Calling the Pen: Born a Baby Bird - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: Born a Baby Bird

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

I am a Baltimore Orioles fan by birth — but far more by lifetime dedication even though far removed from Baltimore since 1966. As I told O’s pitcher Brian Matusz, while standing next to the railing at Ed Smith Stadium a few years ago, “You remember what year that was, right?” Well, because of his age, he didn’t, so I had to educate him. “That’s the year the Orioles went to their first World Series.” Then I said: “You’d better learn that.” Finally, the stern Matusz creased his face with a smile.

I was born on April 2, 1948, almost Opening Day if the Orioles had been playing in Charm City then. When they arrived from St. Louis in 1954, I was old enough to play the game. Chuck Thompson’s call of the game, which began the next season, increased my passion. To my ears, nobody’s ever been better than Chuck, and I have a great CD of his calls for the Orioles and Baltimore Colts to preserve those memories.

So, yes, I was hooked. We had Brooks, Frank, Paul, Boog, Jim and other greats by 1966. I was away, starting college in Detroit. But even in absentia, I lived every moment of that tremendous season and the wipeout of the feared Dodgers in four straight.

Two years later, it’s the Tigers winning it in seven games over the St. Louis Cardinals while I’m rushing to classes. But even better in my Detroit days is July 15, 1973. I’m among 41,000 fans at the game with my new father-in-law and his buddies as they chew their nails and I subdue my enthusiasm while watching Nolan Ryan notch his second of seven no-hitters while striking out 17 Tigers — the most ever in a no-hitter — and moving toward a season total of 383, a major league record. There were some good hitters in that Detroit lineup, including Norm Cash, who brought a leg from a clubhouse table to the plate instead of a bat with two outs in the ninth. Told by umpire Ron Luciano that he could not use it, Cash reportedly said, “Why not? I won’t hit him anyway.” Cash tossed the table leg and popped out with a regulation bat. Thankfully, I was still able to have dinner at my in-laws’ table that night.

Living in Ohio after college, I’d get back to Baltimore to visit my mom and dad over the years and always took in an Orioles game or two. I was at Camden Yards August 19, 2017 for the 25th anniversary celebration of that incredible park. Yes, I’ve shaken Boog’s hand and savored his barbecue. And I’ve collected tons of O’s memorabilia — some of it hot-off-the-presses that my father ran. Dad worked for the company that printed O’s scorecards, yearbooks, media guides and so forth. I’m not sure about the tickets because we always bought those.

Dad was invited to be an extra usher for some of those really big games in the 1970s, leading to the occasions when father and son went to our only World Series games together — the Pirates’ series in ’71 and ’79. At the time, I was working in radio, first in Toledo and then Columbus. I was the news guy, but my station did a lot of sports coverage, the Ohio State Buckeyes and minor league baseball. So, in ’79, I was asked to call in from Memorial Stadium and give reports and updates during the game.

The opening game was set for October 8 … and what was it doing snowing and sleeting in Baltimore? Well, the game wasn’t called early, so we bundled up and parked near Lake Montebello, shivering during the mile-plus hike to the stadium. We climbed the ramps to our upper-deck seats and when I looked out at center field, there was standing water. When they finally played the game the next night, the first-pitch temperature of 41 degrees was the coldest in the history of the Fall Classic until it was eclipsed 18 years later in Game 4 of the 1997 World Series (another in which the Birds should have been playing).

A steady rain fell throughout the contest, factoring into six errors, three by each team. It mattered not to me because our beloved home team won, 5-4.

I didn’t get to stick around to watch the rest of the Series, but took the lumps when we lost the second game to the Bucs, 3-2. And I was back home in Columbus to catch Games 5, 6 and 7, when we scored a total of only two runs in those deflating losses. The ’70s were great when they started, with the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Brooks Robinson, dominating our five-game rout of the Cincinnati Reds. But ’71 and ’79, both against the Pirates, left a sour taste.

There were ups and downs in the ’80s — not in ’83, when we defeated the Phillies in the Series — and the ’90s despite the heroics of Cal Ripken Jr. Because of the national broadcast, I was able to see Cal’s incredible performance as the Iron Man tied and then broke the Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games — while hitting home runs in both games.

More recently, during a spring training game in Sarasota, I was able to get close to the dugout as Buck Showalter was standing near the corner. It was only a year or two since he had been named manager. I caught his ear and eye with my booming voice — “Mr. Showalter, thanks for bringing back the Orioles!”

In typical humble style, he acknowledged me and responded with “I had a lot of help.” Maybe, but I’m not sure it would have happened without him. This leaves me, and many others, with a lot of questions and concerns as we move toward the future.

Finally, I cannot finish this memory lane trip without expressing deep appreciation to my wife, Carolyn, who passed away last year, for converting from her hometown Tigers to my beloved Orioles early in our marriage, and then spending hour upon hour with me in her final days resting in a chair by my side while we watched the Birds. Those memories are the most heartfelt.

Jim Vitak, was born in Baltimore and grew up in Parkville, graduating with the class of ’66. Despite living in Ohio for nearly the past 50 years, he can probably tell you most every Oriole batter’s or pitcher’s performance the day after a game. Early in his career, Jim worked in radio news for 20 years, giving thought to becoming a baseball play-by-play guy but deciding against it to stay closer to home with family. He hopes to still get to another Orioles World Series before saying goodbye to the national pastime — so don’t dally too long, O’s! (And Mussina should definitely go into the Hall on the next ballot!)

Editor’s Note: Jim was excited to share his memories with the readers and those closest to him. That he got to share them today has added meaning. “My two daughters will be visiting to bake holiday cookies — and I will tell them they have a message from someone, and have them walk to the computer. I really did this as much as a tribute to my wife — and their mom — as my beloved Orioles.”

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] for consideration.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. boss61

    December 2, 2018 at 11:59 am

    I loved every word of this. Many overlapping memories! Norm Cash and the table leg is a classic tale!

    • jimmyv

      December 3, 2018 at 8:02 am

      Thanks very much. They were sweet times.

  2. mlbbirdfan

    December 3, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Jimmyv: thanks for the memories. I was born 2-27-48. Given our ages, and your Parkville upbringing, I wonder if you and I were opponents in Little League in 1959 or 1960. Did you play on the Parkville LL All Star team either year. I played for Falstaff LL. You guys hammered us. LOL

    • jimmyv

      December 3, 2018 at 12:39 pm

      Sadly, no, despite my baseball fever I was a dud in LL and definitely not an All Star. I played at Double Rock Park, at the bottom of Acton Rd. where I grew up.

  3. OsfaninNC

    December 4, 2018 at 10:41 am

    What a great read. Thanks for sharing your memories of our beloved Birds. I’m several years behind you but old enough to remember the ’66 WS. I’ve always loved that picture of Brooks seemingly flying into McNally’s arms after the final out. So many great memories and yes—hopefully more to come. Enjoy the time with the kids baking cookies. Hope your Christmas season is a happy one.

    • jimmyv

      December 6, 2018 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks very much, OsfaninNC. Yes, I had a desk pad and pencil holder that had that very Brooks-McNally photo wrapped around the outer edges. It was a classic capture. All the best for your holidays and new year.

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