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This is the story of a baseball fan who had lived almost his entire life far from the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, yet in the last months of his 40th year suddenly and inexplicably found nirvana; a fan who found himself transported to a house only two miles from a ball park in which occurred a baseball summer of near-mythic dimensions; a fan who, fearing himself sliding into middle age, found himself young and foolish again. It is a story that offers discovery, excitement and a happy ending. What more could one ask?
I am that fan. The stadium where I was lifted back into youth and foolishness—where I was privileged to be present for the ultimate baseball moment of my life—is on East 33rd Street in Baltimore, and the team that gave me such inexpressible happiness is the Baltimore Orioles. But that is the end of the story.
My road to Memorial Stadium and the ecstasies of 1979 was long, tortuous and—to a fan in search of a true home—dispiriting. It took me through extended periods of frustration interrupted only occasionally by moments of bliss, moments in themselves frustrating because they served largely to emphasize not what I had obtained, but what I had been denied. The true fan yearns for continuity, for the prolonged and intimate association with a team and its city that is the essence of baseball memory. I had only fragments, a collection of discrete moments that I treasured but that formed no clear pattern, even in my own mind.
In the first 20 years of my life I saw only two major league baseball games. I grew up in a little town in south-central Virginia, where big league ball was a distant and romantic dream accessible only through the sports pages and the radio and, of course, The Sporting News.
I had thought I was deprived. I realize now that I was blessed. Not merely did distance from the major league circuit whip up an appetite for the game that has yet to be sated, but it also gave me a couple of advantages that few of my friends can claim. One was that I played sandlot ball—I didn't play it well, mind you, but I played it; I participated in what is for most Americans a mere yearning: good old country ball, that Winslow Homeresque vision of towheads in caps racing through whispering fields under cloudless skies.
The other was that in getting my baseball via the shiny black Zenith on my bedside table, I learned how to listen to the game. I learned—though I was an adult before I fully understood what I had learned—that radio enlarges and enhances one's appreciation of baseball. It gives you the words and insists that you supply the pictures. Lying in bed, the lights out, I spun a dial and was able to hear games in St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, New York, Cleveland. Tested, my imagination met the challenge; I saw Comiskey Park and Ebbets Field and Fenway Park. I saw them only in my mind, I invented them, but they were as clear to me as if I were in a choice seat on the third-base side of home.
When I finished college and went out into the world, I had my first real experience of the big league game: a summer in Washington at beguilingly ramshackle Griffith Stadium; a couple of summers in New York booing the Yankees and cheering the feckless young Mets; a fall and a spring in Boston, where I developed a deep affection for the Red Sox; and five springs in Miami watching the Orioles—kismet!—in spring training. But I developed no passionate loyalties; I lived and died for no beloved team. Even my enthusiasm for the Red Sox had its limits; I could never claim to be a fan of the home-grown New England variety, and a loyalty fostered by radio and television is far more fragile than one nurtured in one's own soil.
Indeed, by the mid-'70s I wasn't much of a fan at all. I still turned to the sports pages before the editorial pages, I still read the box scores and I still watched whatever I could get on television, but I was paying more attention to the intricacies of the game and less to who won or lost. I had stopped rooting, and I was proud of myself.
That, at least, is the impression I get now from rereading a piece about sports books that I wrote in the fall of 1977. In it I had said, "Sometimes I wonder why, having passed into a state of what is alleged to be maturity, I continue to read these things. I started reading sports books about 30 years ago, when I was a kid and a fan. Now I am not a kid and not much of a fan either.... "I had continued, "After it no longer matters who won and who lost, one is in a sense freed to appreciate sport in its more complex and interesting dimensions."
If that sounds to you like the work of a windy, pompous bore grown old before his time, well, that's the way it sounds to me. But forgive me, I just didn't know. I didn't know about that kid inside me aching to get out. I didn't know about Baltimore.