Last embrace promises to be emotional one


My advice for those who have tickets is to bring along the family-size box of hankies because the going-away party today for Memorial Stadium is a guaranteed all-day cry. Another thing, either take along someone to hug or be prepared to bond with the stranger in the seat next to you. That's the kind of day it's going to be. All together: Mem-o-ries . . .

It's bound to be emotional. The entire weekend has been emotional. You try to squeeze 38 years into three days of celebration, and you can't help but produce some tears.

The latest contribution to the weekend-long nostalgia-fest was the introduction of the All-Time Orioles Team. Earl Weaver, the little genius, drew the biggest hand. Brooks and Frank were next. Boog got his b-o-o-o-o-g, even though Eddie Murray should have been the first baseman. It was nice, anyway.

But the real thrill for the fans came when they entered the stadium yesterday to be met by real, live, honest-to-goodness, in-uniform, smiles-in-place, looking-just-like-they-look-on-TV Orioles players, who were asked to hand out calendars at the various entry points. This was an inspired piece of business, conceived by Evelyn Ehlers of the Orioles' PR department.

The players shook hands, made small talk, even offered the occasional embrace -- making a lot of people's days in the process. Heck, making a lot of people's months. I saw Cal Ripken personally light up a few hundred faces as if he were some latter-day Thomas Edison. You should have been there: Fans and players high-fiving as if they really were in this thing together. Many folks couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. In fact, I heard one woman scream: "I touched him. I touched him." It was a fitting thank-you for the 2.5 million folks who come to see this sixth-place team.

Even the players were moved by this '90s love-in. "It just makes you feel good," said Brady Anderson.

Before I got to the ballpark yesterday, I made a note to myself to remember to mention how great the new stadium is going to be. It's going to be -- there's no other way to say it -- better than $$ Memorial Stadium in virtually every conceivable way.

It's going to be prettier, more convenient, more comfortable and feature better sightlines. It's going to be classier. In fact, it's going to be a classic stadium, the best new ballpark since at least Dodger Stadium. Sure, it has a dumb name, but that isn't going to detract from its wonderfully idiosyncratic style. After one game there, Baltimore is going to fall in love with what will become the centerpiece of the city.

This will be a stadium to excite the imagination.

All Memorial Stadium has to recommend it is memories.

It's a giant wedge of concrete with, on the face of it, little-enough personality. It doesn't put you in mind of, say, Fenway Park. The posters are pretty, and, under lights, it looks OK, but it's basically just a stadium not unlike dozens of others.

What makes it different is what happened there and what it meant to the people of Baltimore.

That's why every seat has been sold for the game today.

That's why people are willing to plunk down $8.95 for a bottle of dirt that was dug up from Memorial Stadium. Why didn't I think of that?

That's why all 49,289 fans were on their feet yesterday in the eighth inning when Anderson smashed a three-run triple, as if it meant something. I guess, in a way, it did.

Same way it mattered when the fans were chanting "MVP, MVP, MVP" every time Cal Ripken came to bat.

And the way, as of old, they were spelling O-R-I-O-L-E-S in spontaneous bursts across the stadium.

The memories won't die when the team moves to Camden

Yards. They'll stay where they've always been -- in the head and in the heart.

And yet, the fans stayed and stayed yesterday at 33rd Street. People didn't want to leave. They don't want to let go. They cheered when the DiamondVision countdown spelled out: "There 1 Memorial Stadium Day Left." After today's game, that final game, they'll be prying them out of their seats. Years from now everyone in town will claim to have been there.

It's funny that for most of the Orioles history, a lot of people couldn't be bothered. Even when the Orioles were the best team in baseball, the Colts owned Baltimore. They're long gone, of course. And now there can't be any better fans in the world than Orioles fans. The numbers prove as much.

The last day is for the people and for a pile of concrete. It will be exactly like a wake. You'll laugh and you'll cry, and there'll be an enduring ache in your heart.

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