Lessons learned on my trips up and down I-95 for evenings at the ballparks.
By Matthew Taylor
I had baseball bookends propping up my work week last week. On what turned out to be “just another manic Monday” at Camden Yards on May 15 I watched Boston’s depressing 11-1 victory over the O’s. Days later I was “getting wild all around Friday night” with Brent, a longtime friend and fellow Birds fan, as the Orange and Black took their first and only game from the Nationals at RFK Stadium. My attendance at each game forced me to violate two of my cherished, albethey fleeting, personal rules. But I learned some things along the way, so it wasn’t a total loss.
On Monday I violated my “Don’t attend a Yankees or Red Sox game at Camden Yards because the out-of-town fans will just annoy you” rule. I instituted an earlier form of this rule in the late-‘90s just for Yankee games. The rule caused me to miss the end of Cal’s consecutive games streak, and the start of the Ryan Minor era (see “Where Have You Gone, Chris Richard?” posting), on a night when I had tickets to the game, but that’s like saying I missed “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” even though I had NBC.
I extended this personal rule to include the Red Sox two seasons ago after Chris, my longtime friend and short-time co-blogger (did I really just use the term “co-blogger”?), turned out to be right with his playoff proclamation that Red Sox fans would be just like Yankee fans if they won a World Series. Here I was doing carpet angels – a domestic version of the popular outdoor winter activity – after Boston took down the Yanks in the 2004 ALCS with no clue of what the victory really meant to O’s fans. We now had two annoying A.L. East rivals to deal with: the Evil Empire and a slightly less annoying, Mini-Me version of the same.
On Friday I violated a second personal rule, this one being my public “Don’t get caught up in the ‘Battle of the Beltway’ hype” decree that appeared in the May 4 posting “A Rivalry of Minor Concern.” As you can see, I’m about as disciplined with this stuff as Rick Sutcliffe is in a San Diego Padres broadcast booth.
In my own defense, I did tell a local Fox reporter during an on-camera interview on Friday that the O’s-Nats rivalry was a media creation. (RFK was crawling with journalists who were all after the same non-story.) In addition, the tickets to the game were free thanks to the generosity of Brent, another longtime friend, though not a blogger. Nevertheless, I was still there among the 30,320 “strong” at RFK, so the kettle can now rightly call me black in return.
I don’t fancy myself interesting or self-important enough to do a running diary of last week’s games, a la ESPN Page Two’s Bill Simmons, but I will gladly share some of my lessons learned from those trips to the ballpark. Perhaps I’ll even develop a new short-lived personal rule along the way.
-Lesson No. 1: It’s more fun to be a fan of a visiting team than it is to be a fan of the home team.
Baseball logic, reinforced by the seventh-inning musical mainstay “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” dictates that you always “Root, root, root for the home team.” It’s no secret, though, that when our O’s face off against either one of their division neighbors from the Northeast, there are more fans cheering for the A.L. East’s Evil Empires than there are root, root, rooting for the home team. But let’s not throw the baseball baby out with the bathwater.
If we Baltimoreans were to insist that our seventh-inning stretch entertainment make sense there’d be no room for “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” And we don’t want to make John Denver rock ‘n roll over in his grave. Besides, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is still on the mark when it notes, “If they don’t win it’s a shame.” We O’s fans know that sentiment all too well.
There are many reasons that it’s more fun to be in an opponent’s ballpark, starting with the fact that you don’t have to defend your home turf. I was so stressed about Yankee fans at Camden Yards during the late-‘90s that I actually had a late-season nightmare about Daryl Strawberry – he of what I believe is still the longest homerun in the stadium’s history, a shot to straightaway center off of Mike Mussina – giving a curtain call in our ballpark. Yes, I had nightmares.
Just when I thought things were getting better UnderArmour came along and started promoting the whole “We Must Protect This House” slogan. Like I wasn’t feeling enough pressure already!
Nats fans were clearly feeling the pressure at RFK on Friday night, booing after a rousing “O” went up during the national anthem, countering spirited chants of “Let’s Go O’s” with their own “Let’s Go Nats” efforts, and even jeering the “Fan of the Game,” who sported an Orioles cap with his Nationals windbreaker.
On the downside, the hometown fans booed a little girl who sported a pink Orioles shirt and was also among the contenders for “Fan of the Game.” There are limits. Overall, though, it was a respectful effort by the organization and the fans to defend their turf, suggesting the friendly nature of this non-rivalry.
Other advantages of being a visiting fan include:
(1) You get to watch your own team take batting practice before the game. Friday’s BP at RFK allowed me my first opportunity to watch Melvin Mora take his pre-game cuts, driving a mix of line drives and opposite-field homeruns at will. He’s as intriguing to watch during BP as the sluggers, who are more typically pre-game fan favorites.
(2) You share an automatic connection with other visiting fans at the game, which leads to genuine enthusiasm for the O’s. Believe it or not, there were actual O’s cheers without any scoreboard prompting, which produced a vocal minority in RFK. After Monday I was pretty sure that I was among a dying breed of O’s fans. By the end of the week I once again had reason to “Believe.” Martin O’Malley would be proud.
(3) The attendance figures that pop up on the scoreboard aren’t as depressing when you’re away from home. Having been to the first Orioles game at Camden Yards, an April 3, 1992, exhibition match-up with the Mets, and proudly struggled to find tickets when my college friends visited town in the early-‘90s, it continues to be truly disheartening to watch the crowds diminish in size over the years and often change colors to support visiting teams. If you’ll forgive a metaphor that gives baseball much more import than it deserves, it’s sort of like watching the slow decline of a beloved aging relative. You still love them all the same, and in some ways appreciate them even more, but the visible signs of decline weigh heavy on your heart.
(There’s much more that could be – and indeed has been – written about the Orioles’ home attendance figures. For example, Peter Schmuck has a humorous, if depressing, take on the empty seats at the Yard. Tom Boswell also takes on the topic of attendance bottoming out and references the tendency for Red Sox and Yankee fans to take over Camden Yards.
The Birds’ overall attendance ranking among major-league teams continues its six-year slide and the team is threatening this year to hit its Camden Yards nadir for empty seats. The bottom line is that it was just downright sad to sit among so many Red Sox fans at the Yard last Monday and realize that O’s fans were simply doing the logical thing by staying home. Who can blame even the most devoted fans for refusing to shell out big bucks for an overly consistent, sub-.500 baseball team? I did wonder, however, why any free agent would want to play in a town where he’d be a visitor in his own ballpark for 16 games a season?
For an interesting look at attendance figures generally, follow the lead of The Sun’s Rick Maese and read this article on how the numbers are generated … and often exaggerated.)
(4) Did I mention that the O’s won in D.C. but lost at home?
-Lesson #2: Not all anger is bad.
I’m a recovering angry fan, the type of otherwise composed individual who loses all sense of reason and reacts in completely irrational ways while watching the home team struggle. I’ve stomped on hats, kicked furniture, and once even grabbed the collar of a Yankee fan who had the nerve during the ’96 playoffs to proclaim, “Orioles Suck!” All angry acts in the name of fandom that produced negative results. But I learned on Monday night that restrained angry thoughts, rather than demonstrative actions, can actually produce positive results.
Having shown Jobian patience – and stayed for all nine torturous innings – as the Red Sox dismantled the Orioles before a partisan Boston crowd at Camden yards, I daydreamed upon my exit about how nice it would feel to toss trash at the young fans in my section who were a living, breathing, making-out at the ballpark version of the Boston Teens couple, played by Jimmy Fallon-Rachel Dratch, on “Saturday Night Live.” Instead of carrying out my plan and seeming like a lunatic, I came across as the thoughtful friend when, during my scan for appropriate articles of trash, I located the Ravens backpack under the seats that my buddy was about to leave behind. Score one for restraint!
By the way, have I really referenced aging relatives and the Bible in the same posting about the Orioles? Somebody stop me before I start taking this stuff too seriously.
-Lesson #3: Springtime baseball games are cold.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I’ll buy a cheap Orioles baseball shirt from a street vendor outside RFK.
On Monday night I mistakenly changed into shorts prior to my short drive up 95 to Camden Yards. More accustomed to humid Baltimore summer evenings at the ballpark than inconsistent Spring nights there, I changed my tune if not my pitch by Friday, sporting jeans and a t-shirt on my longer trip down 95 to D.C. The cool wind that welcomed me to the Nation’s Capitol whispered – or perhaps “Roar”ed? – to me that I still wasn’t adequately prepared for an evening of baseball.
Several minutes later, as I showed off the three-quarter length sleeves on my new $15 baseball shirt, that aforementioned Fox TV reporter approached: “I see you guys are sporting your Orioles gear for the game …”