AN O'S FAN TO THE LAST PITCH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was rush hour in the main aisle of Macy's department store when my mother suddenly rose from her wheelchair and unbuttoned her blouse.

"You can't undress here!" I gasped, gripping the handles of the chair and scanning the store for a dressing room.

"Stop fussing!" she said, flinging her blouse at me. "Nobody's interested in a ninety-year-old woman wearing a bra."

I blamed myself. I should have seen a red flag when she pointed to the display of Baltimore Orioles T-shirts and yelled, "That way! And step on it!" Thelma Knobel was drawn to "orange and black" the way her friends at the retirement home were drawn to Friday night bingo.

That day in late March wasn't the first time she and her Orioles had teamed up to embarrass me.

From the moment she learned the St. Louis Browns were coming to Baltimore in 1953, my mother was smitten with baseball. As far as we knew, her only previous interest in sports had been playing forward on her high school basketball team in the 1920s. Overnight, she morphed from a doting mother and compulsive homemaker to a full-time student of "the game." The same woman who had taken pride in her nutritious, three-course breakfasts now shushed us and waved us toward a box of corn flakes. We poured milk while she pored over the sports section.

Orioles games took precedence over everything else in our home. From April to September, our lives revolved around the orange schedule taped to the refrigerator. Like the cross in a church, that refrigerator door became the focal point in our home. No plans were made without first consulting "the schedule."

Between games, sports talk radio blared through the house. Mom called in frequently, and when her opinions were taken seriously, nobody was more proud than my father. The patron saint of patience, Dad took a philosophical approach to Mom's obsession.

"The season only lasts until September," he would remind my sister and me with an encouraging smile. "Then our lives will return to normal."

Our only television was in the living room, and if a game was on during our favorite show - tough! That's not to say baseball games were not fun. They were, in fact, great family entertainment.

The appearance of the ironing board and the sewing basket in the living room signaled more than an imminent televised game. It was the promise of drama and entertainment that rivaled the Barnum & Bailey Circus. And I had a front row seat.

Mom took her cheerleading job as seriously as any air traffic controller. When tensions mounted, there were dramatic body gestures and total absorption. She would drift close to the TV, shouting advice to the manager or admonishing the umpire. Sometimes, clothing from her basket was hurled at the screen in disgust.

Our dog was on alert the moment the ironing board creaked open. Furious barking accompanied angry shouts at the umpire. When Mom cheered and danced around the room, Topper bounded blissfully into the air like a young dog, his good ear up and tail wagging.

No, one doesn't argue with a 90-year-old woman with congestive heart failure. I snagged my mother's blouse in midair and quickly jumped in front of her as she stood nonchalantly in Macy's in her bra. She calmly handed me her glasses, took a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt from the display table, and pulled it over her head.

"This is perfect for the Maryland Day picnic tomorrow," she said, admiring herself in a full-length mirror. She began picking specks of lint from the shirt, unaware of her growing audience.

I realized the situation called for drastic action if I was going to derail Gypsy Rose Lee from doing an encore.

"Just keep it on and wear it home," I said, stuffing her blouse into my purse with authority.

"Are you crazy?" she asked. "I can't wear this with green slacks." She stripped off the shirt and once again stood in the main aisle in her bra and slacks. On the bright side, it was her best bra.

When Mom was fully dressed, I pushed her to the register, feeling grateful that Macy's doesn't carry Orioles underwear.

The April evening in 2003 when my mother fell and broke her hip, the baseball game was on television. After the initial shock, she consented to lie quietly on the floor for several moments - then, despite pain, insisted on being helped to a nearby bed where she could watch the Orioles until the ambulance arrived.

Days later, following risky surgery, I was shown to the ICU where high-tech machines were blinking and beeping. I was holding Mom's hand when her eyes finally opened.

A nurse removed the breathing tube, and Mom squeezed my hand. I leaned close, struggling to hear her first faint, raspy words.

"I'm still alive. Did I miss the ballgame?"

Rehab was slow. Her only pleasure was the TV at the foot of her bed. In desperation, I wrote a letter to the Orioles front office describing an elderly fan's years of unwavering devotion. If only they would send her a card signed by the players?

When a phone call came the next week, I was speechless. "Would your mother be interested in attending an Orioles game at Camden Yards in July? We would like for her to throw out the first pitch." Minutes later, an autographed Orioles baseball arrived at the nursing home.

In July, my 90-year-old mother, Baltimore Orioles fan extraordinaire, accompanied her family to Camden Yards. On the field, amid the hustle and bustle of batting practice, she talked baseball with team members. Our family watched, misty-eyed, as two ball girls helped Mom onto the field. To a standing ovation from thousands, she delivered the first pitch, an underarm throw she'd been practicing. It bounced once before the pitcher caught it twenty-five feet away.

Her only regret that day was not meeting the manager. She had some valuable advice concerning his pitching staff.

Mom continued supporting her Birds for two more years. I was there four years ago when she passed quietly in her sleep - beside her, an autographed baseball, and pictures from an unforgettable night at Camden Yards.

Peggy Rowe, a former schoolteacher, lives in Perry Hall. Her e-mail is peggy.rowe@comcast.net.

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