Saturday, August 19, 2006

For the Birds #6

The Orioles have won four in a row, the longest streak of the year, and I am beginning to see progress. They pounded the Blue Jays today, 15-0 behind a great performance by the oft-erratic Daniel Cabrera. Kevin Millar, silent with the bat for most of the year, sprang to life today with five RBIs, much to the chagrin of Red Sox fans who are reeling from three straight losses to the Yankees and need a positive force like he can be. I remember the first Blue Jay season and their early years with likes of Bob Bailor, Ron Fairly, Rico Carty and John Mayberry. They caused me great pain in 1989, when the Orioles cobbled together a cinderella season under the slogan, "Why Not?" and lost the Division lead in the last week to the Jays, loaded with Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. The Orioles had a pitcher that year named Dave Johnson, a journeyman minor-leaguer who drove a truck in the off-season, and he handcuffed the Jays for seven innings during the second game of the season-ending series, inducing pop-up after pop-up, until the Jays pulled away and clinched the division. I was in New York city that day, and ran into a Jays fan for the first time. I asked him if he clapped throughout the game like they did in Montreal and he didn't appreciate it. I also learned while living in New York that the Northern Jay can be quite aggressive, as one regularly appeared in the tree outside my window each spring to terrorize the sparrows. I hate the Skydome with its retractable roof and resent the fact that it was the venue where Alomar, in an Oriole uniform, spat upon an umpire. I consider no amount of runs sufficient in defeating them.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

For the Birds #5

This is my fifth post on the Orioles and when I see "#5" anywhere, I think of Brooks Robinson. I wore "5" and played third base when my traveling team won the Baltimore County championship at age 10. My cleats were black with orange stripes, just like the Birds. I learned to play the hot corner by watching Brooks set himself, knees bent on the balls of his feet, ready to lunge in either direction. Along with my teammates, we pretended we were Brooks or Frank or Jim Palmer--they were our role models, and, I'm pretty sure, never took steroids. They taught us how to play the game, and we bought the same gloves they used, bent our caps and wore our stirrup socks yanked up over our sanitary hose they way they did. Sometimes we kept their baseball cards in our pockets for good luck. On game days, I was dressed in full uniform at least four hours prior to the first pitch. We followed their examples and routed Woodlawn in the championship, 18-5. The Orioles defeated the Yankees today, 12-2 in the Bronx and have won their last two games against the Yankees. The rookie, Nick Markakis homered to right to give the O's a 7-2 lead. The kid has made himself into a good hitter. These two games will get me through the winter. My dad says we're three players away. I'm happy to end the season now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

For the Birds #4

Tonight, I attended a Red Sox game at Fenway park. They played the Detroit Tigers and lost 3-2 in a pitcher's duel. Curt Schilling pitched brilliantly for the Sox through six and received no support tonight, save for a Coco Crisp line drive home run. Fenway is a glorious venue for baseball, packed to capacity, and buzzing with pennant fever. The scoreboard flashed a score for the Orioles and the Yankees in the Bronx. The Orioles held a slim lead, 3-0. Detroit edged ahead of Boston 2-1, after Schilling ran out of gas, and Ortiz tied the score with a single in the 7th. To give you an idea of Schilling's mental toughness, after he gave up the two runs with none out, he struck out the side. The Yankees pushed a run across making it 3-1, Birds. Would it be possible for Erik Bedard to outduel Mike Mussina? The clear Boston night looked promising for both Boston and Baltimore. Then Detroit captured the lead in the top of the ninth. The Yankees tied the score in the Bronx which spelled certain doom for the "O's." As Todd Jones, the Tiger closer stared in at his catcher with two outs and two strikes on Willy Mo Pena, the man in the scoreboard pulled the "3" from its place next to "NY," leaving an open square for a second. The ball blew past Pena for strike three, and the "4" nestled into place for the Yankees, who distanced themselves by another game from the Sox, and look poised to enter the postseason with resilience.

For the Birds # 3

Who would have known that by age seven I would have witnessed the greatest Oriole triumph in their existence as a team, and maybe the greatest of all time as they defeated the Reds 9-5 in the 1970 World Series. I watched from the wooden bleachers in the upper deck behind home plate as Dave McNalley lofted a grand slam over the left field wall and Brooks Robinson speared line drives destined for extra bases. My dad had rescued me from second grade at Pleasant Plains Elementary. It was a crisp and beautiful day. I remember all three outs of the first inning. I'll bet McNalley hurled seven pitches at the most and all of them were crushed somewhere--two incredible stops by Brooks Robinson and one by Davey Johnson. After the game, I drank Shirley Temples at the Belvedere tavern with my father. To this day, I bleed Oriole orange.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Former baseball pitcher Don Larsen died last week and I had been thinking about him because my Italian grandmother has recently been placed in a nursing home. She no longer makes her vintage crabcakes, meatballs and sauce, or Gawoompkies, a Polish dish of bolied cabbage wrapped around ground pork. She hasn't cooked for years because of a worsening Alzheimers condition. It's gotten to the point where she can no longer take care of herself. Though she's lost her short term memory, Carolyn can easily recall baseball games from a bygone era like they took place yesterday, including Larsen's perfect game no-hitter in the 1956 World Series.

"I was scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees with the radio on," she told me. "There were no kids around and your grandfather had left for work. I had the house to myself." They lived in a modest east Baltimore home at the time and my grandfather worked for Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. "It was so exciting," she explained. "With every pitch I'm thinking, when is it going to end? I couldn't take it."

She would continue. "I like that manager the Yankees had. What was his name?" She looked at the ceiling. "Casey Stengel," I remind her. "That's right. He was one of those rugged old guys," she said. I like em like that."

When I was a young boy in her basement beauty shop, she would run in the other room when a tight Orioles game reached the ninth inning, sometimes leaving customers in her barber's chair. "I can't listen," she would say with a wave of the hands.

No one has ever pitched a no-hitter of any kind in post season play since Larsen and no one has come close to matching my grandmother's recipe for meatballs and sauce. Carolyn turns ninety years old next month and her picture, on the cover of my book, from a similar bygone era, is above.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

For the Birds # 2

My wife recently asked me, "Why do you continue to watch the Orioles? You know what's going to happen. Why do you do this to yourself?" She's right. I used to tell her, "I want to watch them now when they are bad so I can witness the progress that makes them good." That was three years ago. When you are a fan of a bad team, and the O's have stunk for nearly a decade, you remember moments, not seasons. A Brian Roberts grand slam when he was first called up to the majors in the ninth off Angels closer Troy Percival. A Rodrigo Lopez complete game win in the Bronx against the Yanks a few years back. Chris Ray's gutsy slider that froze Hideki Matsui with the bases loaded in the ninth this year, also in the Bronx. And today, a 5-0 shutout of the Yankees in Camden Yards mostly by a young pitcher named Adam Loewen. Moments, not seasons, keep me hanging on. Over this miserable span, I can see one glaring tendency. The Orioles are too nice. They have nice players: Melvin, Miggy, and Jay. They have a nice ballpark and nice fans. They have nice reporters. They even have a nice manager. When the going gets tough, they fold.

I much prefer the cavernous Memorial Stadium, a fire-brand manager like Earl Weaver, and a motley collection of prospects--scrappers, fighters, dinkballers--developed from the farm system and dedicated to winning. Part of the problem is the owner. A bloated carp who has devoured the Orioles, Peter Angelos has no intention of making this team a contender and there is no end in sight to his steady stream of asbestos winnings--so he can drive the franchise into the ground. One need not look far to see what's on the horizon. The Nationals are building the makings of a winner and will make life difficult from a market share perspective in the years ahead. The Birds are losing fans by the family load from the DC area. How are the Nationals doing it? They scrap and fight and resemble the Orioles of old. They have a manager with a mean streak, Frank Robinson, former Oriole. They have a Mt. St. Joe grad on their pitching staff--Mark O'Connor. While our scouts were busy around the globe unearthing the likes of Sydney Ponson in places like Canada and Aruba, Mt. St. Joe high school in west Baltimore produced Mark Texiera, Mark O'Connor, and Gavin Floyd. We'd be better off drafting their entire squad, that is, if we knew about their baseball program.

"I thought having an owner from Highlandtown would be the greatest thing in the world," my friend Rafael said at the Yard a few months ago. His comment caused me to remember an experience in 1999 on an elevator in Minneapolis when I ran into then Cincinnati Red, Jeffrey Hammonds. "Sorry things didn't work out for you in Baltimore," I said to him. "I was so excited when we drafted you." He was standing next to Barry Larkin who looked suprised that I noticed Jeffrey instead. "Yeah," Hammonds said, "it's a bad situation out there...and it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better."
Locations of visitors to this page