"Does anybody know how long the light rail runs on a Saturday?"
In front of me stood a dad and his son. The dad was dressed respectably, a nice button-down shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. The son, 14 or 15, I guess, wore an O's jersey and hat. We were in line to get train tickets.
No one else was answering the dad, so I said that the train runs at least an hour after the end of a game. The dad considered this, then turned back to his son. "You never know what might happen if there's extra innings. Plus, if you leave early, you can beat the crowd." The son nodded, and if I remember being 14, had already ignored his dad's suggestion.
This was Saturday evening, the day after the first game. It seemed the dad was not going to the game, had decided to drop off his son at the light rail and was then doing the dad thing and worrying. The son was doing the son thing and not paying attention to it. Then the kid stepped up to pay for his train ticket. He inserted a $20 bill into the machine and stepped back in alarm as the change clanked into its designated place. "They gave me it all back in quarters?" Then he looked at the coins. "What are these?" They were $1 coins; he had never seen them before. I had to stifle a grin.
As the dad explained about Susan B. Anthony dollars (in fact, current $1 coins feature presidents), dad and son turned around and saw another dad and son combination. The dads knew one another and the sons knew one another vaguely. The other dad was also just dropping off his son. The meeting was not planned, but quickly harnessed: "Make sure you stick together," the dads said, both seeming more relaxed knowing it would not be a solo journey.
All of this struck me because I am fairly sure that, if these boys were alive the last time the Orioles had a winning season, they were not more than a year old. Yet here they were, on a Saturday night in April, and the best activity they could conceive was riding down to Camden Yards to catch an Orioles game. I often wonder if the years of losing has led to a lost generation of fans in the Baltimore area. If what I saw on Saturday is any indication, then perhaps I need not worry any more. The torch is still lit for baseball in Baltimore.
When the train pulled up to Hunt Valley, I got on a different car from those guys and never saw them again. I'm sure they made it to the baseball game and back just fine, as kids have done probably dating back to the earliest days of the franchise in Baltimore. In the old days it may have been a ride on street cars and buses, and the destination was 33rd Street, but the nature of the pilgrimage is unchanged.
The train lumbered along to the south, with its ultimate destination being BWI, but nearly every stop it became further engorged with Orioles fans. Not just any Orioles fans: young Orioles fans. There were other groups seeming to represent every age from 14-20. I can tell they were no older than 20 because it seemed nearly every one of them had some fascination with the notion of getting alcohol on the sly.
Some were still in high school, others were perhaps Towson University students, or Loyola students. Another universal theme was the merciless teasing of the one poor soul who was not wearing O's gear, not even a hat. Here they all were, riding with me on the train, these fans a decade or more younger than me, whom I feared would not grow up with a love for the O's. And yet so many of them, out of all the things they could have done on a Saturday night, were on the way to Camden Yards.
Sure, they have grown up in a world where the greatest Orioles they have known are Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts. I still find this sad. They and their peers won't be doing this every Saturday night game on the season, surely. If they can do it for one game, though, then you can almost imagine some day if the Orioles are ever good again, perhaps they will do so every Saturday night. You can imagine crowds full at Camden Yards not only because the Yankees or the Red Sox are in town, but a full stadium because the Orioles are in town. Some day...
The teenage demographic was not the only one of young Orioles fans represented on that night. Younger fans still were there: it was Safety Patrol Night, and neon-belted fifth-graders were there as a reward for a year of doing whatever it is that safeties do. I was one once, and I really couldn't tell you what I did any more, but I remember feeling pretty special about it then.
The safeties were there, and their parents, and their siblings, and perhaps these groups were only there for the discounted tickets, but if they were truly bored by the idea of Orioles baseball, they would not go at all. Here is another group of O's fans that may be a bit on the periphery. Maybe now they go to two games a year. The Orioles suck; why go to more? But if the Orioles are good, then going more often is a better idea. I am certain the park will fill, if there is a reason for the fans to fill it.
There were plenty of kids in the stadium that had nothing to do with the safety patrol, either. Everywhere I went it seemed I saw young dads and their young sons. Nearly all of the little kids were packing their gloves from Little League, just in case a foul ball came near. This was a ritual I often participated in with my own dad, though we went on Sunday day games rather than Saturday night games. These sorts of things, too, still go on in spite of 14 years of losing.
Even better was that Saturday night saw the O's win, an unusual enough occurrence, considering that they have not had a winning season even at home since 2000. After that 8-2 victory, you could not help but go home happy, unless you were a Twins fan. They were there, not in great numbers, plenty polite. We are glad to share Camden Yards - a little of it, anyway - with such pleasant out-of-town fans.
The game ended as Luis Ayala induced a groundout to record the last out. I joined the stream of fans heading for the exits, and I found myself walking along behind another dad/son combo. The dad, early 30s, and son, 6 or 7, were both wearing Nick Markakis jerseys.
The dad asked his son how he liked the game. "It was great!" replied the kid instantly.
"You were lucky," the dad went on. "It's not every game that you get to see all three of your favorite players hit home runs." Markakis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters had all homered in the contest. "And you might not always get to see the Orioles win, either."
Here, there was a brief pained expression on the dad's face. I sympathized. How would I answer that question to someone who wasn't alive to remember the better times, and couldn't possibly understand why the present is not that great?
"Sometimes, they just lose," said the dad.
They were quiet for several seconds. The kid had his head cocked to the side. I could almost see him mulling that one over. Finally, the kid said, "But even if the Orioles lose, they're still the best, right?"
A smile broke out on the father's face. "Yeah," he answered. "They'll always be the best."