Many years ago, after the Senators left and before the Nationals arrived, I lived in Washington D.C., having moved there from North Carolina after college. Fred, an older friend from the Tar Heel State, had moved to D.C. a year or two ahead of me. After I arrived in the Nation's Capital, he and I reconnected. He was a government lawyer by then and I was a lowly drone at the Library of Congress, but we were kindred spirits who felt like fish out of water among the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. We also both arrived at the same conclusion simultaneously: Baltimore was a far more enjoyable city than Washington D.C. It possessed all that DC had -- culture, history, art and architecture -- but it also had something ineffable and pure and real. To us, it was just "Balmer," and we didn't try to analyze its appeal too closely lest it disappear as quickly as a 3-run lead with Daniel Cabrera on the mound.
That the Orioles played in Baltimore was just icing on the cake for us, at least at first. It didn't take long, however, for the Orioles to become the cake and all these other things about Baltimore just the icing. It happened like this: Fred and I drove up from D.C. after work one afternoon for an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium. This would be about midway through the 1978 season. The game was a nail-biter, well-pitched, with great defensive plays, smart base-running, a manager who cared enough about his players to make a fool of himself in front of thousands (Earl Weaver) and a game-winning pinch hit by Pat Kelly in the bottom of the 9th. That's all it took to hook us forever.
We, of course, picked a good time to climb on board the Orioles Express -- right at the start of the Eddie-Cal Epoch (ECE). It wasn't just the peerless play of the team. It was the setting. Memorial Stadium was located in the middle of a real neighborhood. Playgrounds and restaurants and pubs abounded. People were friendly on the street and in the bars, where the beer was cheap and cold and the conversation was rowdy but fun. Even the cops on the stadium beat were in good moods. In short, Baltimore offered the very obverse of what a "night on the town" in Washington D.C. offered.
After that first game and for the rest of the 1978 season, Fred and I drove up the Baltimore Washington Parkway on a semi-regular basis. We would meet up after work on Capitol Hill, hop in "Captain" Fred's indestructible Plymouth (I gave him that nickname because he'd been in the Navy) and headed due north on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in time to catch a quick one at a pub near the stadium and then batting practice before the game.
By the 1979 season, Captain Fred and I were part of a growing contingent of other DC converts, our collective Jones for the Orioles stoked by the best baseball writers in the country, plying their trades then at the late lamented Washington Star and, of course, the Washington Post. We ended up going to Memorial Stadium nearly 20 times that summer, as well as a playoff game (we beat the Angels) and a World Series game (we beat the Pirates in Game 1...don't want to talk about the rest of that Series).
The ensuing summers passed in a blur but over the next 15 years, Fred and I probably averaged 15 games a year in Baltimore, first at Memorial and then at Camden Yards. I eventually got married and moved to New England, and "the Captain" retired from the government and relocated closer to Baltimore, on the Chesapeake Bay, so that he would not miss any Orioles action. We still managed to get together for visits to Camden Yards every summer. And, after my son was born, I would bring him along too and the three of us would root for the Orioles.
Not to get all maudlin here, but about three years ago Fred began to show signs of mental slippage, what was eventually diagnosed as early but mild dementia. After a harrowing accident at his Chesapeake Bay bungalow, he moved into an assisted living facility in Annapolis, where he's well cared for and safe from any further accidents. My son and I have driven down to visit him there twice.
Last summer, I vowed to "spring" Fred from his facility for an Orioles game, which required fairly elaborate planning because of his memory loss and more fragile physical state. Fred has almost total recall of our misadventures at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards from 1978 to about 1994, but has lost huge swaths of memories of recent years. (In other words, he is at least blessed with being able to recall "good" Orioles teams). I picked a series in early May against the Mariners (because it would be Nelson Cruz's homecoming), bought tickets online and planned my trip.
The week before the outing, Baltimore erupted in riots that effectively closed the city down for days. Somehow, perhaps miraculously, the trouble abated by the time of the Mariners series and we were able to go to the game. The Orioles lost 4-2 but it hardly mattered. It just felt good and right and proper to be sitting beside my friend Captain Fred at an Orioles game on a beautiful May evening at Camden Yards.
I'm already planning another trip this May. I'll swing by Fred's assisted living facility in Annapolis and then head to Baltimore. And I will keep doing this each year for the duration.
Alan Bisbort is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Connecticut.
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