Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bleeding Orange, 1970

This essay appears in a recently published broadside called SONS of CRABTOWN which includes the work of Baltimore writers Rafael Alvarez ("The King of a Rainy Kingdom"), Jason Tinney ("The Best of What They've Got") and Eric Mithen. If you would like a print copy, send an email with your address to

I recorded my first baseball memory on October 16, 1969.

Sitting alone in the clubhouse of my apartment complex, I watched the last inning of the World Series against the Mets. I was six years old. My father and mother were both at work. All my friends had gone outside to play with Mrs. Domenico, the day care monitor.

My dad had introduced me to the Orioles by taking me to a World Series game against the Dodgers in 1966, but I didn’t remember it.

The clubhouse TV was bigger than any I’d ever seen and the picture was in color. I knew the Orioles had lost when Mets fans streamed onto the field. When Cleon Jones gloved the final out, my world changed. I started crying. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

A few months later, my parents separated and would eventually divorce. After a night of fighting, they came into my room and explained that it was for the best. My mom went back to college at Morgan State to finish her degree and took a job as a waitress at the Flaming Pit. My dad left his sales position at Esso to pursue his true passion: coaching basketball.

Their arguments stopped and my mother started dating a man named Mr. Sawicki who, until his recent separation, had lived with his family in the apartment below us. I knew things had changed when he appeared in a robe one morning for breakfast.

My younger brother Brendan suffered from asthma attacks. On several occasions, Mom stayed up with him through the night, cradling him in the shower steam. In the hospital waiting room, I absorbed his screams as the doctor pricked his arms with dozens of needles. Missing my father, I lay awake most nights listening to my brother wheeze in the bottom bunk. And dreamt about the Baltimore Orioles.

The 1970 baseball season approached with the promise of Frank Robinson, Brooks, Jim Palmer, Boog, McNally and Paul Blair taking the field under the direction of Earl Weaver.

When the schedule came out, I counted the number of televised games on WJZ-TV. During the season, I sat transfixed for nine innings in front of a black-and-white TV or next to a small black Zenith radio with a gold speaker listening to the play-by-play of Chuck Thompson. I would only get up if I had to go to the bathroom. If the game was close, I would hold it for as long as I could. In the mornings, I was the first one to grab the Sunpaper and check the score.

Each morning after a game, beneath the Vietnam War headlines of B-52 air strikes, a cartoon Bird indicated how the O’s had fared by it’s expression. He smiled 108 games in 1970, with 40 of those wins by a single run.

I learned verbs such as “clout,” “rout,” “pillage” and “demolish.” The Birds also “nipped,” “edged,” and “squeaked by” their opponents in the one-run affairs. The sports page greatly accelerated my reading ability.

My mother was falling in love with the man downstairs and it wasn’t long before Mr. Sawicki started living with us in our second floor Courthouse Square apartment. I hated the idea of anyone other than my father being with us. Sawicki worked at Proctor & Gamble and drove a brown Mach One with thick black striping. His brown hair was long and curly and at one point it was in a perm as many men were doing that in those days including Joe Pepitone of the Yankees. His two daughters lived downstairs.

The car was cool, but he wasn’t my dad.

I immersed myself in the Baltimore Orioles. When spring training began, I adopted them as surrogate parents. I memorized the roster down to utility players like Curt Motton and Chico Salmon. The Orioles theme song stressed that the Orioles were father and son, having fun, together. Following the Orioles kept me close to my dad. The Orioles made me forget Mr. Sawicki. And they taught me how to play the game.

There was only one problem. I didn’t own a glove.

With my dad coaching the University of Baltimore Bees hoops team and my mother’s long-term law school aspirations, my grandparents began pinch-hitting for them. My father’s Irish mother Mary “Queenie” Smith and Dino Bartoli, Mom’s dad, helped raise me. From the age of six until I was twelve years old, when both parents remarried, Queenie and Dino nurtured my passion for the Orioles.

When she learned that I needed a baseball mitt, Queenie came to the rescue. For decades, she worked at John S. Connor exporting company downtown, freezing on street corners as she waited for a succession of buses to take her to the office.

On Saturdays, she had her hair done at what she called the “magic factory” on York road and sometimes I went with her. Next to the beauty shop was Pop’s Toy Store. In the window one March afternoon was a Spalding glove autographed by Mickey Lolich. The machine-embossed signature of the legendary Detroit Tiger pitcher, whose paunch hung over his belt, was a name I would soon know well as he often held the Oriole bats spellbound.

Queenie pulled out her hard-earned bills, crisp and folded from her change purse, and bought it for me. We also purchased Gloveoleum and readied the new mitt by soaking it with oil and putting it under her mattress. The next day, I was slamming tennis balls off the brick wall of her apartment.

I learned to play the game by watching the O’s mannerisms. I’d hold my glove up to my face the way Brooks did, with my knees bent playing the hot corner for the Cockeysville-Springlake Little League team. Sometimes, I’d rest the bat flat on my shoulder like Don Buford. In the early days, I copied Paul Blair.

Blair was my favorite Oriole in 1970. His sudden bursts of speed chasing down fly balls as if they were prey and his relaxed stance at the plate before lashing line drives caught my attention. Queenie bought me an Orioles uniform and we ironed on the letters “B-L-A-I-R” and the number “6” and I tossed flies to myself, catching them one-handed in her back yard for hours, mimicking the roar of the Memorial Stadium crowd. Dad’s sister – my Aunt Carol, at that time a Sister of Mercy - played “pepper” with me dressed in her habit.

Queenie and my grandfather Newton Smith, who drove a truck for Mrs. Ihrie’s Potato Chips, lived in a small Northwood apartment near Chinquapin Park.
They held crab feasts in the back alley and listened to the Oriole games on the radio. I had my first beer at a crab feast, a warm National Bohemian, at the age of six. Queenie let me do anything I wanted, including collect switchblades. She was also a poet. We went to a game together and she made a sign that read: “Yankees Beware, Here Comes Paul Blair.

Dino Bartoli treated me like a son.

I spent several weeks in Parkville during the summer of ‘70 with my grandfather. Dino had taken early retirement from the Bethlehem Steel train yard at Sparrow’s Point. His job as a yardmaster on the railroad had finally gotten to him. He’d seen too many men maimed or killed by slightest movement of boxcars on the nightshift he presided over. My grandmother had just survived breast cancer. Pop had a nervous breakdown.

Coming out of it, he changed careers and started an antiques business called Treasure Alley on Harford road. We nicknamed him “Junkman” because calling the bulk of his merchandise “antiques” was a stretch. Most of his inventory resided in cardboard boxes marked, “all items $.50.”

Our summer mornings began with a breakfast of Italian toast covered in butter that we’d dunk into our coffees. We read the Sunpapers together and completed the Daily Jumble puzzle. Afterward, we’d walk up to Harford road from his house on Oak Forest drive. Our first stop was always Sunny’s Surplus, where we would inspect the army helmets, canteens, dummy ammunition, and machetes.

At the “Italian store” (owned by Greeks) we’d buy roasted red peppers, salami, loaves of Italian bread and provolone for sandwiches. High’s provided root beer Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.

At the A&P, he’d buy ground beef for his “hamburgs” which he’d make by the dozen and freeze. Diver Dan’s sold scuba equipment but we came to buy Wiffle balls for our afternoon batting lessons in the backyard. My uncle would pitch and Pop would wrap his arms around mine.

“Hold the bat level,” he preached. “Hit line drives.”

He’d played minor league baseball in Pennsylvania in the late 1930s and moved to Baltimore when his baseball career was finished.

One year, he hit .361 and was named MVP of the league. For that feat, he received a $5 gift certificate for Chick’s Auto Store in Shickshinny. Dino and Carolyn Bartoli settled in Orangeville in 1940, where he took a job working in a carnival, then Bethlehem Steel, before moving to Parkville.

Dino drove me to my little league games across town. He was always there. I can still see him sitting down the third base line in his green lawn chair as we played for the Baltimore county championship.

“Swing level, hit line drives,” he yelled from his chair, and I listened.

He was proud of the fact that my teammates called me “Dino” and told my mother so. Playing the hot corner, I could hear him telling the parents around him, “That’s my grandson at third, number five.”

By then, I had changed favorite players, emulating Brooks Robinson.

We went to Oriole games together, paying seventy-five cents to sit in the bleachers on 33rd street. Nana Carolyn made us crab cake sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil to take to the game. Dino would make sure we’d get there early to catch balls from batting practice. Sometimes, he’d get two or three at a time, hustling up and down the stands.

One game, he dove over three rows of fans to catch a home run ball hit by Frank Robinson. His glasses flew off and his legs stuck out from the pile. Pop apologized to those he landed on, tweezing splinters from both palms for several innings with a bad dose of baseball acupuncture.

He took me to the ballpark many times. I once caught a Bill Freehan foul ball with him one night in 1974 against the Tigers. I turned and followed it to the upper deck where it caromed off the façade and came back down. I stood up and took one step into the aisle as the ball landed into my glove.

Dino and Carolyn did what they could to ensure that my mother, brother and me always had more than enough to get by.

When the floorboards of my mother’s Corvair rusted through,Dino, with Carolyn’s approval, bought her a new VW bug. When I needed dress clothes in college, Dino produced a black pinstripe suit that fit me perfectly. We were the same height, weight, and shoe size. For every birthday from age seven to forty, I received a card that read, “Here’s five dollars for a hot dog, French fry, and Coke.”

Nana Carolyn ran a beauty shop in the basement of their house and charged three dollars for a wash and a set. There were three beehive dryers and, often, the putrid smell of permanent wave solution.

She tended to her customers and minded the sauce on the stove. I remember the smell of basil roasting in the sun as I picked the leaves from her herb garden. She followed the Orioles, running away from the radio in the late innings with her hands over her ears, “I can’t stand it. Madonna Mia. It’s too close.”

She liked the Bird’s manager Earl Weaver best of all, and when she raised her sauce spoon and started barking instructions, she resembled him. She ran our family like Earl ran the Orioles and at times like Mussolini once ran Italy. She kept her money in a Maxwell House coffee can and one day bought my grandfather a yellow Cadillac to his surprise. Their house on Oak Forest drive provided a sanctuary away from things I didn’t understand.

Around mid-summer, it looked like my mother might actually marry Mr. Sawicki. She broached the subject with me.

“What would you think of him as a father?”

My reaction was negative and visceral; my answer always the same.

“God meant for us to only have one mother and father.”

“Remember,” she would remind me while fixing her hair to go out, “it was your father who got me pregnant.”

Long after the divorce was final, I held out some hope that my mom and dad would get back together.

Mom wasn’t entirely sure what to do with Sawicki, so she decided to conduct an experiment. She wanted to see if she was really in love with him. My mother is a beautiful Italian woman with long black hair and in those days she had no shortage of interest from the opposite sex.

She accepted a date from another suitor and they had dinner in DC. Mr. Sawicki was waiting for her when she got home and he went crazy, grabbing her by the neck. She called my father. My dad arrived in his dented blue Chevy that we called the “blue hair-lip” and broke up the argument.

“In seven years of marriage, I never laid a hand on you,” he said to her as he was leaving.

Thankfully, I was staying at a friend’s house that night listening to a doubleheader against the Twins, who had Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva on their side.

When I got home, Mr. Sawicki’s desk was in the hallway and a window was broken. She went on one more date with Mr. Sawicki. They saw Hair.

With the Orioles headed for the postseason, I had my first baseball birthday party in September of 1970. Dad came over early to take us out to the baseball field at Calvert Hall. After the game, we came back to the house for cake and ice cream, every kid’s place set with a packet of baseball cards. Someone gave me the book, “Baseball’s Most Valuable Players,” and there was a $10 bill inside. I looked at the pictures and learned the names of Musial, Mantle, Mays and Williams. During the course of the party, someone had pocketed the money. A commotion ensued. I was too engrossed in the book to care.

A few weeks later, my dad called to tell me that he had tickets to game three of the 1970 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. He was going to pick me up from Pleasant Plains elementary at 11 a.m. to go to the game. My mother dressed me in a blue blazer with shorts, knee-high socks, and saddle shoes. She had always dressed in the clothes that John-John Kennedy wore. I ran out of the school when I saw the blue hair-lip pull up.

Our tickets were behind home plate in the upper deck. It was a perfect day for baseball. The crowd brimmed with intensity and promise. Just before the first pitch, a man nine rows down from us collapsed with a heart attack and died. My dad hugged me and covered my eyes.

“It doesn’t look good,” he said.

The Reds came out swinging in the first. Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan both reached base. I bit my fingernails. Tony Perez grounded one to Brooks Robinson who turned a double play from third to first. Then, Johnny Bench drilled one right into Robinson’s glove.

In the third, with the Orioles ahead 2-1, Frank Robinson clouted a mammoth blast to deep right center that cleared the wall. Don Buford followed with one in the 4th inning to right. In the top of the sixth, Johnny Bench ripped a bullet toward left field. Brooks dove as the ball was almost by him and caught it in the air, raising his arm to show the umpire it never touched the ground.

My Dad and I shared a bag of peanuts and we drank watery Coca-Colas. We watched the game in nervous silence, studying every pitch, as we would do for decades to come. We chewed on our cups.

The Baltimore Orioles became our inextricable bond from that moment forward, a sacred topic on every phone call no matter how difficult the circumstances in our lives.

The Orioles gave us a shorthand method of communication, a language that no one else understands or can follow.

My father went to the first Orioles game when major league ball returned to Baltimore in 1954 and saw Clint Courtney hit a home run. He fills in the gaps before 1969 and we have persevered through the lean years without wavering. My father hates frontrunners and fair weather fans.

The Orioles taught us the meaning of unconditional love.

When Dave McNally came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, we didn’t expect much from the lefty who was holding the Big Red Machine at bay. He launched a high drive into the sky toward the left field bleachers and the entire stadium rose as the ball carried over the left field fence and crashed into the bullpen.

The series was clinched. It was over. After it ended, my dad took me to Jerry’s Belvedere Tavern on York road and we sat at the bar. I drank Shirley Temples into the night.

When I replay the flight of McNally’s home run ball in my mind, I think about the power of that one swing and how it lifted me out of my seat and the pain of my parent’s divorce.

Looking out at those sunlit bleachers as the ball bounced high in the air, I felt real happiness for the first time. My father and I had experienced it together and the memory is something I will share with my son when he is old enough to appreciate what a colossal feat it was.

To this day, no other pitcher has ever hit a grand slam in a World Series game. After almost thirty seasons of following the Birds on a daily basis, I have finally embraced the 1969 World Series defeat.

The last fly ball out changed my life forever. In many ways, it saved my life. It gave me a purpose. In that moment, I became a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Orioles.

Monday, September 22, 2008

So Long Yankee Stadium

I enjoyed watching the Bronx bombers in Yankee Stadium battle the Orioles from 1987 through 1997. The atmosphere there reminded me of the old Memorial Stadium. Fans knew the game. I remember a Yankee fan yelling at Gerald William after a fly ball landed in front of him on a cloudy day, "Take your ----ing sunglasses off!" I was impressed and a little frightened. Fans came to watch a baseball game, not like the French tourists in Camden Yards sampling the dessert tray and leaving after the third inning.

The most amazing thing about Yankee Stadium to me was the sense of history it evoked. Though it had been renovated, the vantage point remained the same as it had been for Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. The sight lines provided an exceptional view of the whole field--no planes with their sonic boom overhead like Shea--and the stoic Bronx skyline loomed beyond the centerfield bleachers.

The bleachers--a barbarian planet unto itself or a kind of Alcatraz--thundered like Bellevue during a fire alarm and the hatred for the Red Sox so fervent out there that almost nothing else mattered. I saw the Yankees clinch the pennant in 2004, sitting near a Japanese group of Matsui faithful, who put up their umbrellas after a Godzilla home run. Leaving the stadium that night, the bleacher crazies cheered "1918!, 1918!" under the subway tracks. They were taunting the curse. It came back to haunt them a few weeks later.

The maid of honor from my first marriage worked at Nomura securities and would always secure four tickets for me to see the Orioles play the Yankees just to the left of home plate.

I was there for game two of the play-offs in 1996, the day after Jeffrey Maier reached over and snared the Jeter home run in his glove. I'll never forget the intensity of the crowd and the swat team on the roof. Somehow, the Orioles won that game. I didn't cheer or draw attention to myself as an Orioles fan. I enjoyed those victories in silence with humility.

There were not many over the years. I saw a 16-4 thrashing with Steve Finley and Parsippany Joe Orsulak hitting home runs. A Ben McDonald victory included the beaning of Matt Nokes in retaliation for Tim Leary breaking the wrist of Chris Hoiles a few month before. The ninety-five mile an hour fastball hit the helmet just under the bill and sent it skyward like a foul ball behind the plate. Nokes left the game and McDonald struck out nine of the twelve batters he faced. The losses outweighed the wins--and what struck me was the way the Yankees could win games with regularity in the bottom of the eighth and then shut teams down in the top of the ninth.

I've never seen a pitcher throw harder than a young Troy Perceval against Darryl Strawberry in the late innings of one game in 1996. I walked down close to the backstop as the fans poured out with the Yankees behind and Troy just blew away the power bats of the Yankees with ninety-eight mph heat up in the wheelhouse.

Bearing a resemblance in both humor and appearance to Yogi Berra, my grandfather Dino, like many Italians, followed the Yankees as he played in the Pennsylvania Minor Leagues. His favorite player was Joe Dimaggio and he emulated him and his approach. His son Bernie, my uncle, was a Mickey Mantle fan. Retired Oriole manager Earl Weaver, many years later in Florida, introduced my Uncle to the Mick and I have an autograph, scrawled with an unsteady hand, on a restaurant claim check.

Dino and Bernie both embraced the Orioles and the city of Baltimore but my mother held out, and remained loyal to the Yankees.

Yankee Stadium was a big, brawling and bruising monument to the city of New York. It's existence and the outcomes decided within the confines of its grandstands as important and crucial to the psyche of New Yorkers as fluctuations on the stock market. I remember the first World Series victory after a long dry spell in 1996. I'd attended a management course in the Trade Center and watched as confetti and computer paper rained onto the streets below. Talking a walk outside, I saw the statue of Alexander Hamilton with reams of computer paper criss-crossing his chest like Pancho Villa.

I watched dozens of games on television and listened to Phil Rizzuto, Tony Kubek and Bobby Murcer call the games. I was in the locker room once to interview Alvaro Espinosa and Don Mattingly with a reporter from Inside Sports. It had something to do with Donnie Baseball being a basketball star in high school. During that time, the distinctive Bob Shepherd would announce "Al-VA-Ro Es-pin-OSA" with his booming voice and the seventh inning stretch featured a scratchy version of God Bless America sung by Kate Smith.

I've never seen baseball like the 2001 World Series. The Yankees were fighting for the very life of the city, for the people who had been lost in the towers, and they made sure, with deaf-defying feats of power that there season did not end there among the smoking crater of the Twin Towers. They faced defeat on three successive occasions and came back to win games in dramatic fashion. They were running on fumes, feeding off millions of fans who wanted to see them do it one more time--and they nearly pulled it off. They had bo business being there in the first place.

I watched those games sitting in the dark and biting my nails--pulling for the Yanks.

It will be different in a new park. The memories and the intensity will have to be reestablished from scratch. It will take time before the intimidation factor reappears. Opposing teams will still need to bus their way to the park from midtown--but the sense of being fed to the lions in a hostile environment will take time. The mystique needs some work--the lustre has begun to fade.

The Yanks have fallen on hard times. Their $209 million payroll in 2008 seems insignificant to the trillion dollar debacle going on ten miles south. They are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs as I write this. In a city where there is no margin for error, somehow the fans will have to do what the majority of us in towns with marginal and bad teams--wait until next year.

So its fitting that the Baltimore Orioles lost the last game at Yankee Stadium. The city that gave New York Babe Ruth could certainly capitulate one more time.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Start the Playoffs Now

I think it's okay to begin the baseball playoffs tomorrow. Football season has started and it's difficult to refocus back to the slow gait of baseball. It gets lost in the shuffle until we hear Joe Buck's voice in October.

That's mainly because watching a last place team try and figure out who can throw the ball over the plate is really no fun at all.

I'd push for having football on five nights a week. Tuesday and Wednesday are the only blackout nights when we get to watch the Nats and the Orioles play out the string.

I'd like to watch the Rays and the Red Sox or something with meaning like Torre and the Dodgers. The Red Sox have the Rays number it seems--they've had it all year--and the playoffs should be interesting.

The Orioles have won exactly three games over the last fifteen and have been outscored by nearly 100 runs. There is no point in watching the debacle unfold any further. The team is offering attendance to the games for a buck--that should tell you something about the product on the field.

We've rushed some young arms (Loewen, Ray) and this has resulted in injuries. We've traded a promising arm--John Maine and received nothing in return. There is pitching that has shown promise and maybe next year we will have something on the hill to cheer for. Cabrera has looked good and then digressed. Guthrie has grown as a starter. Olson continues to grow.

Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman are the future. Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold are the future. Andy MacPhail is the future. Matt Wieters is the future of this ballclub.

And like the last eleven years in September, there is no need to watch one more game.
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