By late September of 1997, the Orioles found themselves in the same position that they had been in for the entire season: At the top of the American League East, looking down at the rest of the competition. On the 20th, a Saturday, they faced yet another divisional opponent — the Detroit Tigers — who were treading water in the middle of the East, sitting just below .500 and 17.0 games back of the Birds. (Remember, this was a year before the Brewers jumped from the American League to the National League. By '98, the Tigers had replaced Milwaukee in the AL Central, and the newly-formed expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays had filled Detroit's void in the AL East.) Just four days away from clinching its first division title in fourteen years, Baltimore was bustling with excitement; especially in the wake of Eric Davis' improbable return. This particular Saturday evening would be no exception.
Taking the mound for the Orange and Black was Rick Krivda. A 23rd round pick in the 1991 amateur draft, out of the California University of Pennsylvania, (Whose team name is the Vulcans! How cool is that?!) he spent the '95 through '97 seasons wearing out his round-trip bus pass from Rochester to Baltimore. A mid-season call-up in '97, Krivda seemed to regress a little bit from his first two stints in the Big Show, posting a 4-2 record with a 6.30 ERA over the course of 10 starts. Aided by a wealth of run support in a 9-run second inning, however, and an extra run for good measure in the fourth, he surrendered five runs over the course of 4.1 innings, with three of those coming in the top of the fifth. Davey Johnson had seen enough. He went to the bullpen for Nerio Rodríguez, another young arm recently called up, who had been named the Orioles' organizational Pitcher of the Year in 1996. The Birds scratched out a couple of runs in the bottom of the fifth, after Rodríguez essentially shut the door on the Tigers. After giving up a run in the eighth, he was replaced by Terry Mathews. That’s when things got a little shaky. During the top of the ninth, with no outs and a man on, Mathews gave up a home run to one of Detroit's defensive replacements, Melvin Nieves. Fortunately for the hometown crowd, though, the Orioles would hold on for their American League leading ninety-fourth win of the season.
While that was all well and good, the most significant thing (at least, in my mind) that happened that day occurred not on the playing field, but in the stands and on the top of the Orioles' dugout, during the seventh inning stretch. There was a genuine celebrity among us — and to any Baltimorean, a bona fide star. Yes, the one and only John Denver was in town that weekend, headlining a Cystic Fibrosis benefit concert at the Baltimore Arena, and he decided to pay a surprise visit to Camden Yards, taking in the nationally televised game. Now as any Orioles fan should know, Denver was no stranger to Baltimore or the Orioles. His live recording of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" had been a staple of the seventh inning stretch at Orioles games going back to Memorial Stadium, starting with the 1975 season. That was when then-GM Frank Cashen decreed that the club part ways with its old-fashioned organ music, and opt for the more modern popular genre, in a push to increase involvement of the younger fan base. It worked extraordinarily well, and the crowd reaction to Country Boy was nothing but positive. It became so ingrained in the routines of Orioles fans that Denver was asked to come to Memorial for Game 1 of the 1983 World Series, to sing the National Anthem and perform his rendition of Country Boy during the seventh inning stretch.
Though his late September surprise visit did not include him actually singing Country Boy on top of the Orioles' dugout, he did dance around, mouthing the words as his recording echoed and reverberated between the grandstand and the warehouse. The fans of course clapped to the rhythm of the song and howled before the fiddle solo, just like every other time. Except this time, we were actually getting to do it with him! It was quite a sight and sound to behold. Periodically, during the game, they would show him on the JumboTron, while simultaneously advertising the fact that he was headlining that night's benefit concert. (And there were still tickets available!) Each time his face popped up on the screen, the crowd would bubble up to a slow roar, before bursting into scattered applause. Just like when the Ravens would later break the monotony of a timeout or huddle by showing Johnny Unitas' face on the RavensVision boards at PSINet Stadium. Denver was loving life that day. He had a smile from ear to ear, almost as if he knew that he was about to give Baltimore the show of a lifetime.
As a kid, I hadn't been to many concerts before that point. My father had taken me to see Heart at the Arena when I was two or three. But other than the fact that the song "Barracuda" always seemed to unlock something from deep inside my memory bank — like one of those generic memories that you can't really associate with a time or place, even though you know it’s real — I didn't have a very clear recollection of it. So naturally, the prospects of getting to attend a live show were very exciting. I can still remember my mom wandering through the club level concourse at Oriole Park, trying to discreetly relay her credit card information through her big bulky cell phone, to the Ticketmaster agent on the other end of the line.
As soon as the Orioles won the game, (thanks in no small part to Eric Davis accounting for 25% of the Orioles' RBI) it was almost as if the entire ballpark emptied out and funneled up Howard Street toward the Baltimore Arena. It seemed like everyone had the same idea. What better way to celebrate an Orioles win than watching John Denver perform in person? It was a seemingly continuous line of people, and everyone was as happy as could be. The Birds had stayed 5.0 games in front of the 2nd place Yankees, pushed the Tigers to 18.0 games back in 3rd place, and everyone was about to see a local legend perform his classic catalog of tunes. We got our tickets at "Will Call" and then ambled up the stairs and ramps to the third level. Though I had been there before, for the (previously mentioned) Heart concert, with some Skipjacks and Spirit (Baltimore Blast) games thrown in as well, there was a distinct buzz about the building that night; one that stands out in particular. I can remember the feeling of wonder and awe as we walked through the portal and found our seats in Section 305. The setup was completely different. The floor, which would normally have been covered by an ice rink or an indoor soccer field, was completely filled with seats. All eyes, of course, were focused on the stage. The same stage where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and countless other bands had each played in the decades before. We were at a real concert! This was really happening!
The opening act was a band called The Hard Travelers; the group which served as the annual benefit concert's sponsor. Originally formed at The University of Maryland, College Park in 1958, The Travelers were a Folk band that made the transition to Folk-Bluegrass, and then Folk-Country. After a twenty year hiatus, the group started touring again in 1985. Along the way, vocalist Mack Bailey fell in line and started performing with them, becoming part of the group. Bailey, who had learned to play the guitar and sing through the music of John Denver, finally got the chance to meet his hero that day, in the Governor's box at Camden Yards. Later, though, he would get the opportunity to live out one of his lifelong dreams. During the sound check, in an effort to save his voice for the performance, Denver suggested that Bailey take over the vocals during Country Boy. Denver was so impressed with Bailey's rendition, he suggested that they trade verses during the encore.
Though I don't remember all of the songs that were played that night, (and my efforts in finding a setlist online have proved futile) I do remember singing along with "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and taking particular delight in hearing "Take Me Home, Country Roads." But by far, the highest of highs, the absolute zenith of the night occurred during the last song of the concert. I knew it was coming. The entire Arena knew it was coming. And John Denver knew that he was going sing it with everything that he had. The audience reaction when they started "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" is something that I won't soon forget. There we were, all 8,323 of us, on our feet; screaming the lyrics at the top of our lungs and clapping harder than we'd ever clapped before. Some were dancing, some were jumping, and some were just standing there, letting the music envelop them in a trance. What a scene it was.
Seeing Denver perform was quintessential Baltimore. It was a watershed moment in my life; much like my first Orioles and Ravens games at Memorial Stadium, my first packages of Berger and Otterbein's cookies, and my first bottles of Premium and Natty Boh. Even as an elementary school kid, I knew the importance of what I had witnessed. Or so I thought... Just three weeks later, the unthinkable happened. Like the Orioles' offense against the Indians in the American League Championship Series, the engine in Denver's Rutan Long-EZ aircraft sputtered, leading the singer/songwriter to a tragic and untimely demise. It was entirely unexpected. Yet, as death often does, it changed the whole perspective on things. Suddenly the Birds' shocking playoff defeat didn't seem that hard to swallow; and suddenly, our collective experience of three weeks before had taken on a much greater meaning.
John Denver's death was the first one that I can remember which truly affected me on an emotional level. No, I had never met him, nor had he me. But I stood in his presence on that late September night, fifteen years ago; I saw him with my own eyes. Whenever I hear "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" during the seventh inning stretch at Camden Yards, I'm immediately transported back to that night, with the Orioles in the thick of the pennant race, narrowing in on a division title. I can close my eyes and see him standing on that stage in his bright yellow shirt, guitar in hand, giving us all the thrill of a lifetime. Yes, I spent an evening with John Denver in 1997; we all did. But more importantly, he spent it with us. One of the last evenings that he would ever spend with anyone.