is now a sports editor at The Sun and is a world-renowned professional wrestling expert (yeah, we had that in common, too! It’s a Dundalk thing!). My “real” father who shares my name but very little else, wanted to take us to Philadelphia for a few days of baseball. Gonzalo knew Manny Trillo and Bo Diaz really well, and had tickets and the itinerary lined up.

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Funny that I can’t remember three times that I went with my paternal father to Memorial Stadium when he actually lived here, but it was nice that he included baseball on the agenda when he returned.

We took the Amtrak train from Penn Station and we stayed at the Stadium Hilton across the street from Veterans Stadium. Keep in mind that Kevin and I were both “dreamers” as kids. We had seen “Rocky” and Rocky II” so many times we could quote the lines. So, going to Philly was pretty cool for us just because of that.

And then there was the best part: we were at that age — I was 12 and he was 14 at the time — where baseball was absolutely the No. 1 thing in our lives. We played in our respective neighborhoods and lived about three miles apart. He had his league and I had mine. He had his neighborhood guys and I had mine. He had guys in Eastfield he hung out with every day of his life who I nevereven met. And their names were legendary in his neighborhood. And I had the same deal in Colgate.

And we were best friends — chased girls, listened to Rush albums, the whole nine. We went to college apart but rarely did a day pass when we didn’t chat. About life and dreams and plans and traveling and being sportswriters (we BOTH succeeded in our dreams and he even worked in the wrestling business as a magazine editor for a few years!) We went to concerts together, games together, went through life together, really! The Ocean City trips, the Vegas and California trips, the parties, every girl, every beer, the good times and the bad ones and a zillion laughs, funny pictures and zany stories.

But you wanna know how we met?

You guessed it, baseball!

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During the summer of 1979 several Orioles players signed autographs at the Games store at Eastpoint Mall. I lived right across the street and when an Oriole came to the mall, well, there’s NOWHERE else on earth you could possibly want to be. Billy Smith was signing autographs one Saturday afternoon in August from 11 to 1 (Al Bumbry, Rich Dauer and Scott McGregor were all there that summer too!). Kevin was in line to get an autograph and he was wearing a San Diego Padres hat and I’d never seen one anywhere but on This Week In Baseball and on those crazy split-personality Washington/San Diego 1974 cards with Willie McCovey and Dave Winfield and Randy Jones. They had the coolest mustard yellow and brown color pattern — either the most disgusting, or most beautiful, baseball uniform of all time, depending on your taste.

My Pop’s closest sister, my Aunt Jane, lived in San Diego, which seemed like only the most exotic place ever. I had never been, but had heard and seen how nice it was on TV. And even though I had only met my Aunt Jane once, I knew she LOVED the Padres.

We started chatting and I’m sure I was completely obnoxious in whatever I said. But three weeks later, we realized we were in the same homeroom and in virtually every class together in 7th grade — even home economics (we didn’t have middle school, we had “junior high” in Dundalk in 1979). And of course, I didn’t remember him on sight but he knew me: “Hey,” he said, “you were that obnoxious guy from the mall a few weeks ago and I was the kid with the Padres hat!”

So two years later, in the summer of 1981, we were confirmed lifelong best friends and sports, wrestling and rock music were the glue of our friendship (until girls came along, of course).

And here we were in Philadelphia actually seeing NATIONAL LEAGUE baseball for the first time. It was really kind of like losing our virginity!

We were standing at the gates to Veterans Stadium before they opened. We walked over to the Spectrum to survey a real, big-city Arena — the temple where our heroes played. AC/DC, Rush, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin — all the big bands played there. And when they weren’t there, “Dr. J,” Julius Erving, the star of “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” was inside performing with “Chocolate Thunder” and the rest of the fabulous Philadelphia 76ers!

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And, the Broad Street Bullies also got rowdy there on occasion (although Kevin, like most of this city, could care less about then NHL…but at least I thought it was cool). Out in front there was a statue of Rocky Balboa (really it was Sylvester Stallone, but I was 12 years old!).

We were in the center of a boys’ dream universe, circa 1981!

If could have plopped my bedroom down someplace in a dream world, it would have been at the corner of Broad and Pattison in south Philly. Everything you could possibly want — baseball, football, basketball, hockey, pro wrestling AND the world’s biggest rock bands would all be coming through at some point soon.

Again, I was a dreamer!

The Houston Astros were in town — J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz — and we went up for a weekend series that was a grudge match from the tight and contested 1980 NLCS.

My Dad brought me autographs from Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton — all the big names on Stadium Hilton hotel pads notebook paper. I still have them!

But the biggest thing that happened was my purchase of a maroon Phillies warmup T-shirt (think about Pete Rose and what he would wear in warm-ups as a Phillie then) in the Stadium Hilton gift shop. At the game that weekend, the Phillies had a giveaway — I was presented with a “classic” Richie Ashburn “Daddy-O” cap upon entering the stadium. After 13 years of knowing nothing but the Orioles and Junior circuit, I discovered the joys of National League baseball.

It was all so exotic, and different, and after watching the National League on TV all those years and only being able to see a Saturday game of the week or the rare Monday Night baseball game with the Dodgers or Cubs or Cardinals, this was the real deal!

Baseball the way God meant for it to be played!

In a circular concrete stadium! With bright day-glow green Astroturf! And exploding scoreboards that sat in right field! The giant Liberty Bell on the centerfield roof. And pitchers got to hit (keep in mind, I was born in 1968 — I have no recollection of American League life before the DH). And they had ALL the players I’d only got to see on baseball cards and in Baseball Digest and The Sporting News.

Steve Garvey, Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose — all of the stars I got to see play on TV in Octobers and in the All Star Game in that camper in South Carolina, actually PLAYED at Veterans Stadium.

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The linchpin in the whole deal was probably the Phabulous Phanatic, who rode on that four-wheel maniac machine across that beautiful bright green carpet and tortured all umpires and any player not wearing burgundy and white. He never stuck his nose out at me, but I always wish he would have.

The Phanatic is, and always will be, the greatest mascot in the history of sports!

So, sadly, in a turn of childish behavior and rebellion, I became a Phillies fan and all I wanted to do was go to Philadelphia and see NL teams play. I got there once a year until I learned to drive in 1984 and then I did at least a half dozen games a year until they ripped The Vet down.

And I just loved NL ball — the pitcher hitting, the strategy, the different brand of baseball and the fact that the games actually ended inside of three hours.

Honestly, at that point, how many more Indians or Brewers or Royals games could I see on 33rd Street? I wanted diversity. I wanted something different. In my petulant childish way, I wanted interleague play!

Again, I was just a stupid kid!

I had no idea that the idiot adults would actually AGREE with me a decade later.

But it’s like my Mom said: “Be careful what you wish for!”

I wished for interleague play as a child and ten years later, I still think it’s the worst thing baseball ever did, interleague play!

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