Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Camden Retrospective- A Long, Alcohol-Soaked Story

The idea of moving to Pittsburgh is making me very nostalgic for some of the things I'll miss about living here. I suppose that's completely normal, but it is strange how certain things are hitting me every day. Like when I saw my friends Ben and Esther the other day. They're two people I've known for six years, hung out with a lot for two, and have seen infrequently for the last four. But when I saw them in the restaurant last Saturday night, I thought, "Jeez...will I ever see these people again?" So that's the sort of cheesy, nostalgic vibe I've been carrying around, seeing random things and wondering, "Will I ever see this again?"

Well, tonight I'll be at one of my favorite places on earth, for what will most likely be the last time for awhile. It's a place I've been probably 50-60 times, with lots of different people over the last 12-13 years. It's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and I'm going to miss the hell out of not being only 45 minutes away from it.

Camden Yards is, for my money, still the best stadium in baseball. Granted, I haven't been to all of them, but I've been to enough of them over the years to have a real appreciation for it. PNC Park comes close, but I don't have near the memories there that I do of Camden Yards. It is nearly the perfect ball park. Easily accessible downtown location? Check. Lots of bars in the neighborhood for pre- and post-game revelry? Check. Beautiful views from nearly every seat in the stadium? Check. Cool downtown background? Check. Good food and beer selections? Check. Friendly staff? Check. Relatively cheap tickets? Check.

When Camden opened, it was touted as a retro park for it's old-school red brick construction, assymetrical dimensions and natural grass field. Now, it's retro because it's an older stadium where the highest ticket price is still "only" $55, I think. And if you need the VIP action, most club level seats top out at $40, and the club at Camden is great- sweet bars, loungy areas for rain delays, the sweet Guinness/Harp cart behind section 248, the way the usher at the bottom of the escalator looks at your ticket and says in an old-timey voice, "Yes, sir! Club Level...up the escalator, sir!" that makes you feel like a big shot.

When I was in college, I dated a couple native Marylanders who were born and raised O's fans, and I also had more disposable income then, so from '96-'98, I probably saw 40 games at The Yard. It was just something to do on a day off; weekend afternoon games were the best, especially when LightRail used to run late on the weekends. You could catch a morning train from Union Station in DC, catch a game, go barhop till late and catch a train back. Now, with no late train service back to DC, some of the fun of making a whole day of it is gone. But it's still a great time. Even though I don't get there nearly as much as I used to, I still look forward to the same things: a pint of the cask-conditioned Best Bitter at the Wharf Rat, my sausage from one of the great street vendors outside on Howard Street, the walk through the crowd on Eutaw Street after entering by the Babe Ruth statue (which I always flip off), finding your seats and realizing, once again, there's not a bad seat in the house (except for way back in Terrace level, where you lose fly balls above the upperdeck overhang), the Maryland Microbrew cart and a cold Clipper City Gold or Degroen's Marzen.

So, some highlights, lowlights and anecdotes from the ballpark I've been to more than any other...

I don't remember exactly what my first game there was. The first game I really remember, although the memories are pretty hazy, is an O's-Yanks game in probably August of '95, with my old friend Loren Keldsen. I remember it being brutally hot, and we'd been drinking Captain and Cokes in the parking lot for awhile before the game. About the seventh inning, I was feeling awful, we were arguing with some Yankee fan dicks way up in the upper deck on the third base line, and I think Loren might have puked into a nacho tray. I have no idea who won the game.

I think '96 was the season I saw the most games there, probably about 20, most with a rabid O's fan chick I was dating who would argue till she was blue in the face with anybody who denied the greatness/hotness/non-gayness of Brady Anderson. But the three biggest games I saw there that year were with my dad. We were there on Labor Day afternoon for Cal's 2,129th consecutive game and we walked around to Eutaw Street at the top of the 5th and stood under those big numbers they kept changing on the warehouse. That was pretty cool.

We were also there for the first game of the ALDS against the Indians (who we were still mad at for sweeping away the Sox in '95). The aforementioned not great/not hot/probably gay Brady Anderson led off the the O's first with another one of his juice-aided homers (that was the year he hit 50), BJ Surhoff cranked two, and Bobby Bonilla hit a grand slam.

And we were there for game four of the ALCS against the Yankees. The thing I really remember from that, aside from Daryl Strawberry's 93-minute circling of the bases after a moonshot homer in the 8th, was the walk from the Inner Harbor to the stadium. It was a Saturday night, and I think we'd eaten at the Uno's at the Harborplace. As we were walking down Pratt Street towards Camden, we saw/heard a commotion up the block. As we got closer we saw about ten of Baltimore's finest breaking up what appeared to be a pretty big fight between opposing fans. One Oriole fan was in handcuffs and yelling, repeatedly, "Fuck the Yankees!" It turned out to be a guy named Shane I worked with at Bennigan's; we stopped and I said, "Shane, what the hell are you doing?" And he said, in a real "Duh!" tone of voice, "Kicking some Yankee ass!" We laughed, wished him luck and started to walk away, but then he called out, "Hey Matty- call work- tell 'em I'll probably miss my lunch shift tomorrow..." Turns out he did; he didn't get out of Baltimore lockup till Monday morning.

On April 26, 1997, I was sitting down in the left field lower boxes when Robby Alomar hit three home runs to help beat the Red Sox 14-5. Later that summer I was at a game in July with a girl named Martha who got annihilated and wandered off during an argument. Took me about four innings to wander the stadium and find her- she was in Bambino's Pub in the Warehouse, knocking back more shots; should've thought to look there first.

In '99, I had a streak of five consecutive games I went to that featured a rain delay. It wasn't until '01 that the legendary Tim Wakefield streak started- ten Sox-O's games in a row I saw there featured Wakefield. The streak lasted into '05. Turns out Wake's pitching tonight-seems appropriate.

In '02, I took my wife there for her first Sox-O's game. We went with our friends, Rita and Declan. We got some sweet box seats near the Sox dugout from some guy in the Scalp Free zone (one of Camden's best features) and I got some terrific pics of Nomar back when he was still a happy guy. That was the legendary "Danny the Beer Man" game, which I've mentioned on this blog several times. That was also the night I kept yelling at Manny until he gave me the double Manny Point during a pitching change.

In 'o3 we went with Rita and Declan again, sat right behind the Sox dugout, and got Todd Jones to throw us Bazooka gum and sunflower seeds during yet another rain delay. My friend Kim was there too, with Jimmy C. I remember Kim using an upside down nacho tray to keep her shiny coat dry as we scurried for cover and realized that a rain delay in the seventh would keep the bars in the stadium open longer.

In '04, my wife, my brother and I were at The Yard on July 29, again to see Wakefield pitch, in a game that got rained out before it became official. It turned out to be the last time Nomar actually played on the field for the Red Sox. He didn't play the next night in Minnesota, then was traded on Saturday to the Cubs.

By '05, we had my daughter, so the games were fewer and farther between. On April 21, my dad and I saw Matt Clement (!) blank the O's 1-0. That game was the nightcap of our two-game/two-city double dip, as we'd seen the Braves beat the Nationals, 2-1, at RFK that afternoon. In August that summer, there was the ill-fated attempt to take my wife and six-month old daughter to a Sunday afternoon Sox-O's tilt with my cousin Mary and her boyfriend, who were living in Baltimore at the time. Turned out to be in the high 90's, and our seats in section 76 turned out to be too hot for the wife and kid. The crowd turned out to be too loud for my daughter, as well. When Trot went deep in the second over the out of town scoreboard, the roar from the partisan Sox crowd scared the crap out of her and she started crying. We left shortly after and listened to the Sox lose on the radio on the way home.

Last year I only got to two games- one with Essam the Mad Moroccan on April 9 (God, retrosheet has been handy for this), which turned out to be a 4-1 Sox win behind the pitching of Wake (again) and some rookie named Papelbon. That game was the closest I ever came to getting a foul ball at Camden Yards. We were in the first row of section 248, and Ortiz fouled a ball back at great speed that hit the facade of the club level right below my feet. Later that spring, on May 16, The Gatman and I sat in great seats in Section 14, five rows off the field and I got Ortiz to acknowledge my incessant yelling at him with a double point of his own. Schilling coughed up a 4-1 lead in the fifth, but was bailed out by RBI singles in the sixth by Mark Loretta and Big Papi. Papelbon saved that one, too. That game was also memorable because it featured the legendary diary, with the "My dad spends too long in the bathroom" entry that had me and Gat in stitches for about two innings. You can read the original version of that story in the comments here at Jere's place.

That was the last game I was at in Baltimore, until tonight. While I've been typing this, my tickets arrived from Stubhub (finally). Four beautiful orange tickets, in Section 78, row DD, seats 5-8. Left field lower boxes, one of my favorite spots in the stadium. Good fans, good view, always a chance at a homer. It was where a friend of mine heckled Jay Gibbons mercilessly by calling him "Gingerkid!" for nine innings. Good spot, good times. I also love the first few rows of Upper Boxes 326-334, up high behind home plate- one of the best views of the stadium and the skyline behind it.

After tonight, the next time I see the Sox in person will most likely be next season at the Jake in Cleveland. That's the closest AL city to Pittsburgh. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Micah, lives there, so we're already planning a quick trip out there next summer to see him and catch a couple Sox games. I've never been to Jacob's Field, so that'll be cool. And I'm sure, at some point, I'll make it back to Baltimore and Camden Yards again. But for now, I'm just looking forward to tonight- my hot sausage, a cold beer, about 20,000 other Red Sox fans and over a decade of great memories.

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