March 12th, 2020 was the day the world turned upside down for many people. COVID-19 had transformed from an internet meme to a reality. Businesses were forced to close, office workers were being sent home, schools had shut down and the sports world was grinding to a halt. March 12th began with reactions to the news of the 2020 NBA season being suspended. Later that day, we saw the suspension of MLB Spring Training games. The final blow that afternoon was the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA March Madness tournament. Of course, the world at large was dealing with much bigger problems. The unknown of COVID-19 and the fear that ensued made missing out on sports seem like a trivial matter. However, for so many of us, sports represented an outlet and an escape from the hectic pace of our day to day lives. In an instant, that outlet was gone and we had no idea when it would be coming back.
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While March 12th was the beginning a tumultuous time for so many, my own world was shaken to its core the day prior. On what was proceeding along as a normal Wednesday afternoon, quickly transformed to the worst day of my life. At 4:05pm on March 11th, my sister called me at work to deliver the devastating news. My father, Lou, had passed away at the age of 70; finally succumbing to ALS after a 2 year struggle. Despite knowing what his diagnosis meant and trying to prepare for the inevitable, I can unequivocally say that you can never really prepare for the loss of a parent. To compound matters for me, my dad wasn’t just my dad, he was one of my best friends.
My father and I had always shared an easy going relationship. We bonded over so many things; we shared a love of laughter and food, a passion for history and reading, as well as duckpin bowling. We had similar interest in television and movies. We would speak in a “language” that was all our own, quoting lines from “The Three Stooges” to “Seinfeld” to “O Brother Where Are Thou” to “Kingpin” all in the span of one conversation. The strongest bond we shared was our love of Baltimore sports.
Some of my earliest memories are of Orioles last championship run in 1983. I can remember my father getting tickets to game 2 of ’83 ALCS vs the White Sox and the disappointment of being told by my folks that I was too little to stay out that late and I would have to go to my grandmother’s in Catonsville to watch the game with her, rather than go down to 33rd Street. (In hindsight, I was only 5, so it was the right call) I quickly shook off my disappointment and was glued to the broadcast. I watched every pitch of Mike Boddicker’s complete game, 14 strike out gem.
A little more than a week later, I can remember the family gathering at my other grandparents’ house in Parkville. The family crowded around the 20 inch console TV to watch game 5 of the World Series. When Garry Maddox’s soft line drive settled into Cal’s glove for the final out, we erupted into a frenzy. There were cheers, high fives and hugs. Eventually, the celebration spilled out to the front yard; to join in the collective revelry that was enveloping Baltimore city. We banged pots and pans, screamed at the tops of our lungs and basked in the glory of a Birds’ world championship. For a 5 year old, it was simply a fun moment to share with my family. At the time, I didn’t understand that your favorite team winning the World Series didn’t happen every year; a fact that has become all too painfully obvious in the intervening 38 years. I also didn’t realize what a moment of relief that was for my dad.
He was fortunate enough to have experienced the glory years of 1966-1971. He loved telling me about how he hopped the centerfield fence at Memorial Stadium after Paul Blair recorded the final out of the ’66 series. He also experienced the heartache of the loss to the Amazing Mets in 1969, the devastating defeats at the hands of the Pirates in ’71 and ’79, as well as the utter despair of coming up just one game short of the postseason in 1982 after falling to the Milwaukee Brewers on the season’s final day. Reflecting on that moment now, I think I was so happy because my dad was so happy. Either way, my love of sports was cemented on that October afternoon.
In stark contrast to the triumph of the Baltimore Orioles in 1983, the Baltimore Colts limped to a 7-9 finish that year and set up one of the darkest moments in local sports history. The story of the Colts leaving Baltimore is well documented and I don’t intend retell it here. I can recall that my dad was working for the Baltimore Sun at the time and when he returned home from covering a route for one of his delivery boys, he was moved to tears by the news of the Mayflower vans rolling out of town with his beloved Colts. It was one of the few times I’d seen my father cry.
Most Baltimoreans of my generation have little to no memory of the Colts playing football in Baltimore. All I really have is stories that my father would share.
A story that he regaled me with countless times was how he listened to the infamous “Ghost to the post” game in the 1977 divisional round of the playoffs. I was a mere 11 days old and my dad was letting my mom get some much needed rest. He held me in his arms as he listened intently to Vince Bagli and Chuck Thompson provide the play by play of the classic NFL contest. Shortly after halftime, I fell asleep in his arms. As the game went back and forth throughout the 2nd half and overtime, my dad did everything he could to not wake me up. Alternating between silent cheering and silently cursing at the radio. Although the end result was not in favor of the Colts, that game was one of my dad’s favorites. The smile on his face when he told that story is etched in my memory.
Throughout the 42 years that I was fortunate enough to share with my father, there were countless trips to Memorial Stadium for Oriole games. We always parked on The Alameda (mostly because Dad was too cheap to pay for parking) and weaved our way through Waverly to get to the stadium. Even though we saw mostly bad baseball in those waning years at Memorial Stadium, the state of the team didn’t much matter. Sharing those quintessential father-son moments were what it was all about.
When the O’s moved to Camden Yards in 1992 and turned into the hottest ticket in town, we still found ways to make it games together. Whether it was sitting in the last row of section 306 in the right field upper deck on a Tuesday “bargain night” or buying tickets off a guy standing just on the side of Russell Street, we always made it work. We found a little church parking lot in Otterbein, where we could park for 5 bucks and enjoy the walk through downtown Baltimore. We would talk about nothing in particular while still dreaming of another Orange October. Little did we know then but our baseball town was about to become a 2 sport town again.
For 13 long years, the NFL was barely a blip on the radar in our house. While some folks in town had gravitated to and adopted other NFL teams, my dad all but swore off football. The pain of the Colts riding off on that snowy March morning was still like yesterday to him and he was simply never interested in rooting for another team. Or as he so aptly put it, “I’m sick and tired of them trying to shove the Redskins down our throats.” When news of the Browns’ move to Baltimore broke, I was elated. As much as I enjoyed my father’s storytelling and the history of the Colts, I always felt like they were “his” team. We were now on the precipice of a new era of Baltimore football. We were about to welcome a team that could be “ours”.
Even though Baltimore was officially back in the NFL in 1996, a lot folks in my dad’s generation were slow to come around. Many were still stung by the callousness of the league; from the loss of the team’s colors and records, to the erasing of the Baltimore Colts at the NFL Hall of Fame, to being left out of the league’s expansion in 1993, to former commissioner Taglibue’s quote that Baltimore would be better served to take their stadium money and “build a museum”.
I firmly believe that my enthusiasm to have the NFL back home was what helped my father come around. In almost an instant, Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter revolved around football.
When the 1998 schedule came out, it just so happened that the Ravens would be playing at their new home in downtown Baltimore on my 21sst birthday, December 13th. Unbeknownst to me, my father purchased tickets for us to go to the game that day against the Minnesota Vikings. He was excited to go downtown before the game and, as he so sweetly (and naively) put it, “buy you your first beer.” I was fired up to spend the day with my old man, even though I was a bit hungover from closing down the 8×10 Club in Fells Point the previous evening. Of course, I never shared that inconvenient detail with him. That day was going to be special, almost like a rite of passage, and I wouldn’t dare ruin it.
Things did not go the Ravens way that day; the weather was miserable, we allowed 2 special teams touchdowns and fell to Minnesota, 38-28, which ran our record to 5-9. However, none of that mattered. What did matter was sharing that day with my father. I still have the ticket stub from that game on my nightstand; it’s a day I’ll never forget.
As the years rolled by, there were countless Sundays filled with Steeler hating, screaming at the TV, cold beer, pots of chili and laughter.
One moment that always makes me chuckle was during the waning moments of a game against the Chargers in 2006. It was a tight contest all afternoon and the Ravens had the ball at their own 40 yard, with 3:12 on the clock, trailing 13-19. Steve McNair led the offense down the field with precision and guts. On 2nd and goal from the 10 yard line, McNair danced around in the pocket and found Todd Heap at the 5 yard. Heap secured the high throw, absorbed a hit, turned and dove for the end zone. As the beloved TE broke the plane of the end zone, my father leapt off of the sofa. A split second later, we heard a loud bang. In his exuberance, my dad jumped up directly underneath the bulkhead in the basement and almost knocked himself out. He ended up with a lump on his head and a nasty bruise on his forearm. However, once the initial discomfort subsided, we laughed so hard that we cried. I never let him live that one down and he was always happy to take the abuse. For my dad, funny was funny; even if he was the butt of the joke.
With my dad’s diagnosis, we knew that time was not on his side but we never focused on it. We seemed to have an unspoken agreement that focusing on the situation or wallowing in it was an exercise in futility. Instead, we spent our time doing many of the same things we’d always done; talked about the latest book we were reading or lamented over another Orioles loss or marveled at how fast Lamar is or flawlessly performed some dialogue from “The Three Stooges”. No matter where the conversation would take us, we inevitably came back to sports. Whether it was the current product or a recollection of a favorite moment from years gone by.
As cliché as it sounds, I would give up anything to have one more of those talks with my dad. Even as his body was failing him, he was still quick with a zinger and eager to laugh. He had that kind of laugh that would be enough to make everyone else laugh, simply because of how hard he was laughing. It’s those little things that I will always cherish. I think author Robert Brault summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
Jamie has been a Baltimore sports fan since he can remember. He grew up in Gwynn Oak and currently resides in Hampstead with his wife and 2 kids. He graduated from UMBC with a Bachelor of Arts in History. He’s currently employed at Verizon Communications in Hunt Valley.