The Grand Tour, part five

The previous installments of this series can be found here, here, here, and here.

I said earlier that, except where noted, we drove through beautiful countryside. This is the note. The corridor between Philadelphia and Baltimore is just too built-up to be uniformly attractive, although there are patches here and there. It’s also sufficiently built-up to give Samantha Daisy TomTom some further problems, though we didn’t end up in any unexpected states.

The drive down is quite short compared to all the other legs of our trip. That meant no rushing in the morning, and a good margin for sightseeing in the afternoon. We had just the place picked out.

I didn’t see any ball games by the roadside, though I did see a ballpark: Bank of America Stadium at Ripken Field. The construction of that name shows a certain influence, no?

Our hotel in Baltimore had been a luxury apartment building back when it was constructed in the 1920s. The good news: a big, comfy room. The bad news: perhaps the smallest elevators I have ever seen. If two of you are in one, and two others want to board at an intermediate floor, they will wait for the next one.

The seven retired Orioles numbers (“20” is obscured), plus the B&O Warehouse. And a ballpark on the right.

The other good news: it was close enough to Camden Yards that we could walk to the ballpark. We passed some non-baseball statuary along the way— a column topped by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette on horseback—and eventually started seeing banners with baseball players on them. The banner zone extends for a few blocks, so our arrival wasn’t quite imminent, but it came.

I’d been to Baltimore once before in 1998, and got a look at Camden Yards from the outside though I had no opportunity to attend a game. The park was as famous then as now, the gold standard for modern ballpark design. Things were a little different today. The retired numbers outside the park were new, for one. I’m not sure “Babe Ruth’s Dream,” a statue of a young George Ruth looking into a future not even he could imagine, was there in ’98 either.

Baltimore is Babe Ruth’s hometown, and there are plenty of reminders about the fact. After our quick first look at Camden Yards, we were off to visit the biggest of those reminders. Following a trail of baseballs stenciled onto the sidewalks, passing a statue of Brooks Robinson fielding with a shiny gold glove, we made our way to the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum.

The museum is a genuine multi-family dwelling, three stories in brick, from the 19th century, refitted within to its modern purpose. Ruth’s mother’s mother lived here, and when Mom felt moral qualms about giving birth above the saloon that Dad owned, she came here. The room where he was born is recreated in period detail, as is a parlor on the first floor. Both are blocked off, but left highly visible. My best evidence that this is a real 19th-century home: the floorboards creak.

Compared to, say, the Reds museum, this is a quite modest place. The combination admissions desk/gift shop is maybe as big as your bathroom. The video room, while pleasantly open, has one short bench for viewers: they don’t expect huge traffic. (The video that day linked Ruth to the emergence of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a mainstay of baseball games in 1918, 13 years before it official became the national anthem. The bicentennial of the song’s composition, in Baltimore, is nearly upon us.)

The mainstays of baseball museums are here: balls, bats, uniforms, photos, programs, press pins. One wall is covered with 714 small plaques, marking each of Ruth’s career home runs. Another section honors the 500 home run club, with autographed balls by a majority of its members. My favorite: Sadaharu Oh, signed in both Roman and katakana characters. One nice hands-on exhibit lets you grip bats used by Ruth and Cal Ripken, to feel how different the narrow handles of today are from the sticks Ruth swung.

Baseball is America’s mythology. And some of our myths are even true.

My true “wow” moment came from a dingy old brown ball in a case. Babe’s signature is front and center, dominating the others on the sphere. Next to it, he added a further inscription: “I’ll knock a homer for Wednesday’s game.”

It’s the Johnny Sylvester ball. Sylvester was a gravely ill boy in the hospital, and the ball was Ruth’s promise to hit a home run for him in the World Series. Ruth fulfilled his promise, in triplicate, Sylvester made an unexpected full recovery, and a legend was born, hatched out of that egg. Sylvester would live long enough to make his own visit to Ruth’s sickbed as he was dying of throat cancer. The magic, of course, worked only one way.

The connection remains to this day: Johnny Sylvester’s nephew is the curator of the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum. No question how the museum got that ball.

If the Ruth museum feels a touch empty, it’s because of its twin, the Sports Legends Museum. Built at Camden Station, just beyond the B&O Warehouse, it houses all the non-Babe items and exhibits that had been crowding the birthplace museum. You can buy separate or combined admissions, and though Paul and I passed that day, I’m guessing it’s worth a look if you’ve got the time.

Paul and I didn’t have the time. We had batting practice to attend.

Game 5: April 22, 2013
Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles
Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, Maryland
Attendance: 11,168 (not announced at game)

Buck Showalter (front & center, white cap) confers with players. Probable wisdom imparted: “Those one-run wins last year were great. We should do that again.”

The gates across Eutaw Street, running between the park and the warehouse, opened promptly at five, two hours before game time. This wasn’t for general admission (except for season-ticket holders, if what I overheard from an usher was right), but for spectators going to the right-field porch to watch BP and have a chance at a few home-run balls.

This is the Flag Court at Camden Yards, a plaza beyond the high right-field wall. It was sparsely occupied when we arrived—a precursor of the light crowd to come that evening—so Paul and I got our pick of places. I went right to the rail, caring less about ball-hawking than watching the proceedings.

I made the right bargain. There weren’t many balls hit to the court that day, perhaps two or three, and neither Paul nor I had a good shot at any of them. I did see something noteworthy near the end of BP, though.

The last batters of the session were all lefties, a long string of them. Lefties, of course, are likelier to pull the ball deep to right. Someone, whether management, coaches, or the players themselves, arranged for a sustained effort to reach the Flag Court when there would be maximum fans there trying to catch what came their way. I haven’t any reason to believe they don’t do this every day. That is a textbook fan-friendly policy, a little gesture that can go a long way.

Once BP ended, we could get back to exploring. Eutaw Street virtually forms an outer concourse for the park, bounded by the B&O Warehouse which itself has a gift shop and other fan-oriented businesses. A long Hall of Fame wall holds plaques for dozens of Orioles. And then there’s Boog’s BBQ, Boog Powell doing for this park what Greg Luzinski did for Citizens Bank Park. Paul would be handling this one.

I got to the statue plaza past center field, with representations of all the Orioles whose numbers have been retired. Sizing up Earl Weaver, I concluded his statue had been made bigger than life-size. Would’ve been cruel to do otherwise.

As always, I cruised the concourse. It stands at street level (the field well below), with frequent openings to the outside. It felt the broadest and most open one we had seen, but the sunshine of the day may have influenced that perception.

It was also the happiest concourse. When the piped-in music started playing “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops, all the workers at an “O What a Dog” booth started dancing to the Motown beat. Good taste in music, folks. It would be at a booth closer to our seats, but I knew where I’d be finishing the five-city hot-dog taste test.

Comparing Wieners: O What a Dog ($4.75)
And … it was just a hot dog. The weakest of the lot. Maybe I should have gone back to the Motown stand instead.

Paul split his bet, going to two places. When we passed a stand in the concourse called Polock Johnny’s, my part-Polish friend knew he had to go there. He got himself a kielbasa with the works—which he reported was decent, not great. From my own experience, I know that a kielbasa should be better than decent, so this was a negative review.

The second part of his ballpark dinner was a BBQ sandwich from Boog’s BBQ. This was outright disappointing. The worst part was seeing barbecue sauce being applied from a squeeze bottle. Nobody who eats Kansas City barbecue on business trips like Paul does is going to settle for something that weak.

Hence, Luzinski beats Powell in this round of the Heavy-Set Retired Ballplayer’s Food Service Showdown, and goes on to meet Rusty Staub in the finals. Plus, Asheville’s Sausage Shack holds its early lead and wins my prize for the best hot dog on our trip. Come with a full wallet and an empty stomach: it’ll be worth it.

No humorous captioning here. Just one of the great glory shots in all of baseball.

Closing out the series

I assumed from the outset that a Monday game in Baltimore would have the smallest crowd of our four big-league games, and suggested to Paul that if he splurged anywhere for close seats, it should be here. He actually went big in three of our locales, and this was one of them. I steered him toward the third-base side, for reasons that the photo on the side should make obvious.

Here I must report that, no, Camden Yards is not perfect. For the first time on the trip, including the car, I found myself with inadequate leg-room. The rows in our section are just too close together. I am not a big man, but I do like to stretch out some, and I felt cramped. I’ll chalk that up as a mistake all the other ballparks have learned from in the last couple decades.

The nationals anthems, Canadian and American, were performed by the same man, diminutive, bearded, and quite good. Orioles fans did belt out “O!” at the appropriate part of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They missed several opportunities during “O Canada,” however. I must also note that the flag in center was a 15-star, 15-stripe replica of the one that flew over Fort McHenry. Baltimore is taking this anniversary seriously.

There were some boos when PED suspendee Melky Cabrera first came up for Toronto. This was as exciting as the top of the first got, unless grounders to the left side give you the tingles. The bottom was slightly more active. An Adam Jones fly to center drew “Ohs,” but Colby Rasmus actually came in to make the catch. A moment later, a large fellow down the right-field line appeared to take a long slicing foul off his face. He recovered from whatever actually did happen pretty quickly, thankfully.

In the second, Adam Lind’s one-out flare down the left-field line confused Nolan Reimold, who staggered to his right at the last second but had it plop a little beyond him. The wind probably had a hand in that. Chris Tillman walked J.P. Arencibia—whose on-base before than had been just 10 points higher than his batting average—but escaped on a double play. J.A. Happ put two on in his second, but kept them off the board.

Between innings, I reached a milestone in my life: I got to high-five a major-league sports mascot. The Oriole Bird (teams don’t waste creativity on avian mascots: c.f. the Pirate Parrot) came off the visitors’ dugout and up our aisle, and I did what the sitaution demanded.

He wasn’t the only visitor to the aisles. We had endured very heavy vendor action in the bottom of the first, along with a stream of late arrivals for a couple innings providing obstructions reminiscent of Great American Ball Park and the late, unlamented Shea Stadium. One thing I learned on this trip is that aisle seats can be overrated.

The wind truly asserted itself in the fourth. For Toronto, Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion both went deep into center, but Jones reined them both in a little shy of the track.

In Baltimore’s half, Matt Wieters’ fly to center was visibly knocked down by the wind. Chris Davis hit a longer one that met the same fate. J.J. Hardy tried one into the right-field corner, but the wind handled that too.

Temperatures had started out a little warmer for this game, but between the wind and nightfall, they were coming down. Again. Each night had been a tiny bit warmer than the previous one, but that left a lot of room for the heat to get sucked out of us.

Toronto started adding its own defensive work in the fifth to supplement the weather. Encarnacion did a split at first base to haul in a wide throw from Emilio Bonifacio at second, nipping Steve Pearce. Bret Lawrie did well getting to a ball topped to third by Alexi Casilla, and did better eating it with no shot at the runner. Nick Markakis then grounded one hard off the top of Encarnacion’s glove, but Bonifacio was right on it, producing your standard 3-4-3 out.

Happ and Tillman were cruising, with three hits and seven total baserunners over five innings. They worked fast, as though they didn’t like the wind and falling temperatures any more than I did. The first five innings had passed in less than eighty minutes. For someone who lived through some midnight-bound Orioles-Yankees marathons in the late 1990s, this was a refreshing switch.

Baltimore responded with its own defensive pearl in the sixth, Manny Machado making a great barehand pickup well in toward home to get Munenori Kawasaki. Machado then turned the wind to his benefit, his liner driven down just in front of a diving Colby Rasmus. Jones lined one off Lawrie’s glove for a second hit. A passed ball (it was ruled a wild pitch at the time, but Baseball-Reference says differently now) and a Davis sac fly brought Machado home for the first run of the contest.

Offhand fact guaranteed to make us all feel old: Manny Machado is exactly three months younger than Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Toronto got it back, Rasmus’ two-out, full-count knock getting past Casilla in the 3.5 hole to score Encarnacion. Tillman got the hook, and was on the hook for the two runners he left on base. Submariner Darren O’Day put Lawrie on to load them, but Bonifacio struck out to keep it 1-1.

And before I knew it, we were into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Not a note of intro; not a second’s pause to actually stand. The bus pulled away without opening its doors. I stayed seated in mute protest.

Happ met his end after walking Pearce. After such a strong and quick five innings, both pitchers were gone before seven, and the pace was slowing. Nolan Reimold did his bit to speed things up by grounding into a DP, though Encarnacion had to do another split to save the second out. Steve Delabar got Casilla golfing at ball four to fan.

The top of the eighth featured a walk, a modest chant of “Steeee-roids!” for Cabrera, and Jose Bautista looking bad chasing a slider to strike out. The bottom of the eighth featured the fifth, sixth, and seventh Harry Belafonte “Daaaaaay-O!” blasts from the PA. Paul encapsulated both our opinions nicely: “Count the [censored] bananas, already!” (Don’t leap to conclusions: my threshold of bleeping is pretty low.)

The ninth arrived, still knotted 1-1. with the stiff wind and stiffer pitching, I was envisioning a 17-inning monster ahead of us. Would’ve been worse if we’d had another game the next day, but the falling temperature still made free baseball a dubious bargain. During the periodic chants of “Let’s Go O’s!” I had been interspersing the occasional “I’m so froze!” Paul contributed “Can’t feel my toes!”

Buck Showalter sent Jim Johnson in to pitch. The home team using its closer with a tie in the top of the ninth: proper and sound strategy. The reward was a 1-2-3 inning.

John Gibbons sent Aaron Loup in to pitch. Toronto’s designated closer is Casey Janssen. The visiting team withholding its closer from a tie in the bottom of the ninth, preserving him for a save situation. Sabermetricians do not consider this proper and sound strategy, however common it may be. Baltimore jumping on him to win the game would be condign punishment, but how often does real life serve up such desserts? Even if properly chilled?

With his first pitch, Loup clipped Chris Davis. Hardy bunted him over. I note here the wisdom of the Earl of Baltimore, who said the only time you should sacrifice is when the one run you are attempting to score will win the game. Modern analysts might be even more restrictive. This strategic morality tale just got way more complicated.

Pearce popped out to second. Last stop before extra innings. Reimold got the intentional walk, so Loup could face nine-hitter Alexi Casilla. Add some further complexity: is Reimold to Casilla a big enough drop in production to justify putting Reimold on? I’d feed these questions to Deep Thought, but it’d just sit thinking for 7.5 million years, then spit out a cryptic reference to Jackie Robinson.

Casilla could only ground to the shortstop. Kawasaki got it, threw it, bounced it! Encarnacion couldn’t come up with the pick this time. Any other day, I might have written “E-5 couldn’t prevent the E-6,” but Edwin earned better than that this game. The bases were jammed, with the top of the order coming up: Nick Markakis.

Orioles players celebrate, having taken Buck’s advice.

The PA should have been playing the appropriate snippet from Billy Joel’s “Pressure” here. You don’t often get the chance to hammer at a reliever’s psyche that way. Take it when it’s there.

The sparse crowd was putting forth impressive noise. Markakis fell behind fast, 0-2. He fouled one off, and then the liner! Into short left field, down the chalk. Cabrera never had any chance at it. 2-1, Orioles win it!

The last play of our five-city baseball trip was a walkoff hit. Thank you, Nick.

I walked down to the front row behind the Toronto dugout, taking shots of the post-game interviews. I wanted to immortalize the “pie moment,” Markakis taking a shaving-cream pie in the face live on camera. That’s virtually standard procedure for any walk-off hero today. One interview ended, another began, and Markakis was still untouched.

An usher asked what I was doing, and I told him. He told me there wouldn’t be any pie: Markakis was too much the veteran for that. He noted how Markakis was facing down the length of the dugout, the tunnel mouth in full view so he’d see anybody coming with lather aforethought. Seeing the wisdom of his observations, I abandoned the attempt.

We weren’t walking back to the hotel, not at night through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Paul has scant experience with mass transit—his work is in-state, not in New York—but he did look up a light rail line we could take to a stop close to the hotel. Said stop is named “Center Street at Howards Park.” The naming pattern is, apparently, everywhere in Maryland.

Paul still cannot believe we bought tickets for the train, and nobody ever came to collect them. You have much to learn about the mass transit experience, grasshopper.

This was the end of baseball for our trip, even if the trip wasn’t quite over. The next day had a lot of farm country, and a whole lot of cows. It had another radio call of a long-ago baseball game, including celebratory singing in the dugout afterward. It also ended the only way it could: with our navigation program getting us lost within Asheville city limits. Samantha Daisy TomTom!

Summing up

This was, in terms of pure baseball, a wonderfully lucky trip. We did not have a single sub-par game the whole way. Readers who remember my WPS system for rating ballgames for excitement may recall that its median score for playoff games comes to about 300. I ran the numbers for our four big-league contests, and this is how they look:

Mia@Cin:  386.1
Atl@Pit:  318.7
StL@Phi:  449.9
Tor@Bal:  446.3

Consistently above average, if none that are outright classics. Our opening game in Asheville, the extra-inning affair, would surely score very well by this system also. We got five good games, none of which remotely tempted us to sneak out early.

Not even in the weather we were experiencing. Hey, at least we didn’t get rained out. Or snowed out.

I’ve already stated my choice as the best ballpark of the four, PNC Park in Pittsburgh. As for the worst … I don’t think there was a worst. Gun to head, I’d say Great American, but the inclement weather skews my opinion. There wasn’t a bad ballpark; there wasn’t a mediocre one. Calling any of them “worst” distorts reality. I suppose I can reach back to the minors and say McCormick Field, where our tour began, but that’s an unfair dodge.

I went into this tour with a certain set opinion on modern baseball architecture: that this is the second Golden Age of ballpark design. What I saw over four days changed my mind. The quirks and idiosyncrasies of the original steel-and-concrete generation are worth remembering and even preserving, but today’s work has built mightily on that foundation. The retro-classical wave has relegated the original classics to an honorable silver. This, today, is the Golden Age. Even if the leg-room is tight here and there.

Is it possible to induct an entire architectural firm into the Hall of Fame? All four parks we visited were built by HOK Sport—now called Populous because somebody thought they needed to separate themselves from the name under which they gained their shining reputation—along with most of the other baseball stadia of the current generation. They have made a great, tangible, and hopefully enduring contribution to baseball. They deserve the recognition, although in a pinch, the ballparks themselves can stand as their monuments.

As a final review of our baseball tour, I can do no better than to say that Paul is ready to do it again. Not this year, maybe not next year, but sometime. I will be with him. Maybe we’ll get to Wrigley Field this time.

But definitely, we’re waiting until at least June.

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Jim C.
Jim C.

The Babe statue was installed in 1995.  Its most glaring deficiency is that it depicts Ruth holding a right-handed glove.


Great series, Shane.  Thanks.


Jim C, legend has it that when The Babe played ball at St. Mary’s he had to play with a right handed mitt, being that left handedness was a sign of the devil, not sure if that was behind the error or just an artist error. I’m sure when The Babe played for the Orioles they found a left handed glove for him.


Your reference to “Orioles-Yankees marathons in the late 1990s” brought back flashbacks of this game I had the misfortune of attending:
Yes, that is a time of game of 4:22 to play only 9 innings. Starting to get cold sweats just recalling that beast.

Hank G.
Hank G.

I enjoyed the entire series. If you and Paul take another trip, I hope you’ll write about it.

Paul G.
Paul G.

The Babe Ruth Museum does note that the Babe used a right-handed catcher’s mitt while at St. Mary’s.  They even have a picture of him with this peculiar equipment.  It is unclear why this was the case, but perhaps the school simply did not have a left-handed one.  This is not terribly surprising given that left-handed catchers were becoming rare.  (Jack Clements, the last major league left-handed catcher, retired in 1900.)  Ruth did use a left-handed fielder’s glove so the statue is wrong.  From a news article I found,  the sculptor asked the museum for a glove to model for… Read more »