An O's fan's ode to baseball's rituals and rhythms
By Stephen H. Sachs
Mar 17, 2018 at 6:00 AM
A time lapse look at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Opening Day 2017. (Baltimore Sun video)
Opening Day is almost here. Every team gets a fresh start. No dream is outlandish. The O's could — could — make it to the World Series!
Whatever the final standings, I'm going to enjoy the season because I love the game and appreciate more and more its timeless rituals.
I've been a fan since I was 10 years old, nearly 75 years ago. Even when I was younger — a mere pre-fan — my father took me to ballgames. When we got home he would complain to my mother that "all he cares about is the hot dog man."
That changed, however, in the marvelous adventure that was 1944. After old Oriole Park burned down on July 4, the Orioles played their remaining home games at the awkwardly reconfigured Municipal Stadium, narrowly captured the International League pennant and defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series.
The game has changed a lot over the decades. Its ugly color bar is long gone. (I watched Jackie Robinson play here when he was with the Montreal Royals on his way to the Dodgers.) The influx of players from Central and Latin America, Japan and Korea have brought us great talent, as well as spirit and verve. Ballplayers are bigger, stronger and faster. No record is safe — except maybe Cal's.
As the game has changed, so have I. I still "root, root, root for the home team" and, like all O's fans, will relish Manny Machado's miraculous glove, his baseball acumen and his rifle-shot arm as he returns to shortstop, as well as Chris Davis' majestic home runs (let us pray) that scatter crowds on Eutaw Street.
But I will also find joy in watching the many rituals, the unheralded routines that give the game its structure and its permanence. They're baseball's silent rhythms.
I love to watch the strategic manicuring by the grounds crew. They lightly hose down the infield turf before the home team takes the field in the first inning. Then, several innings later, they flatten the turf again before the top half, when the visiting team is at bat. That's when they race around the infield dragging those heavy mats. Their purpose is to keep the infield smooth so that grounders won't take those bad hops that are difficult to field. No such manicuring is offered to the visitors when they take the field.
On the 25th Opening Day at Camden Yards, fans talk about their favorite O's memories since the new ballpark opened. (Ulysses Munoz / Baltimore Sun)
After the pitcher's allotted warm-up tosses, his catcher fires a throw to the waiting second baseman (or shortstop) who swipes his glove downward to tag an imaginary sliding baserunner. The second baseman (or shortstop) will toss the ball to the third baseman. He — and only he — delivers the ball to his pitcher. The pitcher can depend on that unvarying routine and need not wonder who will toss him the ball. He has enough on his mind. Pitchers are pampered that way.
Home plate has its own rituals. When a catcher is struck by a particularly nasty foul ball ("dinged" in the parlance of the dugout), the umpire sweeps home plate, whether it needs it or not, to give the catcher a momentary chance to compose himself. Likewise, when the ump is dinged, the catcher will contrive to visit the mound for a short chat with his pitcher to let the ump reset.
I try to watch where the starting pitcher sits in the dugout when his team is at bat. Usually, he sits well apart from his teammates. He may be hoping for a rally, but his job is to focus on the batters he will face next inning, to "stay in the zone." If his game is going well, tradition requires that none of his teammates break the spell by speaking to him. And if a no-hitter is in progress, the empty bench between the pitcher and his teammates will widen. Pity the poor rookie who dares whisper so much as an "attaboy."
Baseball players are notoriously superstitious. Some of their voodoo is visible to the discerning fan: The player will refuse to step on the foul line when coming on or off the field; he will design good luck totems on the back slope of the pitchers' mound or in the infield dirt; he will compulsively fasten and unfasten his batting gloves to some predetermined magic number. Other superstitions are unseen: He will eat precisely the same pre-game meals or will wear the same clothes — including unwashed underwear — to and from the ballpark.
These are the wagers ballplayers make with fate. They are transitory and usually last as long as the winning streak the player is betting on. But, collectively, baseball's superstitions are one of the game's ancient rituals.
Every sport has its rituals and superstitions, but baseball's impact it more profoundly. They help determine the slow, steady and dignified pace that sets the game apart. They offer reassurance that baseball will retain its pride of place as the national pastime. They define the game.
I will continue to appreciate these silent rhythms — even if my World Series dream is deferred. And I will continue to look for the hot dog man.