By Paul Hensler
When I saw the announcement for our chapter’s August 15 breakfast, I knew that my attendance would be impossible since I had already committed to be in Baltimore for the Orioles Hall of Fame luncheon. This is an annual event held in conjunction with a group known as the Oriole Advocates, whose past president is someone whom I met at the 2010 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. Bob Harden and I have become good friends, and during the last symposium gathering, he asked that I come down for the luncheon, but also added a warning that he was going to put me to work, as if to return the favor of his invitation. When our media guru, Karl Cicitto, emailed a nice follow-up status regarding said breakfast, I replied with a reminder that I was handing out jerseys that day for a special Oriole give-away at Camden Yards. Included with that missive was a photo I took of a huge stack of international orange-colored Orioles jerseys, bearing J. J. Hardy’s name and number. What followed was unexpected: Karl thoughtfully took the time to not only re-post the picture on our Smoky Joe Wood Facebook page, but he also included a thumbnail sketch of the Oriole Advocates and a link to the organization’s web site. To add to that just a bit, here is a little more detail of my time at Camden Yards that proved to be the makings of a wonderful experience for me.
Bob and I arrived shortly after 9:00 on the morning of the luncheon, as the Advocates were in charge of some of the arrangements. We made our way to the fourth floor of the famed B&O warehouse building – which was thankfully spared demolition when the Camden Yards area was redeveloped in the early 1990s – and joined other Advocates in their large meeting room to wade into the chores. Each attendee was to receive a tote bag/back pack containing a program for the event and a copy of Orioles magazine. For VIPs, about 70 black gift bags – appropriately stuffed with orange tissue paper – also were to be made up, these containing a small cloth placard bearing an Orioles logo emblazoned with “2014 AL East Champions,” a beverage can cozy, a copy of the magazine, and an autographed photo of one of the current players. These items, however, didn’t magically find their way from the packing boxes into the tote bags and gift satchels. Nor did the helium find its way into the black and orange balloons that were to adorn the banquet room on the sixth floor. Thus, enter the Advocates to facilitate that magic. The expression “many hands make light work” was thankfully on full display.
With the bags and balloons taken care of, there was some time to kill before guests began arriving around 11:00, so I took the opportunity to explore Eutaw Street and snap some pictures. Having never seen Oriole Park despite its existence for 23 years, I was captivated by the ballpark and it environs. To the north is the Bromo Seltzer Tower, on the rear side of the centerfield scoreboard is a wall featuring the plaques of the members of the Orioles Hall of Fame, and almost hidden under foot are the many medallions marking the spot where home run balls have landed on Eutaw Street. I encountered a guided tour that was just outside the gate, but time constraints did not permit me to join. Wait ‘til next year, as the saying goes…
Meeting up with Bob in the foyer of the warehouse, it was time to help him check in guests as they arrived for the luncheon. Those with high-end tickets were directed to the seventh floor for a VIP reception, while the hoi polloi found their way to the banquet room on the sixth floor, which also played host to a cash bar and a silent auction. I joked with Bob that he should run for the city’s mayoralty because it seemed he knew so many people passing through the lobby, but he respectfully declined. Needless to say, the parade of notables was impressive, as befitting the occasion. Dan Duquette, Rick Dempsey, Dennis Martinez, Buck Showalter, and former Oriole coach Billy Hunter were all there to honor the latest induction class of John Lowenstein (unable to attend due to his travels on a world cruise), Fred Uhlman, Sr. (unable to attend due to a fall in which he broke five ribs), Gary Roenicke (Lowenstein’s partner as the other half of the Orioles’ great leftfield platoon in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and Melvin Mora (who spent enough time at third base to rank second behind Brooks Robinson in games played at the hot corner in Baltimore). The meal was great, and the speeches were just long enough, in addition to being entertaining. The Orioles have every right to be proud of their tradition and history, and I felt privileged to be at such a gathering.
However, the business of the afternoon was not complete. Bob also serves the Advocates in the extremely important capacity as the point man for their “Cardboard to Leather” program. One of the cornerstones of the Advocates, “Cardboard to Leather” delivers baseball equipment, both new and used, to children across Latin America. He and a small group of Advocates had been on the fifth such mission to Nicaragua in July of this year, and he returned with glowing reports of how greatly appreciative the locals were to receive real baseball gear to replace gloves fashioned out of cardboard or old shoes. The Advocates were humbled when presented with the gift of a live chicken by some villagers, which they quickly realized was the most valuable possession that those local people had. In fact, I learned later that some Nicaraguan children were on hand for the games in Baltimore on Hall of Fame weekend. Events such as the luncheon serve as networking opportunities for Bob to make serious efforts to bolster the Cardboard endeavor. He was able to exchange contact information with former pitcher Dennis Martinez, a native of Nicaragua; Melvin Mora, who was born in Venezuela; and a gentleman who was the culture minister of Aruba. (To endear myself with a modest contribution of my own, Bob was thrilled that I had brought him an old first baseman’s mitt. “Oh, that’s a lefthander,” he beamed. “Don’t see many of these!”) Every little bit helps, and seeing how destitute the young lives of some future major leaguers can be, much comfort can be derived by knowing these donations are going to so many in need.
With the networking concluded, it was time to relax and enjoy the rest of the day. A change into more comfortable clothes was in order before taking a tour of our own in the greater Camden Yards area. We wandered over to the Babe Ruth birthplace, then stopped at a tavern just down the block for some libations before returning to Oriole Park. Approaching the gate behind the bullpen, Bob chatted up the supervisor and we entered just in time to catch some batting practice. (Note: Our entry was free because the bottom of Bob’s Advocate ID is clearly marked “Oriole Advocate and one guest.” It got better, as you’ll see in a moment.) Wending our way over to Eutaw Street, we went back into the warehouse and up to the fourth floor Advocates room, then followed a corridor to the bridge that connects the building to the Suite level of the ballpark. Intent on a barbecue supper, the next stop was Boog Powell’s BBQ located behind home plate, and then we sought a couple of seats before the game started.
One of Bob’s favorite perches is the loge section just to the third-base side of owner Peter Aneglos’s suite. With a five-dollar bill in hand and his ID dangling from the lanyard around his neck, he approached the usher and asked for a pair of seats. The start of the game had been delayed because of on-field ceremonies for the Hall of Fame honorees, and the usher requested that we wait until the first pitch just in case any late arrivals – i.e., the seats’ rightful occupants –appeared. After a pause of just a minute or two – and well before that first pitch – he waved us down to the third row. “Seats 7 and 8,” said the usher, now five dollars richer. With the sun soon to set, the weather was summertime-perfect for a baseball game. The seventh-inning stretch in Baltimore gets a three-song treatment, during which all are encouraged to join in. A young woman sang a terrific rendition of the Woody Guthrie standard “This Land Is Your Land,” followed by the traditional “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” (accompanied by console organ), then the longtime favorite of Baltimoreans, John Denver’s rousing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Clad in black jerseys for the Friday night game, the Orioles came from behind to take a 6-4 lead in the seventh, but closer Zach Britton was victimized by three infield dribblers followed by two hard-hit balls that knotted the score. With a Fireworks Night crowd slowly thinning as the extra innings piled up, Adam Jones smacked a line-drive homer into the left field stands to give the O’s an 8-6 win shortly before midnight. On the way to the parking lot, rumor had it that the pyrotechnics were cancelled due to the lateness of game’s ending, but Oriole Park became illuminated with a shower of blazing sparkles to close out our fifteen-hour day at Camden Yards.
With little rest for the weary, we were back at the Advocate office about two o’clock the next afternoon to prepare for a make-up promotion for season ticketholders that had been postponed because of the April riots. “The State of the Orioles” event included a forum with manager Buck Showalter, but especially attractive for fans were the nine autograph stations that were to be manned by three players each. And there was no scrimping on this one – all players, even the top stars – were listed as being available. So it was no surprise that when the gates opened at 3:00, there was a mild stampede to be first in line for a signature from Chris Davis, Manny Michado, or Adam Jones. Compounding the problems of the rush was the fact that this day also featured a regularly scheduled give-away of 20,000 replica jerseys emblazoned with shortstop J.J. Hardy’s name and number.
My Advocate mentors had forewarned me on some of the finer points to beware of while handing out the jerseys, namely those fans who might try to sneak up from behind to grab one more, or those having some sort of sob story indicating that a friend wasn’t able to come to the game (“So can I have an extra?”). What they didn’t tell me was that as the jerseys were uncrated, they were packed in the boxes folded in groups of five and had to be unfolded and separated, a task that sounds easier said than done because the acrylic used to print the logos on each jersey made them stick together. We were able to unfold, separate, and stack some in advance, but only for a finite number of jerseys, and once the gates opened for the 45-minute window of opportunity for only the season ticketholders, more boxes had to be opened and the jerseys handled with dispatch. At times it felt a bit like a reverse version of the old “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy and Ethel are frantically packing chocolates coming through on the conveyor belt. Also, what the Advocates didn’t tell me was that the jerseys were to be given only to those aged 15 and older, and although I picked up quickly on this point, it still required a snap judgment to be made to determine the age of some borderline kids.
The gates closed, and we had about thirty minutes to recharge before they opened anew for the rest of the fans with “regular” tickets. Although I had lathered up with sun screen well in advance, I thankfully had been stationed at Gate A as the sun was swinging around the right field stands, so I actually spent most of my shift in the shade. Other Advocates came around with cold, bottled water while the jersey distributors were manning the front lines. By 6:00 or so, all the souvenirs had been handed out, and we repaired to the fourth floor of the warehouse for a well-deserved treat, which consisted of a nice selection of soda and beer, pretzel nuggets, chips, and popcorn. Pizza was at long last delivered just about game time, although Baltimore isn’t famous for its pizza – at least not at the ballpark. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to relax in the Advocates’ gathering room and chat with the current president about the organization’s mission, including “Challenger” baseball programs for physically and mentally disabled children, and a friend of Bob’s joined us to discuss writing up a presentation on “Cardboard to Leather” for next year’s Cooperstown Symposium. A big-screen TV showing the game was conspicuously affixed to the wall facing the field, and it was interesting to shift my eyes from the screen to a view of the action through the window. The leisurely mood in the room prompted no urgency to move to the stands, but by the third inning, Bob and I were ready for a rerun of our supper at Boog’s BBQ, followed by a successful quest for seats in our favorite section – this time, two seats in Row 6, again for $5. (The Advocates are gifted with tickets for seats down the third-base line, but Bob’s ID offered the chance at a better venue.) We cringed as this game remained tied going into the bottom of the ninth, but Chris Davis launched a homer to send the crowd home in a great mood, and I told Bob that he might want to lobby the front office to have me stick around: Including a matinee I had seen a few weeks earlier in Boston, in which the Orioles were also victorious, Baltimore was now 3-0 with me in attendance. What team could resist having a good luck charm like that as the stretch run approaches?
With no doubt, I will look back fondly on my time with the Advocates, to say nothing of the additional goods – two Hardy jerseys, Bob’s own Orioles Hawaiian shirt that he let me wear on Saturday, a black-and-orange bracelet, an “O’s” cap – that Bob sent with me on my return home. My host spoiled me very much, and I dare say that my experience in Baltimore has put a severe dent in my forty-five-year allegiance to the Los Angeles Angels, whose solo-home-run offense has exasperated me this year.
To have seen some of the “magic” that happens at a baseball game and related events now helps me to understand what really occurs there, at times beyond the view of the general public. And I’ve certainly gained a wholesome appreciation and admiration for the first of the retro ballparks.
PAUL HENSLER is the author of THE AMERICAN LEAGUE IN TRANSITION, 1965-1975: HOW COMPETITION THRIVED WHEN THE YANKEES DIDN’T. He is a member of the Smoky Joe Wood Chapter of SABR. A skillful speaker, he has presented at the SABR National Convention, appeared on ESPN Radio and at The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. More information at paulhensler.com.