There are few structures that mean as much to me as Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I didn’t go there a single time last summer.
The Yard couldn’t have caught me during a more formative twenty years of my life. From age nine to 29, it has been my place of pilgrimage to the confusing and enriching church of baseball. Now it sits closer to me than it ever has before. I see it more often than I see the house I grew up in, 23 miles due north. It’s my stone and brick Velveteen Rabbit, a passing reminder of something that was so seminal to my life at times, and so distant and vestigial at others.
Twenty years ago I went to the first game at The Yard. Not the opener against the Indians, mind you, but the first exhibition game against the Mets. I didn’t like the idea of going to a new stadium. Going to baseball games was something we did at the Old Stadium, and that had always worked out well. It smelled like beer and piss and popcorn. The seats would conduct the summer heat so powerfully you almost couldn’t sit on them. The parking attendant in our lot was one of the dozen adults whose names I actually knew. Once, Julio Franco swung so hard his bat helicoptered into the seat in front of us. It was an ideal place to be a little kid.
Then my dad had to explain there would be a New Stadium, not on the grounds of the Old Stadium, but downtown – a place previously reserved for trips to the aquarium. He didn’t tell me how nice it was going to be or how I’d be able to draw it from memory after just a few trips. I’m not sure he, like many fans of the Brooks Robinson era, was crazy about the team moving to the new posh digs.
That first game was freezing. I’m sure I’ve technically been colder in my life, but never has my body temperature situation been so desperate. For reasons unknown, we traded our usual seats along the first base line with someone who had the seats at the very top of the upper deck, directly overlooking home plate. Granted, it was cool to imagine I was playing a real-life version of “RBI Baseball” for a brief moment, but the March winds soon left me unable to focus on what was happening around me.
A stroke of genius came to me and I begged my dad to run to the bathroom with me between innings. If I could just warm up my hands with some hot water, maybe I’d be able to pay attention and figure out whether I liked The New Stadium. That hadn’t turned the hot water on yet.
“The New Stadium” soon became “Oriole Park” which soon became “The Yard.” My dad kept his season tickets for the first eight or nine years of the new facility, and I was spoiled into going to more games than a kid could reasonably ask for.
Once the place warmed up, I became obsessed with its architectural details. The Warehouse, Eutaw Street, the Flag Court, the Right Field Scoreboard. They became like babysitters working three hour shifts on weekend nights and Sunday afternoons. With them around I felt safe and complete.
That was the first decade. Sure, each summer I probably had a diminishing amount of time and interest in going to baseball games. Even the most diehard teenaged fan can be forgiven for letting his favorite toy gather a little dust. And certainly it didn’t help that the team was not very good for seven of those ten years, but even that didn’t bother me in the early days.
Perhaps its simply the timing of everything, but it’s safe to say that 19 to 29 have not been years where getting to a baseball game have not been the first thing on my mind. In my defense, three or four of those years have been spent in other cities, but only one summer where getting to a game wouldn’t been improbable. Maybe I could justify it with being angry at baseball for the steroid era, although it’d be a lie to say that’s why I mostly stopped going to games. Perhaps I could reason that September 11th gave me a better appreciation for what really matters, but of course that would also be a lie. Oriole Park at Camden Yards was an incredible treehouse for me, one I held on to for as long as I could.
I used to think Cal Ripken, Jr. was the singular icon that would forever connect me to Orioles baseball and why even though I’ve become jaded, disinterested, and callous, I’ll never be able to really disconnect from those formative years. The second decade of Oriole Park didn’t even feature Ripken, who at one time seemed so indelibly linked to The Yard and its spirit.
And yet when I see Ripken I feel joy, nostalgia and that confusing stir you get seeing your childhood hero as a grownup.
When I drive by The Yard, I feel something else. It’s still so beautiful. There’s no other way to say it, but it reminds me of Everything. It breaks my goddamned heart.