Chapter 6: Baseball punched me a ticket to see The World

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(Originally posted as a prelude to the “Free The Birds” walkout in Sept. 2006, this is Part 6 of a 19 Chapter Series on How Baseball and the Orioles berthed WNST.net.)

One day my Pop came home from work in the Spring of 1983 and during dinner announced that we should go on a vacation in the upcoming summer.

Other than Venezuela in 1972, when we took my lone airplane ride, and Disney World in 1978 when we took Amtrak, I had never been much past Ocean City (I had only been there a handful of times because my Uncle Omar had a joint on 28th Street Bayside behind the Jolly Roger amusement park).

We usually just went “home” to South Carolina to visit my Mom’s family and chilled while she visited all her old neighbors and friends. My Pop and I would spend those summer days almost entirely at the Abbeville Civic Center. It wasn’t at all like OUR Baltimore Civic Center with seats and stuff. It was just a little gym with a lobby and my Pop and I would shoot baskets for hours in that hotbox gym. There wasn’t anything else to do in the tiny little South Carolina town. All of my relatives were older than my Mom and she’s now 87. So every one of them was well into their 70’s then and have since passed away.

My Aunt Earline made eggs and bacon and biscuits in the morning and fried chicken in the afternoon. Her sister, my Aunt Edna — she was a cool old lady, she took me to the NWA wrestling matches in Greenwood, S.C. one night! — made the world’s best chocolate fudge (I recently found the recipe!) and fresh peach ice cream in a churn for dessert on alternating days. We picked pecans off the tree in the back yard on Ellis Street and tossed them into a batch of that incredible fudge. And I would throw a super-sized Superball (they were bigger than the normal ones and very rock solid) against the siding of my Aunt Eleanor’s house up the street, pretending I was Nolan Ryan when I wasn’t in that hot gym.

That was vacation for me. There were no other kids, and the black/white thing in Abbeville, S.C., even then in the late 1970’s, was kind of in the backdrop as well. I ran around, dreamed and chased these weird, techni-color grasshoppers they had all over the place.

Kind of Napoleon Dynamite pathetic, huh?

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But it’s really true, as I look back upon it.

I was bored as hell (except when my Aunt Edna was involved) and all I really wanted to do was stay at home in Colgate and play baseball on the church lot with my friends, anyway. But I did get to eat some great food in South Carolina. And, one time, a pretty Southern girl painted an orange Clemson paw print on my face at a park called Hickory Knob State Park!

So, when my Pop announced a chance at a trip, he looked to me. I was 14, it was the summer of 1983 and where would I want to go or what would I want to do?

Clearly, it had to involve baseball. And if involved baseball in 1983, it definitely involved the Philadelphia Phillies.

I had full-fledged Phillies fever and was about to get “filly fever” as well once the girls caught up the fact that I’d discovered them. I was a true-powder-blue road uniform wearing, bubble P loving, Michael Jack Schmidt butt-kissing Phillies Phanatic. And I spell that with a PH, dammit!

I listened to every game that I could on WCAU from Philly. I wore that crazy Richie Ashburn red hat everywhere I went — just loved that thing in junior high. I wore it to the skating rink, to school, in every class (some teachers let me wear…some didn’t!). I was probably a bigger pain in the ass than you can ever imagine, if you can imagine that!

No one HATED my hat any more than Shonda Brewer, who would become Shonda Schilling 10 years later, wife of Phillies’ ace, Curt Schilling. I would wear it into her kitchen every morning to pick her up for school en route to the bus stop. Her mom would always be cooking something good (she was Southern too, so it was sausage, bacon, that sorta thing) and Shonda would throw my hat, pick on me or try to make me take it off.

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Of course, that wasn’t the case at the 1993 World Series!

So, here was my Pop writing a blank check for the summer of 1983.

But we did have a budget for the intended trip and I had some gentle “guidelines.”

The first thing I did was finding the Phillies’ schedule and went to work on where we’d go. I researched cities everywhere in the National League. We couldn’t really do California because of the airplane expense, but if we could take the Trailways or Greyhound bus, it was acceptable.

I was trying to find doable cities that were close together, where I could see a couple of stadiums.

Again, at this point in my life ANY place outside of Abbeville, S.C. would seem exotic so the thought of another MLB stadium — and to me stadiums and arenas at that time were absolute shrines, temples of the highest architecture and homes to the biggest events and entertainers in the world — was just divine, a perfect summer vacation.

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We settled on this itinerary: we would take the Greyhound bus overnight to St. Louis, where the Phillies were playing the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in a three-game weekend set. Then we’d go over to Kansas City to see them host the reigning AL-champion Milwaukee Brewers at Royals Stadium.

This served a LOT of purposes. I got to travel and stay in a real hotel, which I thought put me right there with James Bond, or better, The Fonz. I got to actually use the Rand McNally atlas that I bought two years earlier at the Waldenbooks at Eastpoint Mall when I wanted to see how far Cleveland and Pittsburgh were from Baltimore because I wanted to see the Oilers play. I got to see National League baseball. I got to see the Phillies, which was the coolest thing ever. Steve Carlton pitching, Mick Schmidt hitting, Pete Rose playing first base, the works!

I got to see two new stadiums — and a bonus — stadiums where the World Series was played in both 1980 and 1982. I got to see the Gateway Arch, which looked like the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life on TV and in pictures (and it’s still pretty cool, when you think about it!). My Pop got to tour the Budweiser brewery and get free samples. My Mom didn’t think that sucked, either. But my Mom was most enthralled with the concept of fountains at Royals Stadium. She always watched the Royals-O’s games on Channel 2 and raved about those “pretty” fountains.

For me, going to Kansas City allowed me to exercise my “man crush” on George Brett, who was my favorite post-Lezcano player and whose batting stance I emulated because my Pop was a Charlie Lau devotee. My Pop actually bought the Ted Williams’ “Science of Hitting” book and USED IT!

And for my Pop, there was — of course — the Stan Musial “thing.”

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If Ted Williams wasn’t the greatest baseball player ever, you’d sure have a hard time convincing my Pop — unless of course, you wanted to make an argument for Musial.

So, the entire Musial manifesto (complete with statue) was on full display at the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame underneath Busch Stadium and we lost almost a full day there. We even ran into Tony Perez (now a very borderline Hall of Famer) walking the streets during lunchtime and we got an autograph.

Once we arrived at our hotel (it was a big circle Rodeway Inn at the edge of town) we bought The St. Louis Dispatch, the local newspaper. I was, even then, a newspaper FANATIC. EVERYWHERE I WENT, I ALWAYS clipped newspapers and saved them. Our relatives sent them from around the country. I just thought they were neat and exotic, because they were from San Diego, California or Galveston, Texas (we had distant relatives there, too) or wherever really. I remember buying a newspaper in Goldsboro, N.C., en route to Myrtle Beach just so I could keep clip out the banner on the front page.

I peeled open The Dispatch to the sports section and there it was — the answers to all of my prayers come true.

It was a bold, large ad for NWA Wrestling TONIGHT at the world-famous Kiel Auditorium.

Ok. Maybe I’ve downplayed my wrestling addiction a bit here. I was a wrestling nut, probably at my zenith as MUCH if not MORE than I was a baseball geek.

Wrestling didn’t have an offseason, like the other sports. There was no rest for these great athletes, competitors and warriors! The squared circle didn’t take a day off!

And once you got addicted to the “crack-like” wrestling fanzines (we called them magazines but whose kidding whom, right?), it was done. There were distant federations with exotic wrestlers. There were “World Champions” other than just Bob Backlund. Guys like Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkle.

I knew, ’cause I read about it in Inside Wrestling. Or The Wrestler. Or Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I subscribed to them all, even the ones with those wacky and phony apartment house wrestling, which I’m now convinced was the precursor to internet porn!

My Aunt Clara (my Mom’s youngest sister, who has lived in Newark, Del., for 50 years and STILL maintains the most Southern accent you’ll ever hear) sent me Ranger Rick for about five wasted years in the early 1970’s. Around 1977, my Mom just told her sister, “You might as well just get him the wrestling magazines. These hunting and fishing books are just lying around here unopened.”)

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So we ditched our baseball tickets that we bought weeks before to the concierge and we went down to the “World Famous” Kiel Auditorium that night and it was incredible. Somehow we nailed fabulous seats at the box office and on the card were most of my fantasy “magazine” legends: Harley Race would be taking on this young blond hotshot named Ric Flair, for Race’s NWA Title. I had always wanted to see Ric Flair wrestle and he had never been to Baltimore. (Georgia Championship Wrestling and the NWA would invade Baltimore about two years later!)

I waited outside the arena with my camera as the wrestlers got out of their limousines and taxis. There was Baron Von Raschke (he was my favorite bad guy, with the claw), Black Jack Mulligan, Tony Atlas and Ronnie Garvin. And last but not least, there was Hulk Hogan, who was just getting famous through his role as “Thunderlips” in Rocky III and was about to become the biggest star in the industry.

I knew about him for years and had seen him wrestle against Bob Backlund during that first Capital Centre event. But he was absolutely larger than life to me on that St. Louis side street next to the Kiel that night.

And I couldn’t WAIT to get home to show my best pal Kevin Eck the pictures!

We trudged on to Kansas City and saw Royals Stadium (my photo album has about 50 pictures of George Brett and another 50 of those lighted fountains because my Mom couldn’t stop taking pictures of them!) and ate big steaks and took that horribly long Greyhound bus ride home from Missouri.

And that whole trip really happened because of baseball and my love of baseball.
It remains to this day, the best trip I ever went on because it was the first time I’d ever really gone anywhere.

That trip launched a THOUSAND plane rides for me, more hotel rooms, delayed flights, ballgames and maps than I can count, really.

But that trip opened my eyes to the possibilities of the world, and more specifically the SPORTS world. There was indeed travel, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, baseball and a whole giant world beyond Colgate, and of course, Highlandtown. And I NEVER see a Greyhound bus that doesn’t remind me of my Mom, Pop and I rolling across the Midwest to see baseball in 1983.

And now looking back on it, it was really the first of only two “exotic” things I ever did with my folks as they were getting older. There was that other time we went to Florida and Disney World in 1978.

We finally went to California in 1985, right after my son was born and I graduated from Dundalk High School. My Pop and I got to see Tony Gwynn play at Jack Murphy Stadium and he finally got to go to a Padres game with his sister, Jane, who would go on to be my all-time favorite relative.

We then went up to Los Angeles and my Pop and I sat in the right field bleachers at Dodger Stadium and watched Rick Sutcliffe of the Cubs deal on Monday Night Baseball. It was a 5:15 start in L.A. traffic. I was 16 and driving my Pop up the hill at Chavez Ravine in a big rental car (My Aunt Jane fudged the rental car agreement so I could drive up to Los Angeles). We had seats in a TOTAL Mexican section. There was one guy who brought an absolutely GIGANTIC boombox and had it under the seat booming the dulcet tones of Jaime Jarin doing Dodgers baseball in espanol.

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It was like an International experience for me!

Keith Moreland hit a home run that landed a row in front of us.

We ate Dodger dogs and two-bagger peanuts and a chocolate malt with the “ahh” stick attached to it!

It was just me and my Pop at Dodger Stadium in the cheap seats. My Pop must’ve talked about the 1966 World Series a hundred times that night, recounting the memories of Koufax and Drysdale and the Orioles kicking their asses 19 years earlier.
He was so proud of that ’66 Orioles team!

They were some good times, man!

I can smell that thick, smoggy California air. I can still see the line in traffic in front me on the Interstate 5 going south back to our hotel in the ghetto of East L.A. that night. I can still see my Pop with the map on his lap telling me what freeway to take to get back to our hotel.

And it was all about baseball.

Everything in the world — including my relationship with my Pop — was made better by baseball.

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