It all started when they stopped serving Diet Coke. “We don’t carry coke products anymore,” the food vendor said. And an ever so slight chill went up my spine at the utterance of the words. So slight, it was nearly undetected. I don’t recall the exact date but I know it was prior to July 2018 because that is when things really started going downhill. With regard to dates though, let’s be honest, the pandemic has made the time lapse struggle real…for everyone.
This is actually a story about my happy place, Orioles Park at Camden Yards (fondly referred to as The Yard or OPACY) and the baseball team that plays there, the Baltimore Orioles. In my opinion, OPACY is as close to heaven on earth as you can get. The team strongly connects me to two cherished family members who spent valuable time with me in some of my saddest days as a child, consequently instilling in me their love of the game and dedication to the home team. And although they were long gone by the time OPACY was built in 1992, I can hear their voices and feel their presence whenever I’m at an Orioles game. And so, it is where I go to feel closer to them.
To fully appreciate that which is OPACY, let’s take a walk to my season seats in the lower section behind the Orioles On-Deck Circle, shall we? We begin our stroll at Dempsey’s Restaurant, named for the O’s 1983 World Series MVP Rick Dempsey our local Orioles TV announcer. Rick often walks through the Yard before or during a game and people yell “Hi Rick.” He waves but I doubt he knows any of them. They know Rick, though. Every O’s fan knows Rick.
When we reach OUR section, we are greeted by OUR ushers where we get hugs and share team news stories that broke that day. Who is on injured reserve, who was traded? These ushers love the game. Love the Orioles. Are fan friendly. And keep order if chaos ever breaks out, which rarely happens. Our ushers are another integral part of the beautiful experience called an evening at Camden Yards.
From my seats I take in sweeping views of the architecture. Originally a railroad site, the designers maintained the historic structural character of the property in every element of the design. From the use of the “Camden Green” color palate to the blending of the industrial brick warehouse along the Eutaw Street promenade where the restaurants, shops, and offices are housed, to the spires that adorn the roof of the original train station. All architectural features that are juxtaposed with the modern skyscrapers just beyond the Yard. OPACY is truly a magnificent visual landscape that gives the visitor the equivalent of a big hug every time you walk through the gate.
I’m there so much that friends visit me at my seats before and during the game to say hello. When I was growing up, I watched the O’s with my grandfather on TV, later I attended games with my Stepfather who taught me baseball park etiquette. I was raised to never stand when the ball is in play, for any reason, and never leave the game before it’s over in the bottom of the 9th no matter the score. Be loyal to the home team, never boo an Oriole, especially if they strike out when we need a hit. I added a new rule: wear team colors when attending a game. Orange makes the Yard look amazing day or night.
After watching so many games as a kid, my stepfather signed me up to be a Junior Oriole when I was in grade school. I’ve been in attendance for a lot of Orioles milestone over the years. The final game at Memorial Stadium in 1991 and the first game at Orioles Park in 1992 come to mind. But every game that 13 gold glove winner Brooks Robinson played at 3rd base were memorable. Brooks was my hero as a kid and I was fortunate to watch him play many times over his career. Cal Ripken who made history when he tied, then broke a record in baseball that no one ever thought could be broken, was also a favorite. I proudly sat in OPACY to personally witness Cal’s historic moments. I can still feel the electricity that went through the Yard as fans stood to applaud Cal’s 22-minute jog around the warning track to say thanks to the fans.
There was a lull in historic moments after Cal retired in 2001. But I never missed an Opening Day and kept my season tickets through the wins and the losses. Enter Manny Machado in 2012. The future of Orioles baseball was how I saw him. A run producer, I instantly felt Manny brought a renewed spirit to the O’s and identified him as the clear heir apparent to Brooks and Cal. The Orioles had a theme song many years ago called The Magic of Orioles Baseball. Since the O’s began to make post season again after Manny came to the team, I firmly believed that Manny was making magic happen again. He truly was surrounded by a magical team as well. Since Manny took the field at Orioles Park wearing number 13, I have not attended a game without wearing my orange Manny Machado t-shirt and I never will again.
Let’s talk about the other reasons to love Orioles Park, shall we? Clancy the beer vendor who carries two or three cases of beer on his shoulder while treading 2 steps at a time to hurry to a fan who held up their hand to get his attention. The lemonade guy who shook his body to mix up the liquid in the cup instead of shaking the cup. The hot dog vendor who spells out “orioles” in script with ketchup or mustard when you buy a hot dog. And the announcer who always engaged fans with his introduction of J J HARDY – a melodic sounding chant that all 46,000 fans shout simultaneously when JJ came to bat.
Most importantly, Orioles Park at Camden Yards was the one place I could go where I was as entertained as I needed to be in life, felt one with nature through the sky and the grass, exercised my body with walks around the promenade, interacted with other humans who had a mutual love of the Orioles, forgot about all my worries for nearly 3 or 4 hours, and had a reunion of the heart with my grandfather and stepfather. A beautiful collage of nirvana, and I was blessed to have it within walking distance of my home.
Then it happened. I went to Orioles Park one night for Paint the Orioles logo night with my cousin and her daughter and the package included seats down the left field line. We walked around more than usual and really took in the beauty of a night at the Yard. At one point we noticed our seats were empty so with permission from the ushers we sat there. Unfortunately, there were Yankee fans two rows behind us and since their team was ahead, they were making noise (in football it’s called trash talk) but they were doing it – AT US. In my Yard! You know like in our faces but they were behind us. It got tiresome. So, we decided to leave during the break in the middle of the 9th (an uncharacteristic thing for me to do because I’m a stay until the bitter end girl). As we were leaving, #13, Manny Machado, came up to bat and we stood in the flag court – a favorite spot for standing room only attendees or those who just want to catch a home run ball – to watch him. And true to his magical self, Manny proceeded to hit a game winning homer. Game Over. Oriole’s win. Manny Magic! As I watched him run the bases, I took pictures with my cell phone. I silently smiled and reminded myself I didn’t leave before the game was over after all.
It was the last time I would see Manny Machado in an Orioles uniform. He was traded later that month to the LA Dodgers. Here is where I insert the broken heart emoji. I was dejected because I believed Manny would be with the Orioles for his entire career. I was spoiled with Brooks and Cal. But I am an Orioles fan and my great fortune is the connection the team provides to my past and promises for the future. Accentuate the positive!
Truth? The magic never really returned in the same way for me after Manny’s departure so when he returned to the Yard for the first time after the trade, I made sure I was there. He was wearing a Padre’s uniform now but I just wanted to see him play at the Yard one more time. And wouldn’t you know? Something magic did happen that night because I ended up with a field pass and got to meet Manny before game time. I’ve posted the photo with this blog. Note: I’m wearing my orange Manny t-shirt as promised.
During that game Manny came to bat and the entire ball park stood to cheer him. It was a welcome home for a player who had brought so much joy to the fans. He tipped his hat to the crowd and the catcher stood and played catch a few minutes with the pitcher to give Manny his moment. Respect. Then Manny hit a home run. Not quite as many people cheered at that point but I stood and cheered again. I didn’t feel like I was breaking any rules and that my stepfather would have given me a pass on this one.