He’d been dead eleven days, buried for just three, and Freddie Gray could find no rest. His ghost stalked every player who suited up and stepped onto the field inside that empty ballpark almost a year ago, April 29, 2015. In the wake of protests, violence, and a city-mandated curfew—for the first time in Major League Baseball’s 145-year history—the Baltimore Orioles had the dubious honor of hosting the Chicago White Sox in a game without fans in attendance. The 46,000-seat stadium at Camden Yards was a haunted house. Silence. No cheers. No proclamations from vendors climbing and descending the aisles hawking peanuts and cold beer. The National Anthem was not sung but broadcast over the PA system. And in an attempt at normalcy, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” played as usual during the seventh-inning-stretch.
In eerie irony, the natural sounds of a baseball game were amplified, echoing off the walls of the B&O warehouse: The hiss of a 90-mile-an-hour fast ball; the thick guttural snap as the five-ounce cowhide-stitched ball of yarn cradled in the leather lap of the catcher’s mitt; the crack of the bat and cluck of contact as the white orb sailed over center field, over the spot where Babe Ruth’s father’s saloon once stood. The Orioles went on to beat the White Sox 8 to 2.
Freddie Gray died on April 19, 2015. Dial the clock back to April 19, 1861, when the first bloodshed of the war was spilt in the streets of Baltimore as a mob attacked the 6th Massachusetts Regiment as they marched from President Street Station to the train station at present day Camden Yards. In February of that same year, Abraham Lincoln slipped from station to station—in drag, the urban legend claims—due to Allan Pinkerton’s (of Pinkerton Detective Agency fame) healthy fear that the President-elect was going to be offed in Baltimore.
Now, return to 2015. Demonstrations over Gray’s death remained peaceful until April 25 when Orioles and Red Sox fans clashed with protesters at bars across the street from Camden Yards. Spring in Baltimore, let’s just say, has a tendency to throw curve balls.
The Baltimore Orioles celebrated their first opening day on April 15, 1954 at Memorial Stadium and enjoyed a 25-year stretch, 1960 to 1985, as one of the power-house American League teams finishing below .500 only twice and collecting five AL championships and three world series. On April 6, 1968—the same year the pint-sized, fire-breathing Earl Weaver became the O’s manager—the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked a fire in the hearts of Baltimoreans, and the city was once again set ablaze as riots erupted. Over 1,000 fires were ignited and close to $80 million (inflation-adjusted) in property damages were reported. Originally scheduled for the 9th, the Orioles postponed their Opening Day match-up against the Oakland Athletics to April 10th.
Nearly two-and-half decades later on April 6, 1992, the year I moved to Baltimore, Orioles Park at Camden Yards opened. The birds hosted the Cleveland Indians. It was the first “retro”-styled, fan-friendly ballpark in the U.S. and became a nationwide flagship model for future stadiums.
Twentieth-century architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin worked extensively for the B&O Railroad, designing the warehouse that adjoins Orioles Park as well as the nearby roundhouse and myriad train stations throughout Maryland, including Mount Royal. A devout Catholic known for his “ecclesiastical” work, Baldwin’s railroad structures conveyed a Cathedral-esque stature. It’s fitting; many consider Camden Yards to be a church—not just figuratively. It was standing room only when 50,000 worshippers filled the ballpark to celebrate an autumn Sunday morning Mass presided over by Pope John Paul II during his 1995 visit to Charm City.
Baltimore’s other sports temple, which, like Lincoln, “belongs to the ages” now, was Memorial Stadium, also known as “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum.” This is where I discovered the Orioles—live! And in part, I have to tip my cap to Francis Scott Key for this trip to the big city. I was born and raised in Frederick during a time when the area was still considered rural. There was nothing unusual about tractors rolling through downtown’s Patrick and Market Streets. Key was a fervent and active member of All Saints, the Frederick Episcopal parish I was brought up in. It was 1979 or ’80, which would have made me five or six, when the church organized an athletic pilgrimage, if you will, to Memorial Stadium. To this day, I can’t remember who the O’s played, but a California team sticks in my mind. And I feel like my cousin and uncle on my mother’s side, despite attending Calvary, a Methodist Church a block over, made the sojourn as well. Pay your ticket, get on board. It was mostly boys and their fathers, who huddled in the back of the rented yellow school bus occasionally fishing cans of Budweiser from coolers to pass time during the hour-long trek east along I-70.
Many of my relatives share the same cemetery with Key. Within the gates of Mt. Olivet, his grave lies at the foot of a bronze statue of the lawyer/recreational poet, his right arm and index finger extended east; an artist’s interpretation of Key’s reaction aboard the British gunship HMS Tonnant in the dawn’s early hours when he saw that our flag was still there, waving in the breeze above Fort McHenry. The statue’s gaze also happens to be cast upon Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium, home of the Frederick Keys, an Orioles’ minor league ball club affiliate.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the shadows of giants—Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, and Rick Dempsey to name a few—loomed over 33rd Street. The mysticism of Orioles’ Magic was taking cleat-hold. Wild Bill Hagy and his disciples of rowdies in Section 34 had galvanized the accentuation of O in “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave…” It was a great time to be a kid in Maryland.
Someone once told me they liked fishing “in theory.” That’s how I feel about baseball. Truth be told, I’ve never gravitated to the sport as an athlete or a fan but I do love going out to the park. Hell, I’ve even pulled over to catch a few innings of a random Little League game. And I agree with Humphrey Bogart when he said, “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.”
To bring it home, I’ll close with Rogers Hornsby who was born April 27, 1896 in Winters, Texas. When this Hall of Fame infielder and right-handed batting monster, who briefly played for the St. Louis Browns in the 1930s—the team that would become the Orioles when they relocated to Baltimore in 1954—was asked what he did during the winter he replied, “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
For many Baltimoreans spring begins Opening Day. This year, the change of seasons starts April 4. Under the helm of Buck Showalter in whom “we trust,” the birds step onto the yard at 3:05 p.m., taking on the Minnesota Twins. Coming off an 81-81 season, early 2016 predictions for the Orioles have been mixed. But spring in Baltimore is unpredictable. And it is a long season.