Recently, I discovered something that no baseball player in America can deny: They'd do it for peanuts. They would pull on their uniforms and trot onto the field day in and day out for practically nothing. The money is great -- I'm a big fan of money. But when the lights come up and the umpire barks the order to play ball, the money is just gravy.
I learned this bright and hopeful truth playing ball in Camden Yards.
It all started when I got a call from a woman at T. Rowe Price. She has a crazy friend named Ed Moose who loves to play softball. Ed loves it so much that he and his 15 or so buddies who hang out at Moose's restaurant in San Francisco have spent the time and money to play in prominent venues all around the world, including Paris and Moscow.
More importantly, they've played at such American temples as Candlestick Park, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Even Shea Stadium, where their usual competitors, Tom Brokaw's Media All-Stars, printed up T-shirts that said, "Showdown at Shea."
Anyway, Ed apparently is an important person who knows other important people. One of those movers or shakers (I suspect it was Bob Costas) managed to twist enough arms in Baltimore to reserve a morning at America's newest shrine, Camden Yards, for another of Ed's occasional relapses into adolescence. Unfortunately, it turned out there was this inconvenient peace accord to be signed in Washington that day, so Brokaw and his compatriots had to pull out of the game at the last minute. That's where my teammates and I came in.
Even though Ed himself had to cancel because of an illness in the family, there was no way the rest of the Mooses (Meese?) were going to skip out on Camden Yards. Minutes before they hopped a flight to BWI last weekend, they placed frantic calls to friends in Baltimore in search of a group of worthy opponents. They settled for us: several Baltimore Sun reporters and editors, and a gaggle of investment managers and such from T. Rowe Price.
And that's how I found myself donning my brother's well-oiled softball glove and trotting onto the field at Camden Yards.
It was a warm, partly sunny morning, basting in Baltimore's womblike humidity in welcome to the crew from San Francisco. We arrived at the Camden Club entrance at 9 a.m. and received the ground rules from the stadium operations chief: We'd be playing on the full 90-foot base paths; the bullpens were off limits; and: "Please, use the mound. We have 10 important games left, and we don't want to be replacing sod in front of the mound."
Then he took us through the stands and down to the dugouts. (We kind of wished he had taken us by some insiders' path; a tunnel would've been nice). The Moose team took the visitors' dugout, naturally, and we got the Orioles'.
Then we walked onto the field.
Just another baseball diamond, right? We've all played little league, and softball after work. Some played in high school and a few in college, and we've seen a thousand baseball diamonds, right? Not quite. Not like this one. Not one where the pros play, where talented kids make their debut in "the show," where Cal Ripken Jr. makes a living 81 days a year.
The Diamond Vision was shining bright and beautiful in center field. The manicured grass went on forever, impossibly green and young. The stands stretched around and up, empty but filled with tens of thousands of imagined fans, drinking beer and screaming wildly for their home team, on a roll at the end of a pennant race.
And here we were, journalists, businessmen and a group of delightful kooks from San Francisco in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Nervously grinning at each other and tossing the old bean back and forth. Playing hooky from work and wondering when someone would show up and tell us to get the hell off the field, what did we think we were doing there, anyway?
But nobody did, so we played. We stood in where Cal and Brady and Devo perform their magic. I switched from shortstop to third after a few innings, and even though he's never actually played an official game there, I communed with the spirit of my baseball idol, Brooks Robinson, hovering by the third base line -- the Hoover, impossibly vacuuming up anything that dared to come his way.
In the hot morning sun we played like our heros, only not as well. We made impossible sliding catches in center, but flubbed easy grounders at short. We clowned around, doffing our caps to the crowd and pointing solemnly to left, like the Babe. We got some hits, made some errors and scored some runs, and it was beautiful. We took pictures. Lots of pictures.
All around us they were putting up bunting and making preparations for the afternoon's ceremony: 4,000 immigrants would be naturalized that afternoon, a sterile term for a heartening, wonderful event. On the Diamond Vision they tested out a greeting in electronic fireworks and letters two stories high: "WELCOME NEW AMERICANS!"
Down on the field, reveling in our fantasy, it was easy to imagine the greeting was ours, too.
When it was all over two hours later, the Mooses had won. They pulled ahead 8-4 with a five-run ninth-inning rally, and afterward not a soul on the field gave a hoot.
We beamed and shook hands and promised to stop by for a drink next time we came to San Francisco. And we shared the feeling of being initiated into some big secret fraternity. The fraternity is called Major League Baseball, of course, and it hurts only a little that we'll never really be a part of it.
For two short hours, courtesy of a group of eccentrics from San Francisco, we got what we came for: the soul-sparking boost that comes with trotting onto the field of a big league ballpark. Some guys have all the luck. And yeah, they could pay you for it. But that would be nothing but gravy.