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Being home at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Surrounding yourself with black and orange is the best way to watch a game.

Rob Carr

Before Friday, the last time I was at Camden Yards was in September of 2012. Mostly that's because I live in Texas, but second-mostly because Austin doesn't have major league baseball, or even a major league sports team. There is only the religion of Longhorns football, interrupted occasionally by pleasant pastoral baseball in suburban Round Rock, home of the Texas Rangers' AAA affiliate. I try to see the Orioles when they visit the Rangers or the Astros, and most years I succeed. But that means being a visiting fan and, well, quite frankly I've grown tired of that experience. When the Orioles come Arlington I'm not the only fan there, but it's close. It's me and maybe a couple dozen other fans.

That's just how it is at away games, and I get that. Unfortunately it means my perception of sports fandom is mostly colored by the blue and red of the Texas Rangers. When I go to those games I sometimes feel invisible, surrounded by folks who enjoy baseball but with whom I can't share my particular brand of black-and-orange fandom. Sometimes it's fun being in enemy territory, like when Corey Patterson hit a game-tying grand slam off Neftali Feliz in 2010. In the sepulchral silence that followed, I screamed myself hoarse and in the process got more than a few dirty looks from Rangers fans. To whom I said, in my head at least, "Give me a break! The Orioles are awful. I deserve to celebrate this moment!"

But the semi-solitude grows old. It's much more fun to have 47,000 fans at your back, to be part of a large and dynamic beast that wants the same things you do, than it is to take joy in the silence of a beaten home crowd. That's why I was excited to have the chance to attend ALCS Game 1 in Baltimore this past Friday. Months ago I'd scheduled a visit to the Washington, DC area for a family event in October. I knew I'd have a slim chance at catching an Orioles game. For that to happen, the Orioles would have to make the playoffs. Which they promptly did! Then, the schedule had to align just right. And it did -- I jumped up and down when I saw ALCS Game One set for Friday October 10th, the day I'd fly into town and the only day I'd have any free time.

Now, I had to hope that the Orioles and Royals would both advance past their opponents. If the Orioles lost, there'd obviously be no game in Baltimore. And if the Orioles won but the Angels also won, the Angels would host Game 1 in Anaheim, since they earned the better regular-season record. We all know what happened next on the field. But what happened in my house was, 30 minutes after the Royals defeated the Angels, I was on StubHub purchasing seats for the game. The last domino that had to fall into place was the time of the game; my flight arrived at 3 PM, so I was hoping for an evening affair. I figured TBS would make the game prime time, since it was a Friday night and there was no other baseball on the schedule. I was right, and when the game time was announced at 8:07 PM ET I knew I had sealed the deal.

I love walking into Camden Yards through the Eutaw Street gate, surrounded by boisterous fans with orange and black on their backs, eyeing the huge player banners on the scoreboard looming to my right, and seeing and smelling the smoke from Boog's BBQ. After purchasing souvenirs for friends, my wife and I walked onto the flag court to take in the enormity of the stadium. It always amazes me how small a baseball field is relative to the stands. On TV, you mostly see the field of play, so it looms large. And when the broadcast shows the crowd, it's almost never with the stands in the frame, so it's hard to get a sense of relative sizes. Finally, the stadium I most frequently visit is the Dell Diamond which seats 8,700. I bet most of the crowd could fit on its field.

But in Camden Yards, the field and the players on it seem almost inconsequential in comparison to the number of spectators. It's an awesome sight to behold, and contemplating all that while standing on the flag court gave me a rush of emotion. And that's when I thought to myself, for the first but not the only time that night, that this was not just baseball: it was playoff baseball.

I was disappointed that we missed the national anthem. I was really, really looking forward to shouting "O!!!!!" in a packed playoff stadium with tens of thousands of throats. I shout it in Arlington while wearing my Orioles regalia, but I get weird looks because not everyone understands the tradition. I was definitely enthusiastic about the Seven Nation Army "O, O O O OOOO, O" chant and participated with zeal. One thing I didn't know about was the crowd yelling "JAY! JAY! HARDY!!!!!!" along with the PA announcer when J.J. Hardy steps to the plate. Is this a new thing since he signed his extension? If it's been going on for awhile, it doesn't come through on the broadcasts. It must be old hat to many fans by now, but it was special and fun for me.

The game itself was at times exciting, frustrating, then exciting again, but overall tense and tiring. When Chris Tillman couldn't find the strike zone and Nick Markakis jogged/floated after Alex Gordon's double to right field, the Royals went up 4-0. But it was only the third inning, and sure enough the Orioles scratched out a run in the next half. In the 5th, the Orioles pulled within one when Nelson Cruz slammed a double off the left-field wall and Ryan Flaherty hit a two-run single. The first Kansas City reliever out of the pen, Brandon Finnegan, walked Jonathan Schoop (of all people!) and gave up a single to Markakis after that. The crowd was roaring. Then Schoop stole third on an attempted pickoff, which was incredible, and scored the tying run on a headfirst dive on a weak pop fly that barely cleared the pitcher's mound. Which was even more incredible. And there was still no one out! I was so disappointed when Jones grounded out and Cruz grounded into a double play. Damn. Catching Jarrod Dyson stealing the next inning almost made up for it, though.

Through it all I remained euphoric about being surrounded by so many passionate fans. The thing that kept running through my mind was a few comments that the TBS broadcasters made about the Detroit crowd in Game 3 of the ALDS. The broadcasters panned the crowd for not making any noise, for not cheering loudly enough, for not showing interest. That stuck in my head for some reason, so I was gratified to see the Camden Yards fans roaring early and often. Sure, a lot of the roaring came in the 3rd when Tillman started throwing strikes again. But throughout, I seem to remember all the fans standing and waving complimentary orange towels on most two-strike counts, even if it was only the first out in an inning. That kind of intensity only happens during October.

With my emotional level alternately rising and falling in such a tense game, combined with the early flight into town and the fact we hadn't slept yet, my energy was fading rapidly. Then you add in the wet and cold weather (living in Texas for 10 years will radically alter what you consider cold) and the fact we still had to drive an hour to DC to check into our hotel, and you might understand why we left early. I know, I know, "It's the playoffs!" but at some point you gotta listen to your body. Anyway, it was about 11:30 at night. As we hit 395 to exit the city, I turned on WBAL and heard Zach Britton walk his third batter. I pumped my fist in silent joy (my wife was asleep in the passenger seat) when Steve Pearce forced Alcides Escobar at home and nearly launched into a frenzy of horn-honking when Billy Butler hit into the double play.

I listened to all three Wade Davis strikeouts, but I entered into some kind of fugue state when Alex Gordon hit his go-ahead home run. At that point, I can't remember, we may have been reaching the edge of WBAL's range and the broadcast was getting crackly, or I was so disconsolate I just didn't want to listen anymore. Regardless, I turned the radio off and only when we got to the hotel did I see that the Orioles had fallen, 8-6. The "6" at least let me know that the team had scored a run off Greg Holland, since when I'd left the Orioles had 5 runs.

So I ended my day disappointed, but I was so wired from the stadium's energy I had trouble falling asleep even at 1 AM. Even though the Orioles lost, I'll remember that game for a long time. I got to experience the thrill of playoff baseball while not only cheering loudly for the team I love, but also being surrounded by a legion of people who share that love. I also saw some pretty damn interesting baseball, truth be told. And the next day I got to bond about it with some family members who are also passionate Orioles fans.

I can't wait until the next time I get to see a game at Camden Yards. In the meantime, I'll settle for watching on TV as the Orioles win at least four more games. There's more October baseball to be played! LET'S GO O'S!!!