I was born in 1983 at Union Memorial Hospital, just down 33rd Street from Memorial Stadium. Bittersweet, born an Oriole fan and unable to rejoice in what remains to this day our organization’s last World Series championship. On the bright side, the city had Cal Ripken Jr., real-life Iron Man. I can still hear public address announcer Rex Barney echo, “At shortstop … number 8 … Cal … Ripkennn…”, and that’s when the crowd really came alive. We still had Flanny, Boog, Elrod, Rick Dempsey and arguably some of the greatest Hall of Famers ever — Palmer, Brooks and Frank all close with the team.
My first unforgettable experiences occurred before the game. The anticipation and excitement, skip-walking in the city to keep pace with the crowds of fans, our fans whom I will never know, though I do know we were ready to fight alongside one another at all costs. Vendors outside the gates, beeping horns as the orange-yellow-pink skyline sets on the 7:35 p.m. game start. “OH”, pun intended, the wonderful smells, oh the smells. Salty roasted peanuts, hot dogs, stale beer, nachos, dirt, grass, leather, wood and the charm of our city all adding up to the smell of baseball.
One time, during batting practice at Memorial Stadium, Ken Griffey Sr. clipped a foul ball right behind home plate, high into the upper nose bleeds. It bounced off my father’s bare hand and rolled to a large man sitting with what appeared to be a program. He picked up the ball and gave it to me. Another one of baseball’s great first experiences. The feeling of a real ball, still ringing off the pine vibrating in my hand is a memory that may keep me alive forever.
Another first, shared by thousands of Baltimore faithful, was October 6, 1991, the final Oriole game at Memorial Stadium. So many people, so much standing for an 8-year-old boy, and the entire stadium instantly forgot we had lost.
We still had Cal, and it was very easy to move from Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A few hours before Rick Sutcliffe hurls the complete-game shutout, I could barely contain myself. My father picked me up from school early to go to Opening Day, both firsts, skipping school for an opening day.
So many firsts for me at The Yard. Most games my best friend and I would listen to 1090 WBAL, Chuck Thompson, Joe Angel, Fred Manfra and Jon Miller. Sometimes, one of us would remain at our seats while the other walked around the stadium near the broadcast booth. We would yell each other’s name loud enough so that we could hear each other while listening to the commentary.
There was the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. My name was put up on the scoreboard for the Orioles’ fan club. Cal’s streak, chasing the record was everything that baseball means to Baltimore, a record never to be broken.
Brady Anderson homered off Charles Nagy in game 1 of the 1997 ALCS, and my father caught the ball. Beautiful and brand new, except for the hit on the sweet spot sending the ball over the scoreboard. There would, however, be another first and it was far worse than enduring a baseball curse. That’s not having a curse to immortalize your team in baseball history (see ’04 Red Sox and ’16 Cubs).
It’s a known fact that if and when aliens land on earth, they will be wearing a New York Yankees hat. Rumor has it that when Yankee greats play their final game in the Bronx, they’ll hop on a bus and take a short three-hour scenic route up to Cooperstown.
Long before I had learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the founding fathers, I knew who the New York Yankee greats were. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and so on and so on. Sarcasm and resentment aside, before all my wonderful Oriole firsts, there was the legacy that is pinstripes. However, my reality as postseason baseball began in 1996 was the following:
1) I was 13 years old
2) I had never seen an Orioles World Series
3) I had never seen a “real” Yankees team
I was fearless heading into October 1996 and not many baseball enthusiasts would have fathomed young Derek Jeter, young Jorge Posada, young Mariano Rivera, young Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neil to be “real” New York Yankees. The Yanks also had Tino Martinez, David Cone, Jeff Nelson and a list of clutch home run hitting veterans, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry and Ruben Sierra. Still, the O’s were great and they had veterans, too, with Cal, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina, B.J. Surhoff, and David Wells. And so … the ALCS began.
A kid my age at the time, Jeffrey Maier, interferes with a fair ball and becomes a star overnight, appearing on Good Morning America. The Yanks won Game 1 and the stage was set for the evil empire to strike back. Down 3 games to 1, after losing two straight at home, it seemed I was the only fan in the city who didn’t get the memo that the “real” Yankees were back.
We were given tickets to Game 5 and believed it was far from over. We have Cal Ripken! These were not those “real” Yankee greats? These are young guys, and they don’t have the experience like the Birds.
Why didn’t anyone tell me that these were the “real” Yankees? How in the world did all these Yankee fans get in here and why are they still here 24 years later? These were the “real” Yankees that all those history books and movies talked about. Those Yankee teams who dominated 60 years of America’s pastime were celebrating with elation in the city where Babe Ruth was born. It was a proclamation of the origins of baseball dominance. It was my first “real” New York Yankee experience, and obviously I am forever changed.
Joe Torre and those core players would win four of five World Series, officially ending the 20th century. In the year they didn’t, 1997, the Orioles returned to the ALCS but winning at home proved to be their biggest challenge. As far as the Yankees …? Let’s just say it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Orioles baseball remains my first love.
Adam Pyecha, 37, grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Norfolk, Virginia with his wife, Amy. He will get a Master’s in Lifespan & Digital Communication from Old Dominion University in August 2020. He teaches Pre-K at the New E3 School and public speaking 101 to ODU undergrads. An avid sports enthusiast who loves Orioles baseball sand Maryland/D.C. teams — Ravens, Terps, Wizards and Capitals. He aspires to begin pursuing a PhD in the fall and loves writing, singing and performing original music with ties to local Hampton Roads rock-and-roll bands.
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.
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