BALTIMORE — The Tigers had read the headlines about a new baseball stadium here, so they were teasing Frank Robinson beside the batting cage. Just two more seasons to go, or maybe three, then he'd hold the record all alone. He'd be the only man in history to hit a ball entirely out of Memorial Stadium.
"Fastball, down and in, off Luis Tiant. First time I ever saw him," said the man with 586 home runs in a rapid, mocking voice, making light of the deed. "No, I didn't watch it. We didn't watch our home runs back in those days (1966). They told me when I got in the dugout. I still didn't believe it."
"Please, just don't tell me that you didn't 'get it all,' " said Detroit's Dave Bergman.
"Oooohh, I got it all," said Robinson. "There was a lot of hot air blowing out that night--especially after I got back in the dugout."
They signed the death sentence for Memorial Stadium in the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis even though the deed won't be done until a 45,000-seat park in Camden Yards, near the Inner Harbor, is completed, perhaps by mid-1990, more likely 1991.
There'll be no referendum to repeal the $200-million-plus project, dear to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's heart, which will commission side-by-side parks--one for the Orioles (if they sign a long-term lease), and one for an NFL team (if the football league expands to Baltimore).
Baltimore is not a town that is neither fond of new suits of clothes, nor does it trust endeavors that require them. How many towns could, in a few weeks, collect 45,000 signatures begging that the state not build the city a gorgeous new site for its baseball circuses? Polls here have shown anti-stadium feeling running 10% ahead.
The curmudgeonly point of view is evoked by Tony, a 71-year-old Baltimore institution who runs the newsstand at the corner of 32nd and Greenmount in the shadow of Memorial Stadium. "There's not a thing wrong with that ballpark. It's one of the best," he said. "The parking won't be better down in the Inner Harbor, maybe worse. And the seats for us fans won't be better, either.
"They're building it so that lawyer owner and his politician friends can sit in them lounge chairs in their sky boxes with their feet up, get served champagne and watch the game on TV."
Not many will mourn the passing of this utilitarian but uninspiring park with such violence. Basically, Memorial Stadium is a pile of bricks, shoved into a horseshoe with no roof and a lot of aluminum seats in a remote upper deck. Two-foot-wide concrete pillars obscure many lower deck views. No attempt at grace is possible. None is tried.
What the park has had since 1954 is lots of grass and sky and soft summer breezes. This is an open, inviting yard of a park that lets the purple wash of sundown spill over the left field bleachers and invade the senses. You can smell the change of seasons from April to October.
If the joint looks like the worst of stark Socialist Realism, at least it has a gritty substantiality. The trees and whitewashed houses beyond the outfield fences are nice, though the comparable view in Camden Yards might be fancier--the twinkling lights of the Inner Harbor.
Memorial Stadium is famous for its traffic jams and its noise. The former will not be missed. But the latter may never be duplicated. In the great pennant race games of the early '80s, the volume could intimidate entire teams. "This is the loudest stadium in baseball, except possibly for Oakland," said Ted Simmons, a veteran of both leagues. "When they start chanting 'O-r-i-o-l-e-s,' I just scream right along with them to keep from losing my mind."
The horseshoe kept the sound inside and fans felt they could contribute to late-inning "Oriole Magic." The Roar From 34 was nothing more than the sound of a few hundred fans in the first base upper deck venting their sudsy glee. But it was infectious and helped ignite dozens of rallies in the days of "Ed-die, Ed-die" and The Earl of Bal'mer.
When the Orioles were the American League's most consistently excellent team for more than 20 years, the quaint ballpark added to an anachronistic sense of family that the team protected. Wasn't it cozy that all those catacombs connected the Oriole clubhouse and the team offices? Turn left at the bat room. Sidestep the washing machine and go through the unmarked door. In an instant you'd gone from Jim Palmer's locker to the general manager's office.
Other teams may have had weight rooms and luxurious lounges for wives, but the Orioles had a whiff of underdog togetherness. So many players stayed in town during the winter that they unearthed cramped subterranean areas for batting and pitching practice. The crack of pitches hitting Elrod Hendricks' glove could be heard on Christmas Day.
Those times are now long departed. In fact, the feeling of Memorial Stadium these days is one of palpable loss. The huge new right-field scoreboard either plays messages touting farm system prospects or runs nostalgia features.
Is it an accident that some Orioles play better when they leave Memorial Stadium, as though the place haunts them with its past heroes and present disappointments? John Shelby, Dennis Martinez, Sammy Stewart and Mike Flanagan have all revived themselves as soon as they departed.