Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Be a Yankee Fan in Baltimore

As promised back on Friday (sorry), a review of my experience at the Yankees-Orioles game on Thursday.

Getting There. Getting to Baltimore is fairly easy. However, if you have a car, I recommend using it, and using the parking deck at a hotel near the ballpark. There are several.

It’s 193 miles by road from Times Square to Camden Yards, 201 miles from Yankee Stadium to the Birds’ Nest. If you’re not “doing the city,” but just going to the game, take the New Jersey Turnpike all the way down to the Delaware Memorial Bridge (a.k.a. the Twin Span), across the Delaware River into the State of, well, Delaware. This should take about 2 hours, not counting a rest stop.

Speaking of which, the temptation to take an alternate route (such as Exit 7A to I-195 to I-295 to the Ben Franklin Bridge) or a side trip (Exit 4, eventually leading to the Ben Franklin Bridge) to get into Pennsylvania and stop off at Pat’s Steaks in South Philly can be strong, but if you want to get from New York to Baltimore with making only one rest stop, you’re better off using the Walt Whitman Service Area in Cherry Hill, between Exits 4 and 3. It’s almost exactly the halfway point between New York and Baltimore.

Once you get over the Twin Span – the New Jersey-bound span opened in 1951, the Delaware-bound one was added in 1968 – follow the signs carefully, as you’ll be faced with multiple ramps signs for Interstates 95, 295 and 495, as well as for US Routes 13 and 40 and State Route 9. You want I-95 South, and its signs will say “Delaware Turnpike” and “Baltimore.” You’ll pay tolls at both its eastern and western ends, and unless there’s a traffic jam, you should only be in Delaware for a maximum of 15 minutes before hitting the Maryland State Line.

At said State Line, I-95 changes from the Delaware Turnpike to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, and you’ll be on it for about an hour (unless you want to make another rest stop, either the Chesapeake House or the Maryland House) before reaching the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and Exit 53, for I-395 which empties onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the ballpark will be right there. (The official address is 333 W. Camden Street.) If all goes well (getting out of New York City and into downtown Baltimore okay, reasonable traffic, just the one rest stop, no trouble with your car), the whole trip should take about 4 hours.

Baltimore is too close to fly, just as flying from New York (from JFK, LaGuardia or Newark) to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, once you factor in fooling around with everything you gotta do at each airport, don’t really save you much time compared to driving, the bus or the train.

The train is a good option, but not a great one. Baltimore's Penn Station is at 1515 N. Charles Street, bounded on the other side by St. Paul Street, which runs southbound. Get on Charles, and you'll be going northbound, away from downtown, and you'll end up near the Museum of Art, Druid Hill Park ("Droodle Park" in Baltimorese), and the site of Memorial Stadium (now senior-citizens' housing). It's not a terrible neighborhood, but it will be out of your way. In addition, Amtrak is expensive. They figure, "You hate to fly, you don't want to deal with airports, and Greyhound sucks, so we can charge whatever we want."

Still, if you have the money – it’ll probably be $95 in each direction – Amtrak is a good option. An Acela Express (they don’t call ‘em Metroliners anymore) will take about 2 hours and 15 minutes; a regular Northeast Regional about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

When you get to Baltimore’s Penn Station, pick up copies of the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post. The Post is a great paper with a very good sports section, and as a holdover from the 1972-2004 era when D.C. had no MLB team of its own, it still covers the Orioles well. The Sun is only an okay paper, but its sports section is nearly as good as the Post's, and their coverage of their town's hometown baseball team rivals that of any paper in the country -- including the great coverage that The New York Times and Daily News give to the Yankees.

Once you have your newspapers, walk out to St. Paul Street, and catch either the Number 3 or the Number 64 bus, which will take you to downtown, to the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards areas.

Bus? The old Greyhound terminal was right downtown, but it was an absolute hole. It looked like a homeless shelter. The new one is a huge improvement in terms of convenience and cleanliness. The problem is that it's at 2110 Haines Street, south of downtown. On paper, it's not unreasonable to walk from there to the NFL Ravens' stadium (currently, M&T Bank has the naming rights) and then past that to ballpark. But you'll be walking under the elevated Interstate 395, and you won't like it.

From Greyhound, the Number 27 bus will take you right to the ballpark. If you want to see the Inner Harbor attractions, change by the ballpark to the Number 7 bus.

Greyhound also has "Baltimore Travel Plaza." It's at 5625 O'Donnell Street, 3 miles east of downtown, just off Interstate 95, designed to cater to Baltimore and Washington travelers at the same time, while those going to the Haines Street terminal are pretty much only those going to Baltimore. To get from Travel Plaza to downtown (Harborplace or Camden Yards), take the Number 20 bus.

Baltimore is way behind the curve when it comes to public transportation. They didn't have a subway (the Metro) until 1983, and it didn't go anywhere near Memorial Stadium; as it is, the Lexington Market and Charles Center stops are each 8 blocks from Camden Yards. The Light Rail system opened in April 1992, same month as the new ballpark, and separate stops serve both the ballpark (and Camden Station, enabling MARC commuter-rail access from Washington and the suburbs between the two cities) and the football stadium. The Light Rail does serve Penn Station, although the closest stop to the Greyhound station on Haines Street is Hamburg Street, which is the stop for the Ravens' stadium.

As a result of not having a subway or a light rail until a generation ago, old habits die hard, and people overrely on the buses, jamming them, sometimes not even during rush hour. Again: If you can drive, or get someone to drive you, do it, and park in a downtown hotel's deck. You'll be better off walking around to the various downtown locations.

Tickets. It used to be that getting tickets to any Orioles home game, not just Yankee games, was hard, because they were selling Camden Yards out 44, 45, 46,000 per night. (Officially, seating capacity is 48,876, with the difference long being made up by standing room.)

Just as the 1954 arrival of the Orioles in Baltimore, 40 or so miles away, probably doomed the Washington Senators (twice, as it turned out, the originals-turned-Minnesota Twins in 1961 and the "New Senators"-turned-Texas Rangers in 1971), so, too, did the specter of a new team coming to Washington hang over the Orioles.

Edward Bennett Williams, the "superlawyer" who also owned the NFL's Washington Redskins for many years, wanted out of Memorial Stadium, which was a fine place to watch a baseball game and a great one to watch a football game. It had two major problems, however: You couldn't get in, and you couldn't get out. Driving there was bad, and public transport was every bit as bad, with the Number 3 bus constantly getting stuck in traffic on North Charles Street and then on 33rd Street.

Williams wanted a ballpark close to downtown, with easy access to Camden Station and Interstate 95 -- and thus with easier road and rail access from his Washington hometown. For years, Baltimoreans were terrified that, if he didn't get what he wanted, he would outright move the team to Washington to share Robert F. Kennedy Stadium with the 'Skins. This fear expanded after Robert Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. But, just before Williams' death in 1988, a funding plan for the new ballpark got through the Maryland legislature.

New team owner Peter Angelos, once one of the biggest-spending owners in the game, was desperate to keep MLB expansion from including the Nation's Capital and established teams from moving there. He was sure that one-quarter of the Orioles' fans were from the D.C. area, and he didn't want to lose those fans. Which explains why he got plenty of freebies to D.C. power brokers, including members of Congress, White House staff, and pundits, including George Will, who became a minority owner of the franchise despite his lifelong fandom for the Chicago Cubs.

The Orioles reached the American League Championship Series in 1996, but lost to the Yankees; and again in 1997, but lost to the Cleveland Indians. In fact, the O's have played 6 ALCS games at Camden Yards since it opened in 1992, and have won only 5. (This includes 0-3 against the '96 Yanks, so since they couldn't protect their house, their fans can shut the hell up about Jeffrey Maier.)

A beanball war at Yankee Stadium in 1998, in the midst of a Yankee sweep, marked the end of the O's would-be dynasty. But people still came to Camden Yards in droves, even as the team deterioriated. In 1997, attendance peaked at 45,816 per game. As late as 2000, it was 40,704. In 2001, still 38,686.

And then, in 2002, per-game attendance dropped to 33,122. Just like that. So what happened in 2002? Or in the 2001-02 offseason? Easy: The statue of Cal Ripken was removed from third base.

You've probably gotten the joke: That wasn't a statue. That was Ripken himself, who probably played 3 years too long. But after Cal left, and took his overrated legend with him, there was no reason to watch the Orioles anymore: They stunk, and had no drawing cards.

In 2004, the last season before the Montreal Expos moved to become the Washington Nationals, O's per-game attendance was 34,300. In 2005, the Nats' first season down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, attendance fell to 32,404. The Nats weren't good, and RFK Stadium was inadequate for modern baseball, but the novelty of baseball being back in the Nation's Capital wasn't enough to make the one-quarter difference that Angelos long feared. In fact, instead of a 25 percent drop, it was a 6 percent drop. But it was a 19 percent drop from the last Cal season

Last season, O's per-game attendance bottomed out at 23,545, their lowest since 1988, the year they lost their first 21 games en route to losing 107 for the season. That's a 64 percent drop from the last Cal season, but that's got little to do with the Nats simply existing an hour's drive away (at least, it's an hour's drive in theory; BaltWash Corridor traffic can be horrendous), and lots to do with the O's being pathetic. And with Stephen Strasburg having arrived, now it will be the Nats with the iconic player (as if Ryan Zimmerman isn't already a damn good player), so the O's are really up the creek now, unless they start rebuilding.

So what does this mean? It means getting tickets for O's games will be relatively easy until Angelos either gets a clue, or sells the team to someone who already has. You can just walk up to the ticket booth and give your request, and basically get pretty much any seat(s) you're willing to pay for. Field Box seats are $55, a bargain by New York standards. The Upper Box seat I sat in last Thursday, right over home plate, was a mere $20. Those same seats at Yankee Stadium II would be $250 and $50, respectively.

Going In. You're likely to walk in at the Eutaw Street gate, between the edge of the left field stands and the Baltimore & Ohio Warehouse. This area has a statue of Baltimore native Babe Ruth, and big steel representations of the Orioles' retired numbers: 4, 1968-86 manager Earl Weaver; 5, 1955-77 third baseman Brooks Robinson; 8, 1981-2001 shortstop (eventually third baseman) Cal Ripken Jr.; 20, 1966-71 right fielder (and later manager) Frank Robinson; 22, 1965-84 pitcher Jim Palmer; and 33, 1977-96 first baseman Eddie Murray. (Number 7, worn by Cal Ripken Sr., and Number 44, worn by former catcher and longtime coach Elrod Hendricks, have not been officially retired, but neither has been given out since these men died.)

But if you can, try to enter by the right field gate. You'll see some of the letters from the front gate of Memorial Stadium, which stood as a memorial to Baltimore City and Baltimore County losses in World Wars I and II. The bottom line of the gate was saved: "TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS."

Entering by the right field gate will also enable you to get a good look at M&T Bank Stadium and its statue of Colts legend Johnny Unitas, and to get to what appears to be the only escalator bank at Camden Yards.

Food. Eat. You'll be glad you did. Baltimore is a really good food city, and the concession stands reflect this. There are plenty of stands, and the lines are usually of reasonable length. The Esskay hot dogs are good, and the beers are varied. Boog Powell's barbecue stand, on the Eutaw Street walkway, sells good stuff, although his meats are a little too spicy for my taste.

Team History Displays. As I said, there is a nod to Oriole history at the Eutaw Street gate. The 6 Pennants the American League version of the Orioles have won -- 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1979 and 1983 -- used to be shown as painted onto the outfield fence. Now, they are restricted to flags on the big THE SUN scoreboard -- note the BALTIMORE SUN letters taking the place of the numbers on the clock, and the Oriole weathervanes.

The old, National League version of the Orioles won Pennants in 1894, 1895 and 1896. The Triple-A version of the Orioles won the International League Pennant in 1908, 7 straight from 1919 to 1925, 1944 and 1950. And the 1901-02 American League version went on to win 40 Pennants (and counting) -- but that's as the New York Yankees.

There's a brick wall on the Eutaw Street walkway that features an Orioles Hall of Fame, with several inductees ranging from Brooks and Frank Robinson up to recent inductees such as 1996-97 star Brady Anderson -- but not, as yet, recent former Yankee Mike Mussina. Hmmmm...

Stuff. The Warehouse includes a team store, but if you're looking for nostalgia items, your luck will be limited. They do see B. Robinson 5, Ripken 8, F. Robinson 20, Palmer 22 and Murray 33 jerseys, but that's about it. If you're looking for Oriole history DVDs, forget it, although it probably shouldn't be too hard, somewhere nearby, to find the official World Series highlight films, sold in an Orioles package of 1966, 1970 and 1983.

Souvenir stands dot the Camden Yards concourses every few yards, and when I was there in June 2010, some of them sold Yankee T-shirts as well as Oriole gear. I don't know if they do this for other teams -- I haven't been there for a game with an Oriole opponent other than the Yankees since 1999 -- but while I appreciate the effort to pander to visiting fans, I also find it troubling: It suggests that they think that their own stuff might not be good enough.

During the Game. You do not need to fear wearing your Yankee gear to Camden Yards. Although Baltimore is an old, tough, gritty Northeastern city, home to two tough, gritty, much-honored TV crime dramas (Homicide: Life On the Street and The Wire), their fans will not fight you or provoke you into a fight. O's fans are generally classy. And they know the game, and they don't want to ruin their experience by mixing it up with outsiders. They will, however, boo you and your fellow Yankee Fans when you chant, "Let's Go Yankees!" They don't like it when you (and Red Sox fans, and, with Interleague play coming in, fans of the Mets, Phillies and Nats) take over their ballpark, but they know fighting isn't the answer. This is something some Red Sox fans have yet to learn.

But there is one thing that might bother you at the start of the game. "The Star-Spangled Banner," played at baseball games since at least 1918 and our official National Anthem since 1931, was written in Baltimore, by city resident Francis Scott Key, following the Battle of Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814. The city's connection with the song remains strong, and since the late 1970s, it has been a tradition at Orioles games for fans to yell out the "Oh" in the line, "Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave." In this case, "O" is short for "Oriole."

In theory, this is cute. In actual practice, I find it grossly offensive. It trivializes the event the song commemorates. My first visit for a Yanks-O's game was on September 11, 2004. As Baltimore was still (for 3 more weeks, anyway) the closest MLB team to D.C., they had Pentagon rescue workers throw out the ceremonial first ball to some Yankees, representing New York and the World Trade Center. But when they sang the "O!" I said, "Not today, people!" They still do it.

To make matters worse, this is done at other sporting events. I heard it last fall when Rutgers went down to the University of Maryland to play football. I understand: While the College Park campus is inside the Capital Beltway, UM wouldn't be the athletic powerhouse it's become without kids from Baltimore. I heard it in the summer of 2006 when the Yankees played the Washington Nationals game in an Interleague game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, and I heard it again that fall when I went to see the New Jersey Devils play the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.

Baltimore doesn't have an NHL team, and never has, although they briefly had the Baltimore Claws in the World Hockey Association. And a lot of Nats fans grew up with the O's as their MLB team, and old habits die hard. But the D.C.-area natives booed the hell out of the "O!" shouters at both the Nats game and the Caps game. (At the former, the Nats trailed the Yankees 8-2 but came back to win, 9-8, oy; at the latter, the Devils embarrassed the Caps, 4-1.)

I've never been to a basketball game in the D.C. area -- Washington Bullets/Wizards, University of Maryland, Georgetown University or George Mason University -- but I have it on good authority that the "O!" is done at games of the Ravens, the minor-league Aberdeen Ironbirds (owned by the Ripken brothers, adjacent to their Havre de Grace hometown), and the minor-league Norfolk Tides, even before it became the Orioles' top farm club in 2007. From 1969 to 2006, the team, previously known as the Tidewater Tides, was a Met farm club. That's 240 miles from Camden Yards, but apparently they still do the "O!" I don't know if they do it on at Delmarva Shorebirds games in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore. (They're in the Lakewood BlueClaws' league, and not far from Ocean City, Maryland. Maybe I'll check them out someday.)

At the 7th inning stretch, after they sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," they go into "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" by John Denver. It was suggested by shortstop Mark Belanger in 1975, as Oriole management was looking for "new songs" to appeal to young fans. During the 1979 World Series, Denver himself came to Memorial Stadium and sang it from the top of the Oriole dugout, along with the Oriole Bird mascot.

I hate that fucking song. Come on, Baltimore, you're a Northeastern city of 630,000 people. You're supposed to be tough and urban. Stop with this "country boy" nonsense!

Well, you got you a wife, she's a cousin you diddle...

After the Game. Don't worry about Oriole fans talking trash to you if they manage to beat you. A few might, but most won't. This isn't Boston. It isn't even Toronto, where the Blue Jays fans take a lot more liberties than their team (since 1993, anyway) has earned.

If you want to get a drink before or after the game, there are plenty of choices near the ballpark, including Slider's, Pickles, the Wharf Rat, and the Goddess. (I realize that name makes it sound like a strip club, or maybe a lesbian bar, but it's neither.)

If you came to Baltimore by Amtrak, and you're not spending the night, be advised that the last train of the night leaves Penn Station at 10:46 PM (and arrives at New York's Penn Station at 1:50 AM), and since Yanks-O's games tend to last over 3 hours, you could be in trouble. Make sure you get on the Light Rail train marked "PENN STATION," not "MT. WASHINGTON" or "HUNT VALLEY," or you'll end up in the suburbs of Baltimore County.

Better to come down early on a Saturday, get a hotel, enjoy downtown on Saturday afternoon, see the game on Saturday night, and then on Sunday, choose between going to a second game and seeing something away from downtown such as the Museum of Art. You'll be glad you did.

And since the Orioles are terrible for the time being, you've got a good chance of seeing a Yankee win.

Sidelights. The Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium is just to the south of Oriole Park. Three blocks from the ballpark, to the west, at 216 Emory Street, is the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Baltimore Orioles Museum, featuring exhibits on the Babe and the history of baseball in the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland.

Also 3 blocks away, to the north, bounded by Baltimore, Howard and Lombard Streets and Hopkins Place, is the 1st Mariner Arena, formerly known as the Baltimore Civic Center. This arena, built in 1961, hosted the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) from 1963 to 1973, the Beatles in 1964, Elvis Presley in 1971 and 1977, and Martin Luther King’s “Race and the Church” speech in 1966. Also home to minor-league hockey and indoor soccer, they’re talking about replacing it with a new arena on the site, but for now this arena remains in use.

The site of Memorial Stadium (1954-2002), and its predecessor Municipal Stadium (1922-1953), is at 1000 E. 33rd Street, at Ellerslie Avenue. It hosted the minor-league Orioles from 1944 to 1953, the major-league Orioles from 1954 to 1991, the Colts from 1947 to 1950 and again from 1953 to 1983, the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions in 1994 and 1995, and the NFL’s Ravens in 1996 and 1997. Take the Number 3 bus up Charles Street.

And no visit to Baltimore is complete without a trip to the Inner Harbor, home to the Harborplace mall. James Rouse, who revitalized New York’s South Street Seaport and Boston’s Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market, and designed Philadelphia’s Gallery at Market East Station, was from Baltimore, and he wanted to give his hometown the best one of all. He may have succeeded. Aside from the Orioles team store, the highlight may be The Fudgery, where the people making and serving the fudge sing all day. Harborplace is at the intersection of Light & Pratt Streets, and there’s a Light Street Pavilion and a Pratt Street Pavilion.

To the east of Harborplace is the USS Constellation museum, a pentagonal skyscraper named the World Trade Center (Boston, Montreal and San Francisco also have buildings with that name we so often associated with New York from 1973 onward), the National Aquarium, a Hard Rock Café, the Pier Six concert Pavilion, and the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House at 844 E. Pratt Street. That’s where the 15-star, 15-stripe Fort McHenry flag that “was still there” was sewn, not where it is now (the Smithsonian Institution in Washington), and it’s also a museum dedicated to the War of 1812 and Baltimore’s pivotal role in that conflict. Beyond that is Fell’s Point, Baltimore’s Little Italy.

To the south of Harborplace is the Maryland Science Center, the American Visionary Art Museum (not to be confused with the Baltimore Museum of Art), and Federal Hill, which is the closest thing Baltimore has to a Greenwich Village. This includes the Cross Street Market, and my favorite Baltimore watering hole, the Abbey Burger Bistro. Officially, it’s at 1041 Marshall Street, but don’t let that fool you: It’s actually in a short alley off Cross Street between Light and Patapsco Streets, giving it the allure of an English-style pub. This is one of the reasons it’s the home of the Charm City Gooners, the local supporters club of my favorite English soccer team, London’s Arsenal FC. You can build your own burger, and it caters to fans of the Orioles and Ravens; but they will put up with Yankee Fans if they're also Arsenal fans. And (assuming you have time either before or after the game), it's a reasonable walk from both the ballpark and the Greyhound terminal on Haines Street.

The Yankees visit Baltimore one more time this season: On September 17, 18 and 19. The Friday and Saturday games, as is usual for the Orioles, are 7:05 starts. The Sunday game is a 1:05 start. Have fun!

1 comment:

"Nutball Gazette" said...

I was visiting in Philly a few Years ago, and drove from Philly to Balt, I stopped at a Shopping area called White Marsh Mall, There was a Bus Service there that brought you right to the stadium area, So if driving from NY for just one or even 2 games You can avoid alot of traffic,
2 Years ago I flew into Balt and stayed at a Hotel near the Airport and took the Light Rail right to the Stadium That was great,