As a voice is stilled, memories are stirred

IT WAS THE spring of 1977. I was 12 years old, living in Landover, pondering my upcoming ascent to high school and sitting at a crossroads. I needed a baseball team to call my own, and it was obvious by then, six years after the Senators moved, that my hometown was not going to provide me with one.

I swallowed hard and told myself, "It's the Orioles or nothing." One night soon after, on the transistor next to my bed, I tuned in the D.C. station carrying the games. Guess who was there to welcome me to Orioles baseball, to Memorial Stadium and to Baltimore?

Chuck Thompson, of course. The franchise couldn't have asked for a better salesman. For that matter, neither could the city itself. I couldn't have asked for a better escort into this new, unexplored territory.

The pictures painted by Thompson's voice - of a team, a ballpark and a city - will live on forever. It already has outlasted the stadium itself, and that cartoon bird logo, even of the vaunted Oriole Way and many of the people who created and sustained it. They also will outlive the images of abandoned warehouses and seedy streets and the gloomy waterfront that would have defined Baltimore - if not for the Orioles, the Colts and those smooth, soothing tones.

For me, back then, Baltimore meant Orioles games on the radio, after homework was done or baseball practice or band rehearsal was over - or late at night, with the volume down low, when the Orioles were on the West Coast.

Eventually, it meant Orioles games in person. The mere anticipation of seeing what was described so musically every night, was almost worth the trip alone. But the trip itself made the marriage official. My first trip into Baltimore - rather than past it through the Harbor Tunnel, on the way to someplace else - was for an Orioles game; they probably were my first 20 trips, actually, through my early post-college years.

Thompson's voice played in the background on the whole round trip - and thus became the musical accompaniment for an entire city. His voice represented tree-lined Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and North Charles Street, and the rowhouses, and Hopkins, and Waverly, and Eastern High, and the crawl through the scenic neighborhood around the stadium in search of parking if you didn't leave home early enough.

His was the voice of the trip home - on WBAL as long as the signal held out, because the D.C. station didn't carry the post-game show. Before that, I didn't even know where 'BAL was on the dial, and didn't much care. (I also didn't know that the "t" in the city's name was silent until he said it that way. Or that there really was only one way to say the name of the team: the way Chuck said it, like the locals but so different at the same time, so lyrically.)

That voice conjured up images of the best Baltimore had to offer. Those images, to his fans, carried up and down the East Coast, at the very least; Thompson's voice on one station or another on the Orioles' network was often the savior on a trip through a dark rural dead zone. When you picked it up, you breathed a sigh of relief that a little piece of home was wafting toward you. And unless you were a Yankees fan, you thought pleasant thoughts about Baltimore, home of a man who made it sound as if he were singing about a game for three hours.

For that alone, this city owes him an enormous debt.

Yup, there were a whole bunch of us around that "other" beltway, living and dying with that team and riveted to that voice, gradually losing our indifference to the Orioles' hometown. That's kind of obvious by now, huh? If it wasn't, Peter Angelos wouldn't have spent the past decade throwing a conniption about a team moving in down the road.

As much as anyone's, it's Chuck Thompson's fault, for making Baltimore sound like baseball paradise every spring, summer and fall and closing the gap between the town blessed with the game and the one cursed by its absence.

It's sadly ironic that Thompson suffered that final stroke on the morning Baltimore and Washington were joined again on the diamond. He helped make this a one-team area. No screeching, yammering yahoo losing his voice over a routine double play in May would have done it as well. His voice made baseball something worth spending an evening on, even if it was an hour-plus away.

Chick Hearn was the Lakers, Marv Albert was the Knicks, Jack Buck was the Cardinals, Vin Scully is the Dodgers. They'll be inseparable from their teams and their sports. But from their cities? That's a lot harder to say.

When you heard Chuck Thompson, you heard Baltimore. You heard it here, you heard it all over the country, you even heard it in a 12-year-old's bedroom in Landover.

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