Forty-five years ago this month, I attended my first Orioles game. It was a momentous occasion for any lifelong O’s fan, but special for several other reasons, too. It was Father’s Day weekend and featured a near-historic pitching performance by Jim Palmer. An unfortunate error also occurred that cost me a game ball. But more on that later.
My father, Joe Reilly, passed away in January 2016. A Marine and 20-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., he was a no-nonsense guy and stern disciplinarian. We clashed frequently as I grew older, and I moved out of the house the minute I turned 18. As with many father-son relationships, there were complications even into adulthood. However, I always grudgingly loved and respected “General Joe,” as my sister and I referred to him behind his back.
Dad was no athlete and could not have cared less about sports. He attended two major league baseball games in his lifetime and worked Redskins games from time to time as a police officer. His role in my first professional ballgame was both poignant and heartbreaking.
It was late Saturday afternoon on June 16, 1973 when the Reilly family piled into dad’s whale of a Chrysler New Yorker, presumably heading to, as my mom explained, “the crazy, new underground shopping mall in Baltimore.” As we entered the Baltimore City limits my 11-year-old eyes were scanning the skyline for any hint of Memorial Stadium, even though I had no idea where it was.
We must have been near Charles Village when I spied the stadium lights in the distance. Excitedly I pointed them out and my mom casually leaned over the front seat and thrust a handful of tickets at me. I couldn’t believe it! We were actually going to the game. It was a surprise reward for a straight-A report card in the recently concluded school year.
I can still remember, 45 years later, the intense excitement I felt upon entering the stadium. The grass was so green! And there’s Brooks and Boog, and Paul and The Blade and Bobby Grich warming up!
The O’s were playing the woeful Texas Rangers that evening. It was a typical humid summer night in Charm City and only 8,500 fans were in attendance to watch a team that would win 97 games that season and lose to Oakland, 3-2, in the American League Championship Series.
The game got out of hand for the Rangers early; the Orioles scored five in the first, which included a three-run triple by Elrod Hendricks. Meanwhile, Palmer was brilliant. By the sixth inning the stadium was buzzing as “Cakes” had a no-hitter brewing. In the seventh, fans’ attention had shifted to the fact he was throwing a perfect game.
The seventh was a critical inning for me personally. We were in the lower-level field box seats behind the first base dugout. Foul balls peppered the area all evening and, in the seventh, one came screaming right at us. Before I could move, Dad, the non-athlete, reflexively jumped up and directed his hands at the ball. It skipped off his forearm and clattered around in the rows behind us, where it was quickly snatched up by another kid.
I was devastated, but tried hard not to show my disappointment. In the end, General Joe’s line would read no at-bats, no runs, no hits and one error.
Gradually my attention returned to the contest and with one out in the ninth, perfect game still intact, Palmer faced journeyman Rangers catcher Ken Suarez. The entire faithful was on its feet exhorting the O’s ace on. Suarez responded with a seeing-eye grounder up the middle for a single and ended Palmer’s bid for perfection. I met Palmer many years later and described that moment to him. With his legendary recall, he recounted every detail.
As I grow older, and with my dad and mom both gone, my thoughts frequently return to that magical, if somewhat bittersweet evening. I wouldn’t change the outcome if I could. I bet Palmer would.
Chris Reilly is in his fifth term as a York County (Pa.) Commissioner, making him the longest serving commissioner in York County history. A Silver Spring native and University of Maryland graduate, Reilly is a lifelong and diehard Orioles fan. Even this year.
Editor’s note: No-hitters and near no-hitters produce some of the game’s most memorable moments. At a certain point, the drama builds toward the pursuit of baseball history, each pitch taking on more significance. That’s what happened at Memorial Stadium on April 15, 1987, when left-hander Juan Nieves was closing in on the first no-hitter in Milwaukee Brewers’ history. I was sports editor of The Evening Sun and still in the office when I received a call from our Orioles beat writer, Ken Rosenthal, that he could use some help if Nieves pulls off the feat. I drove to the stadium, arriving in time to see the finish and get quotes in the Brewers’ locker room while Rosenthal got reaction from the Orioles. Thirty-one years later, it’s great to see that Nieves is still in the game as the Miami Marlins’ pitching coach and that Rosenthal is still covering it for Fox, MLB Network and as a senior writer for The Athletic.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] and [email protected] for consideration.