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June 1, 2008: For the Birds

I have now initiated my friend Brian (let’s call him Brian…) to the fun and wonder of Major League fandom. I took a trip to Baltimore to take him to his first major league game, a tilt of Orioles versus Yankees.

The reason I went all the way to Baltimore for this is that the company he works for gets tickets at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Nice tickets. Behind home plate nice. So when he asked if I’d come down and see a game with him and explain what all the fuss was about, of course I said yes.

I took Amtrak, which is about the perfect way to travel from Boston to Baltimore in comfort. I got a lot of work done, since even the cheap-o train I took still has power plugs for my laptop and is only an hour slower than the Acela. If only they could come up with a way for the train to have wireless Internet, I’d seriously take it all the time to New York, too.

When I arrived it was mid-afternoon, just enough time to get settled and then head over to the park early so we could have a thorough look around. When we got down to the park they were already letting people onto Eutaw Street. The sky was clear, the temperature was a comfortable 68 degrees, and the humidity was low. Lucky us. The night before, it had been 85 degrees, 100% humidity, and a thundershower had delayed the game by 90 minutes in the ninth inning with the score tied 8-8. Not only that, but the Yankees lost in the 11th. Grrr. In the good news department, though, Jason Giambi hit a home run onto Eutaw Street–the 41st dinger to land on the street since the park was built.

The first thing we looked at was the brass plaques set in the street where various of the home runs have landed. I would have thought that most of them would be Orioles, but no. Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers… we found David Ortiz and Paul O’Neill and many other favorites, including one Giambi hit in 2005.

There was also one hole where it looked like one was missing. Stolen?

We also searched the side of the warehouse for the one plaque for Ken Griffey Jr.’s homer that is the only one to hit the actual building, which happened during the Home Run Derby the year the All Star Game was in Baltimore. We didn’t find it, though. For some reason I remembered it being at the same height as the first row of windows, and also that it was the size and shape of a baseball (three-dimensional) instead of a flat plaque like the others.

We watched a bit of batting practice from the bleachers, but no balls came particularly near us. We had not brought gloves. We had fun watching Mike Mussina shagging though, and I explained how batting practice works. We then watched wooden bats being made for a short time (Brian is into woodworking but the demonstration was not every engrossing), and then looked at our food options.

I always like to get something unique at a ballpark that cannot be gotten at other ballparks. We got a crab soup and a knish, then walked up to the upper deck just to see the view from up there. Had a nice chat with a female usher who is an aspiring baseball writer, too. From up there we could see the mow patterns in the grass, and the sod farm that grows beyond the bullpen.

Back down to sign up as non-drinking Designated Drivers and get coupons for free drinks (of which we only redeemed 2 of the four we were given), and then to our seats. One of the GEICO Cavemen threw out the first pitch–I had no explanation for that. After the national anthem I had to explain the “O” in “oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave…” and warned him that John Denver’s Country Boy would be coming up later in the game. Every park has their traditional songs, after all. Fenway Park has, in recent decades, developed a cult around Neil Diamond’s SWEET CAROLINE, to the point that Neil Diamond is now going to play a concert at Fenway. And Yankee Stadium has Cotton-Eyed Joe.

What followed was a close-fought battle, where neither team ever held more than a one-run lead until the ninth, and every at bat was a battle. Andy Pettitte was pitching for the Yankees, and although he managed to be effective, he was throwing a lot of balls, falling behind in the count, and generally struggling. And yet he walked only one man, and his only mistake was a low fastball then Melvin Mora golfed into the seats for a two run home run.

On the O’s side there was young Jeremy Guthrie, who was throwing some heat, hitting 93 on the radar gun and getting some big and exciting strikeouts, like fanning Derek Jeter in the third to strand a man on third. The Yankees managed a single run off him in the second when Matsui hit a one-out double and then Giambi stroked a single to score him. Giambi also hit another home run–I couldn’t tell if it hit Eutaw Street or not–in the fourth, to make it 2-2. The third run came in the fifth, this time with Melky hitting the one-out double, Damon singling him to third, and then Jeter hitting a line drive deep enough to be a sacrifice fly.

In close games, every play is magnified. When Roberts got picked off second, the crowd was in an uproar, as O’s fans and Yankee fans alike were stirred up by it. At the time, Brian had gone off to the souvenir shop. Chatting with the clerk he mentioned it was his first major league game, and the clerk took him over to the fan assistance office where they gave him a certificate for his first game, complete with his name and the date, some Orioles postcards, and a special envelope to keep it all in. Kinda neat.

Each team mounted their threats, but no one was able to run away with it. In the ninth the Yankees scratched an insurance run, as Matsui led off with a double and they played small ball to get him in. The importance of that run became quickly apparent when Mariano Rivera, pitching the ninth, had to face the tying run in the person of Brian Robets and then Melvin Mora, when a man had reached on an A-rod error. (A-rod’s second in two games… and he looked lost at the plate, hitting the 2nd or 3rd pitch of every at bat on the ground to third or short.) But Mariano showed his Hall of Fame form (ERA 0.41–I explained to Brian that most pitchers are happy with a 4.10 ERA…) and got both Roberts and Mora to pop up.

Not only that, the game was over with in under three hours. Wow. The night remained dry, pleasant, and cool, and we walked out with a feeling of deep satisfaction. Or at least, I did. I think Brian had fun, too.

He mentioned, among other things, that the game seems different when you are in the stands than watching it on TV. And of course it didn’t hurt that I was there to explain every little thing, including the strategy of pitching, signs and sign-stealing, the difference between pitching from the wind-up and the stretch, why bullpen guys would rather pitch one inning several times a week than 2-3 innings only once or twice, the difference between pulling the ball and going the other way, how Chad Bradford learned to pick up dirt while he pitches underhand, and many other topics.

Just another night at the ballpark.

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