Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Game 1

In honor of the Orioles Opening Day, I want to share something I wrote after going to a playoff game last fall. It was the Orioles' first time in the playoffs since 1997, and the first playoff game that I ever attended.          

  Brick warehouse. Tall, wrought iron gates. The late afternoon sun will soon be gone. A slight mist falls from the cloudy sky. The crowd is brimming with orange and black wardrobe choices. I blend in perfectly. Snake through the crowd with ticket out, then through the gate. Ushers hand out orange rally towels and fans BUCKle up for Game 1.
            The cool mist turns quickly into a downpour. I eat my hotdog faster. The flood of people shuffle slowly down the ramps, accelerating at the bottom and moving rapidly across the bronze hero-strewn courtyard to take shelter under the grandstand and out of the rain.
            Frequent choruses of “Let’s Go O’s” echo through the sea of slow moving fans. We look for an open place to stop and talk but it’s hard to find. I yell over my shoulder, “This is how it always used to be!” Just three months previous the crowds were half as large.
            Senses are heightened, mine and everyone else’s. The cold night air seems fought off by the collective body heat of the masses. Ballpark scents drift above our heads – barbeque, popcorn, and plenty of cigarette smoke. Shuffle along some more, moving through the crowd and glancing up at section numbers…76, 73, 69…close enough. Squeeze out of the river of people and join the smaller group moving through the concrete tunnel to our section. The lights get brighter; emerge into the open night air.
            My stomach tightens and releases almost simultaneously. Is this real? Playoff ball returns to the Yard, and I’m in the stands? The buzz of people is quieter out here in the open, but even more electric. Across the stadium I hear distant cheers, nearby shouts of excitement and high-fives exchanged.
            Sixty-eight, almost missed our section. Row 19…stairs…26, 25, 24…. don’t trip, don’t trip…20…19. Check the ticket, seat 13, wet from the rain, and mine for the night. The rain has stopped, 30 minutes to game time. It’s really happening! Take some photos, big grin.
            A slight mist begins again. It’s still surreal, trying to take it all in. Without warning I hear it, slow taps become rapid drumming. As the heavens open we join the mass exodus up the stairs to hide back under cover again. I guess I dried off my seat a little too quickly.
            The game will be delayed; the rains come harder. The crowds buy more beer, eat more nachos, smoke more cigarettes. Now it feels cold. A biting, stinging wind hits my face. Legs grow stiff. Hands grow cold. Nearly two hours past game time. Fears of a cancellation start to creep in. Then a cheer erupts from inside the stadium. Back to the seats, it’s just misting now. Tarp still on the field but the grounds crew is waiting just undercover. They race onto the field to thunderous applause. A new game time is announced. We’re going to see some playoff ball tonight.
            The fans are beyond excited. This team has nearly erased 15 long years of disappointment and embarrassment. The true test starts tonight. The hated Yankees always seem to work their sorcery. Yet this year the numbers came out even.
            The packed house of orange and black cheers every strike, stands for every out, and celebrates each solid at-bat. It’s passion, no doubt. Passion that even the two New Yorkers behind comment about, “This is legit. They don’t cheer like this in the Bronx.”
            A close game was expected, and so was delivered. Two runs a piece. Every heart beats quicker. Legs start to ache from standing on tiptoe to see over the standing crowd. Hands sting from clapping. The night is quite cold now. A double to start off the bottom of the eighth ends up being wasted and no run tallied. If we can just hold them here we have one more shot. Or even force extra innings. I like our odds in extra innings this year.
            Our closer comes in; he’s the best in the game this year. He’s got this. The first batter of the ninth connects, high fly ball down the line, down our left field line. Stomach lurches, watch the ball. Left-fielder goes back but has no chance. Not 50 feet from me the ball lands in the stands. They’re up, we’re down. Overeager fans throw two balls back on the field. It doesn’t’ matter, the run still counts.
            Then suddenly the game goes from bad to worse. Five runs score. The fans are speechless, stunned. Down one run was bad enough. Can this team come back with five?
            Groundout. He’s only 20, what did you expect? Strike out. So much for all those late season homers. A double with two down seems more like drawing out the loss than a last chance rally. Strike out. It’s over. Game 1 loss in the books. Midnight came and went. Realization of the hour, the cold begins to dawn. It’s a somber group of orange and black that walks back past the same concessions that once kept them warm as they anticipated victory.
            It’s a loss then. It’s another “what a waste” just like 15 years ago. But it’s not. This was just Game 1. This team has shown their stuff when backed up against the wall. They’ll be back tomorrow night, ready to pull the series even. The fans have seen magic happen too many times this season to let one defeat ruin our dreams.  Something’s happening in Baltimore. These Birds will be back.