The sportswriters have it easy. To calculate the New York-Baltimore match-ups they need only do the math: Cone vs. Wells, Martinez vs. Palmeiro, Jeter vs. Ripken. New York 10 games, Orioles 3 in the season series. Nothing to it.
Step off the field and it's another universe. It's two universes. It's New York and Baltimore, two Major League Baseball cities connected by a couple hundred miles of railroad track and interstate and separated by almost everything else. Three hours on the train and a $58 off-peak Amtrak fare gets you to Planet Manhattan -- the fastest, cheapest space travel ever devised.
What a trip it is from Penn Station, Baltimore, to Penn Station, New York. Somewhere along the way you crash through the looking glass, brush yourself off and step out onto Seventh Avenue squinting into the light. Or maybe you're just trying to read the cab driver's name on the license. It's strangely familiar. Didn't you once order that at the Bombay Grill?
Uh-oh, can we say that in Baltimore? Is ethnic humor impolite? Mustn't be impolite in Baltimore. That's New York's thing, right? They do bluntness, rudeness, in-your-faceness. They do anger, an ambient fury rising off mid-town pavement like heat-wave shimmer.
It's what happens when you get all these people jammed together in streets that roar like a jet takeoff and smell like a public toilet. It's one of those behavior science experiments where they put 20 mice in a cage designed for five. Pretty soon the mice are all wearing Yankee caps and cursing Bobby Bonilla.
What do they want from Bobby Bonilla, a nice guy from the South Bronx come home to play a little ball? He trots out to right field and the bleacher crowd reacts as if he just ran over their mother. People cursing themselves hoarse, maybe throwing stuff. Hey, easy does it, folks. It's a ballplayer, it's not Josef Mengele.
This never happens at Camden Yards. Even the Roar from Section 34 at Memorial Stadium was never that rude. Baltimore is so polite, so gracious, so good at maintaining that veneer of quasi-Southern gentility. The better to mask a social caste system rivaling India's, the better to hide the fact that Baltimoreans are about as accepting of outsiders as Pat Buchanan.
Outsiders in Baltimore often mistake genteel patter for sincere interest. At least when you find out a New Yorker doesn't care if you live or die it's not much of a shock.
L Q: How many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None of your (bleeping) business.
Q: How many Baltimoreans does it take to change a light bulb?
A: All of them. One to change the bulb, the rest to talk about how much better things were with the old bulb.
The old bulb, the tight old social circles, the old staid clothes. Of course Saks Fifth Avenue in Owings Mills closed in January. What were they thinking? It's like opening a Circuit City in an Amish neighborhood.
You think New York fashion you think Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. You think Baltimore fashion you think Boogie Weinglass and the ghost of Merry-Go-Round.
What a strange trip it is up I-95 -- from Baltimore's immersion in a mythological happy white people's past to the daily New York assault on every known sense and sensibility. From Baltimore's embarrassment about urban failures to New York's survivor pride. A Baltimorean is apt to express at least discomfort with the city's poverty, crime, de-facto racial segregation. A New Yorker talks about her daily life as if she just made it through the Tet Offensive.
Certain match-ups can be understood. At third base it's Boggs (.311) vs. Zeile (.239). In right field it's O'Neill (.302) vs. Bonilla (.287). Others are unknowable. It's David Letterman vs. ... Marty Bass? It's Howard Stern vs. ... Nestor Aparicio?
Think of it this way: It's the City That Reads vs. The City That Stinks.
Baltimore on the worst summer day has nothing to rival the ever-changing aroma of Manhattan. Try walking down any street in mid-town Manhattan describing what you smell as you go: "OK, fine, somebody hasn't bathed since Carter was president and ... uh ... there's something that oozed out of the Port Authority men's room. Now what is that? Someone apparently just sauteed a radial tire in garlic and peanut oil ... Now, good heavens ... that seems to be an unwashed Yorkshire terrier smoking a cigar and wearing too much Polo after-shave ..."
On a Saturday night in Fells Point maybe you get a whiff of a college kid who drank 11 beers and six vodka shots in rapid succession and felt suddenly under the weather. Maybe you walk by the the Patapsco River in August, breathe deeply and figure someone should call the coroner's office.
It's Donald Trump vs. John Paterakis Sr. It's the Cafe Carlyle vs. the Owl Bar. It's Ed Koch vs. William Donald Schaefer.
They have Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mayor Zero Tolerance, the man with the kick-butt image busy cleaning up Times Square and arresting everything that moves. We have Kurt L. Schmoke, Mayor Concerned, famous for deep thoughts, impeccable Ivy League bearing and a remarkable capacity to stand in a burning building earnestly discussing his four-point plan to aim fire hoses.
It's Woody Allen vs. Barry Levinson. It's Rev. Al Sharpton vs. ... never mind. Baltimore can't come close. A good reason to live here.
Too much has already been made of the cellular phone-carrying suits who inhabit Camden Yards, who read the Wall Street Journal during pitching changes. Check out Yankee Stadium sometime. Along with the usual mob of drunken boneheads you'll also find a few corporate types in the expensive seats talking into portable phones.
Consider instead the public transportation. Consider Baltimore's Light Rail, literally Subway Lite. If you didn't know better you'd think you were on a ride at Epcot Center. The driver could be one of those animatronics figures -- 10,000 natural movements. So could the passengers. Subway Lite's ridership rivals ValuJet's. The Disney picture is completed when you pull up at Camden Yards, a theme park of a ball yard, an immaculate brick and forest green place where the crowd cheers at all the appropriate times, usually on cue from the thundering public address system.
Now try this: Take the "C" train uptown subway from Manhattan to 161st Street in the South Bronx -- Yankee Stadium. The car is packed on game days. Suburban white guys in baseball caps are jammed in with guys in turbans next to a white kid with purple hair next to an Orthodox Jew in full beard next to a few black kids in full Tommy Hilfiger. The world's Diaspora seems at the moment to have spilled onto the "C" train, jostling in a dark tunnel toward the Bronx Zoo. The only thing missing are the live chickens roaming through the car.
Three hours, $58 and a couple asteroid belts away are the Light Rail and Camden Yards. Forget the cosmic comparisons. This much can safely be said: Girardi vs. Hoiles, Duncan vs. Alomar, Williams vs. Anderson.
It's 161st Street vs. Eutaw Street. It's knishes vs. crab cakes. It's the New York Times vs. ... well, never mind.
Pub Date: 10/10/96