Camden Yards: Minor League Heaven
The funny thing is that she wasn’t alone. Visiting Camden Yards again for the first time since its inaugural 1992 seasonâ€”when I had to buy my family online tickets for a late June game in early February, only to find ourselves perched in the left field corner upper deckâ€”I was fully expecting a paltry gathering of less than ten thousand to see the 19-51 Birds play the Marlins in 97-degree drippy heat. Not only was the crowd well over 15,000, but the loyalty and spirit among the attendees was a thing of minor beauty.
There were kids with birds painted on their faces, entire families draped in orange, even a packed little upper deck section called Garrett’s Group, after their largely ineffective and bench-relegated first base acquisition Mr. Atkins. Boog’s Barbecue and the park’s 12-dollar crab cake sandwiches were still finding stomach homes, and when the Birds took an early 4-0 lead with a flock of hits off Ricky Nolasco, the noise was pretty darn deafening.
Then the expected happened: a pair of 2-run Florida bleacher bombs the next inning tied the game, before shoddy fielding, pitching, hitting and Juan Samuel interim managing gave Baltimore their 52nd loss. But no one, especially the younger fans, seemed to care much. They still cheered the right hits and outs, still got up at the 7th inning stretch to sing and clap with John Denver, and from all evidence seemed to enjoy their time at the park.
Then I realized something. Going to Oriole Park these days is actually like taking in a top-of-the-line minor league game. You even get to see a visiting major league team. Public transportation can take you straight to the park’s gates, you can buy a cheap ticket down the line for 15 bucks and sit practically anywhere you want because the ushers barely care. The food is super, and the retro design of Camden Yards and its famous attached warehouse is still unmatched. Except for the play of the home team, what’s not to like?
The Eutaw Street Hooligans seem to find things, but even THEY are there most every night. On a mission to take back Camden Yards from this “Fenway South crap,” the crew of six Hooligansâ€”all sporting aliases of characters played by their all-time favorite actor Keeanu Reevesâ€”spout Oriole passions on their raw, hilarious blog when they aren’t heckling opposing players, or fans of opposing players at the ballpark. As noted by Jason, or “Kevin Lomax”, a Hooligan I spent most of last week’s game with, “we have some rules here,” and one is that you don’t wear hats of opposing teams in their park. Jason stresses they try to be “smarter” about their heckles, too. Rather than just yell at Ryan Church and call him gay, they say things like “We like your strong legs!” until he acknowledges them. Jason also seemed especially proud of the night that Denard Span flipped them off.
But the Hooligans and other informative team bloggers like Orioles Hangout also have keen insight into Baltimore’s management cesspool, and how badly it needs draining. Jason cites a giant rift between ownership and the scouting department that has led to a horribly unfocused team direction. Mike Tremblay may not have been a good manager, but like most failing clubs, the problems never start and end in the dugout. With Stephen Strasburg now putting the Washington Nationals on baseball’s map just 34 miles to the south, the situation in Birdland has become even more desperate.
The Orioles managed to load the bases in the 8th after shrinking the Marlin lead to one run, and until the moment Miguel Tejada skied out to left to end the team’s last big chance, the gathering was pleading and screaming like they would do for an actual big league team anywhere.
For now, the days are ungodly sticky, and the nights Baltimore wins are even sweeter when they happen. After discovering they took the next two games after I left town, I also noticed their crowds went up a bit each night. It reminded of a story I read about the 1962 Mets, one of our most famous terrible teams, and about how their attendance actually increased when one of their mid-summer losing streaks went into double digits.
Everyone wanted to be there when it ended.
Jeff Polman is a baseball history replayer and dramatist. You can find more of his work at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ where he conducted a fascinating replay of the 1924 season, or at http://funkyball.wordpress.com, where heâ€™s doing the same with 1977.