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Orioles magic: Baseball and family, together when you least expect it

Even a painful family happening can bring me back to happier memories of America's pastime.

Mitchell Layton

"So you're still an Orioles fan, not a Nationals fan?"

It's a common enough question for a baseball lover in northern Virginia, and the answer comes out almost automatically.  I grew up watching the Orioles.  I have no problem with the Nationals, and I go to a few games each year, but the passion just isn't there.

But it's not just a co-worker asking, or a casual acquaintance.  It's my cousin, and we're standing in my grandfather's house, trying to sort through his possessions.  He's moving from a mostly independent cottage near the water, into a fully assisted living situation, following a slow recovery from a broken hip and a slow decline from a failing heart.  We're all picking through his possessions, trying to decide what he must have even in a smaller living space, what a family member might want as a memento, and what needs to be donated or tossed.

He's here, with us, seeming more than a bit sad about the whole affair, and yet he's not entirely here in the way that most of us will always remember -- he's nodding off, and he can't seem to keep up with the flurry of activity from nine children and grandchildren trying to get him moved.

It's hard to say what's worse: Going through this horrible activity that makes me think of my grandfather being gone, or seeing him still here to witness it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Later that night, the family takes my grandfather out to celebrate his 89th birthday.  The guest of honor still can't keep up with the conversation, which at one point drifts to baseball.  My aunt asks us cousins if we remember the year that grandpa took us to Camden Yards.

I hadn't thought about that visit in years.

Every summer, the cousins would spend a week at our grandparents' house in southern Maryland, in groups of like age or gender.  We'd crab-fish from their pier, eat junk food, and wreak havoc on their lovely retirement home.

One year, Grandpa took four baseball-loving preteen boys for a tour of Camden Yards.  At 11ish years old, I didn't really know that the newly-opened Camden Yards would kick off a noveau-retro design flurry, or swing ballparks back from outlying islands surrounded by oceans of asphalt, back to being integrated downtown attractions.  What I knew at the time was that the Orioles played there, and that it was awesome for my grandpa to get me access to the dugout, warning track and warehouse on a warm summer day.

I knew that Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Harold Baines, Chris Hoiles, Mike Devereaux and David Segui sat on that dugout bench, played on that grass (the one place they wouldn't let me step) and stood right in that on-deck circle. And maybe to my grandfather it was just a fun afternoon with his grandsons at a notable new Maryland attraction, but to a kid for whom baseball was still magic, it was a lot more.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I hadn't thought about that day in years.  I had thought about the one and only game I remember seeing at Memorial Stadium, about cheering on the Orioles stars of my childhood, and about several trips up to Camden Yards as a teenager, but I hadn't thought about that tour in a long, long time.

And isn't that just baseball fandom for you?  Your identity as a baseball fan can be intertwined with your familial identity in so many ways that you don't even routinely remember them all.

The kids growing up in Virginia and DC today are forming these kinds of bonds and memories at Nationals Park, and I don't begrudge them that.  If baseball keeps connecting families that way, it doesn't really matter where it happens, even if it's in a park with ugly attached parking garages and absurd racing Presidents as "the main event."  But for me, real baseball will always involve the crab shuffle, orange uniforms and the Inner Harbor, even if there's nothing else remotely Maryland about me.  I don't mind that discrepancy a bit.

So no, I'm not a Nationals fan.  Maybe I put more meaning into my childhood memories of the Orioles than I should.  But it seems like something that I can't just change about myself with a modicum of sincerity.  I can't just toss or replace my Orioles fandom, like I was forced to choose the fate of so many of my grandfather's possessions.  Loyalty and passion are free, and they don't take up any space.  I can keep them around, even if I can't keep Grandpa around forever.  I can deal with annoying, traffic-laden drives up I-95 ten times a year, in exchange for a feeling of connectedness that goes all the way back to my childhood and spans generations.