There are two words in the English language that get me, as Thumper might’ve told Bambi, twitterpated.
Those words … Road Trip!
I suspect it has something to do with my former career as a sports writer when I crisscrossed the Midwest following the team I was covering to various remote outposts.
More likely, however, my love of seeing the home team in enemy territory stems from my upbringing in rural Decatur, Ind., where there was no home team to root for.
We were equidistance from Cincinnati, Chicago, and Cleveland. I suppose you could say my father and I were a couple of the original road warriors.
Whatever the reason, I’ve truly grown to appreciate being a stranger in a strange ballpark, stadium, arena, or concert hall.
The beauty of being that stranger is the discovery. It’s not as though I’ve become Lewis and Clark, but it’s the exhilaration of approaching the gates, handing that smiling face my ticket, and embarking on three hours of new adventures. What unknown architectural wonders, concession stands, and native customs await me after I pass through the turnstiles?
I’ve taken such trips with friends, gone solo, and, more recently, enjoyed the occasional road trip with my family. Mercifully, my wife Carol, daughter Helena, and son Jake, all enjoy baseball enough that two-plus hours at a ballpark are possible.
Such was the case during our Spring Break 2011 trip to Maryland. Following a four-day walking tour of our nation’s capital, we embarked for a couple of days in Baltimore – including a Tigers-Orioles game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
I’m blessed to say that I’ve managed to get to most of the classic baseball stadiums that were in existence during my lifetime. In addition to Tiger Stadium, I have notches on my belt from Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Comiskey Park.
Until earlier this month I had never been to Baltimore, so an opportunity to get to the original “new classic” – Camden Yards – was too good to pass up. Imagine my delight when my 14-year-old daughter told me she wanted to take a two-hour tour of the park in addition to going to the game.
As far as tours go, it was rather perfunctory, but the history lesson about the B&O Warehouse (nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall) and how it was used by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O Railroad for you Monopoly fans) was fascinating. Further, the fact that Babe Ruth’s father’s bar was located in short center field at the turn of the 20th Century was neat to learn about.
What I really found amazing, however, was the original plans for the park did not include the warehouse. Initially, the architect wanted a view of the Inner Harbor – which would’ve meant razing the structure – but one of then-Oriole President Larry Lucchino’s people insisted otherwise.
The warehouse is easily one of the most recognizable characteristics in the Majors today. And, because it is so oversized, it gives the illusion – much like the Citgo sign in Boston – of being closer than it is.
For those wondering, the windows on the first two floors are shatter proof, though no player has ever reached the structure on the fly during game conditions.
In fact, only one recorded shot has hit the warehouse on the fly in a quasi-game condition and that was a Ken Griffey Jr. blast hit during the 1993 Home Run Derby.
Each of the 19 official homers that have made it onto Eutaw Street is commemorated with a plaque. Included among those is one by former Tiger catcher Mickey Tettleton who, as near as I could figure, was the first to do so on April 20, 1992.
Other peculiarities discovered about Oriole Park was the fact there is a sod farm adjacent to the bullpens in center field, there is ivy growing on one of the sod farm walls as tribute to Wrigley Field, and the giant green hitting backdrop wall is a cap tip to Fenway.
Only two items made the trip from the old Municipal Stadium and they were the right field foul pole and home plate. The entire seating area is done in green save for two orange seats – one for Eddie Murray’s 500th home run and one for Cal Ripken Jr.’s 278th home run as a shortstop (breaking Ernie Banks’ record).
With this newfound knowledge I eagerly anticipated our return later that evening for the game to discover what else makes Camden Yards unique.
Three things stood out to me:
- First, before every Monday and Thursday night home game, members of the Orioles’ Alumni Association return for a free one-hour autograph session. Jake was the last person allowed in line and came away with autographed cards of Tippy Martinez, Bill Swaggerty and Fred Valentine. If physical appearance is any indication, I believe Tippy could still be a situational lefty somewhere.
- Second, it’s not every day one can get crab cakes, soft shell crab sandwiches, or crab soup at a ballgame – such, however, is the nature of concessions in Baltimore. Every ballpark has its own culinary flair, I understand, but it made me wonder exactly what the delectable delight at Comerica Park is? A coney from Leo’s? The over-priced Little Caesar’s pizza? (By the way, Jake tried the crab soup to warm himself about the fifth inning and it did the job albeit with too many veggies for his liking.)
- The highlight, for me, was Boog’s Barbecue on the Eutaw Street pavilion. Boog, of course, is John Wesley “Boog” Powell who spent 14 of 17 big-league seasons with the O’s. Much to my surprise Boog himself was there pressing the flesh, posing for photos, and signing autographs (I did all three) while folks waited in line to place their orders. His “Big Boog” hickory-smoked pork sandwich (also comes in beef and turkey) with the side of kettle chips ($15) was quite tasty and filling – I wanted for nothing the rest of the game.
Spending less-than-a-minute with Boog took me back to one of my first road trips. The year was 1976 and my father and I had traveled to Cleveland to take in an Indians-Twins matinee.
As was my dad’s way, we arrived incredibly early for the game and, standing near the player’s entrance, the nearly 9-year-old version of myself craned his neck attempting to see the giant of a man who walked by – Boog Powell, then an injured Indian.
I recounted that story to Boog in Baltimore and told him how gigantic I remembered him. He dryly responded, “I’m a lot bigger now than I was then.”
This was the third time the Hill Family has taken in a Tigers’ tilt on the road – Toronto and Minnesota were the others.
We’ve enjoyed all three experiences; save the incredibly intoxicated Blue Jays’ fans near our seats in Toronto and the fact Detroit is now 0-3 with us in the house.
That doesn’t bode well for the May 21st game in Pittsburgh when three generations of Hills will be in attendance – father, son, and grandson.
What does bode well is the fact another one of my favorite former players – Pirates’ catcher Manny Sanguillen – has a barbecue of his own in left field; Manny’s BBQ.
Word has it Manny’s there to schmooze, pose and sign.
I’m already feeling hungry.