Monday, January 20, 2014

August 24, 1997: Baltimore Orioles vs. Minnesota Twins

When I was 13, my parents helped me carve out my own little baseball world by giving me a 13-inch television for Christmas. During the remaining two years that my family lived in our third-story apartment in Little Italy, the TV sat haphazardly in the middle of my bedroom, sinking deeper and deeper into its foundation – the box it came in. However questionable the setup, that TV was freedom, an increasingly vital thing as I entered high school and adolescence. I could play my video games without distraction, and I could watch all the mature programming on HBO that would have sent my parents scrambling for the remote.

The TV also allowed me to watch baseball by myself and gain a deeper understanding. The father-son dynamic was still an important part of my passion for the game, but my dad didn’t follow the sport outside of the Phillies, and the team’s performance in 1996 further encouraged me to branch out. That’s when I remembered that Baltimore Orioles games were broadcast on Channel 2 (long before the launch of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a.k.a. MASN). It also helped that Phillies players Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia were traded to Baltimore in late August.

The onset of Interleague Play was still a year away, so my only knowledge of the American League came from my baseball card collection. My dad harbored an intense dislike for the Junior Circuit ever since it instituted the Designated Hitter in 1973. To this day, he roots for the National League in both the All-Star Game and the World Series.

After a few days of watching the O’s, I didn’t mind seeing a little extra offense, and that 1996 Baltimore lineup was something special. The Orioles bashed their way to their first playoff appearance since they beat the Phillies in the 1983 World Series. I was quickly in awe of this team that featured eight players with more than 20 home runs*, four with 100 runs scored and four with 100 RBI. The O’s set an all-time record for home runs hit by a team in a single season with 257 (the 1997 Seattle Mariners promptly surpassed that total with 264, a mark that still stands).

This squad was bursting with All-Star names like Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro and the Iron Man himself, Cal Ripken, Jr. All eyes in the baseball world were on Ripken the year before when he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, and he was arguably the most respected player in the game. His presence alone made this an easy group to like. Though I maintained throughout this period that the Phillies were still my favorite team, by the end of the ’96 season I was a full-fledged Orioles fan.

My dad never took the traitorous plunge with me, but he supported it. And so the following season, we made plans to see a game at Camden Yards, which was only an hour south of us. We caught the O’s at their absolute best. They didn’t come close to matching their prodigious offensive numbers from the previous year, but the starting and relief pitching dominated, and the Orioles pulled off a rare feat, staying in first place every day of the 1997 season.

My major league ballpark experience had been limited to a facility two decades behind the times. The moment I laid eyes on Oriole Park at Camden Yards in all its retro-classic splendor, I knew this was what a baseball stadium was supposed to look like. The red brick on the outside glowed in the sunlight. The park was only five years old and felt like it had just opened upon our arrival. Nestled between the stadium and the B&O Warehouse, Eutaw Street popped with excitement. The sounds of the game from shouting vendors to laughing children fit so much better here than Veterans Stadium.

And the beautiful field. Watching the players go through their pre-game warm-ups as nature intended, with natural grass sparkling beneath them, it made me wonder, “Who in God’s name ever thought Astroturf was a good idea for this sport?”

A few days before, I informed my dad that we needed to arrive at the stadium earlier than we ever had for a game because I was determined to get autographs from all the Orioles players for whom I had baseball cards. I came armed with all of the cards and a pen. Alas, Ripken was the only player who came over to sign the fans’ various paraphernalia. What my dad and I thought was an early arrival was still too late as it turned out. Ripken had already been there for a while by the time I forced my way to the front of the pack. I desperately held out my hand with the card and pen amongst dozens of other hands. Ripken headed back to the dugout a minute or two later. Though my mission went unfulfilled, it was exhilarating standing that close to a legend.

The legend was growing literally every day. Nearly two years after beating Gehrig’s streak, Ripken had still not missed a game. My dad and I saw game No. 2,443 – Ripken would end the streak himself the following year at 2,632 – and it also happened to be the Iron Man’s 37th birthday.

For the first and only time in my life, I bought a program and kept score of the game from the stands. I had kept score from home several times and I decided to emulate the more technically-minded fans I occasionally witnessed at games. Plus, the Phillies and Orioles amazingly won every game I scored to this point (a streak that held for another two years), so I wanted to see if the good luck would transfer live. I quickly discovered, however, that grabbing the program and pen and carefully placing it on my seat every time I jumped up to cheer, an often occurrence in this game, was more hassle than it was worth.

The O’s jumped out to an early lead against the Minnesota Twins with some help from the birthday boy. Ripken was a dead duck at home plate on a fielder’s choice, but he somehow avoided the tag. The Orioles also clubbed three home runs, one of which came off the mighty bat of Palmeiro, prompting the loudest cheer of the day from me.

Truth be told, “Raffy” was my favorite Oriole. Ripken brought the longevity and the clout, but Palmeiro brought the swag. He seemed to come through with a big hit every time he stepped to the plate, and I loved his long, effortless swing. This was, of course, years before the legitimacy of Palmeiro’s power surge in the latter half of his career came into serious question. He was a slugger to idolize at a time when the Phillies had none.

The Orioles beat the Twins 5-1 to maintain their chokehold on the AL East. It would be the last time in 10 years that a team not named the New York Yankees won the division.

I look back on my two years as an O’s fan with almost as much nostalgia as I do for the ’93 Phillies. I shamelessly confess to my front-running ways as an unwise teenager. Besides, now that my wife and I make our home in Baltimore, and our children will probably grow up rooting for the Orioles, I can easily forgive myself.

Note: This would not be my last time getting up close and personal with Ripken. I happened upon him at a fundraising awards banquet in Baltimore in November 2012. I didn’t know beforehand that he would be there, so I obviously had nothing for him to sign, but it meant more to me to shake his hand and tell me how great of player he was.
The following month, I ate my cake, too. For Christmas, my wonderful wife got me a baseball signed by Ripken after the Orioles won the World Series in 1983. It was his only title during his two decades with the O’s. It’s a shame it had to come against my Phillies, but considering I was only a year old at the time, I didn’t have much to say about it.

 *Orioles center fielder and leadoff hitter Brady Anderson thrilled fans and analysts alike in 1996 by hitting 50 home runs, 26 more than he managed in any other season in his career. His single-season mark remained an Orioles record until Chris Davis broke it in 2013 with 53 bombs.

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