Near the stands in shallow left field the team mascot, the Bird, had arranged a makeshift diamond with a set of practice bases, and played wiffle ball with some kids. He’d lob an easy one to the kid, who would whack it with one of those big red plastic bats and take off running for first. The Bird futilely chased the first kid in a circle to first, then second, third, and home, waving the ball but unable to make the tag. The second kid hit the wiffle ball pretty good over the Bird’s head; on his way to retrieve the ball, the Bird picked up second base and flung it into left field. Not missing a beat, the kid ran the extra fifteen feet, touched second, and turned toward third. For the next kid, the Bird tried throwing himself over second base, smothering it so the base runner couldn’t touch it; that kid simply bypassed second altogether and cut straight across to third, then home. When it was finally the Bird’s turn at bat, he whacked one over the head of his 5-year-old pitcher and took a victory lap around the bases as though he’d just bounced one off the side of the warehouse.
The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by a retired brigadier general and cancer survivor. The old guy had to be pushed out to the infield in a wheelchair, and needed a cane to stand. Someone stood beside him to steady him as he made his throw. The ball rolled off the tips of his fingers, hit the grass about a third of the way to the plate and rolled mildly into the catcher’s waiting glove. We applauded him as they rolled him off the field. A few minutes later, an a capella group sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I looked around the ballpark, watching the pitchers continuing to warm-up in the bullpen, watching the other fans; my father’s eyes never moved from the American flag on left-center field.
The game itself wasn’t bad. Starting pitcher Brian Burres gave up a homerun on his second pitch, and two more runs in the second, but then settled down and pitched very solidly through the seventh. When it appeared manager Sam Perlozzo was going to pull Burres from the game in the bottom of the 7th, the fans erupted in boos. Perlozzo left Burres in, Burres struck out his last batter and left the mound to a standing ovation. The game was tied 3-3 at that point, the O’s having made things interesting in the previous few innings. Their bullpen allowed the D’Backs to score three more in the top of the 8th. The O’s got one back in their half of the 8th. The Bird spent the bottom of the 9th nervously pacing the roof of the Baltimore dugout, stopping every few seconds to encourage us to clap or lead us in cheers. The Orioles managed a few men on base, but 6-4 D’Backs wound up the final score. An Orioles win, rather than their 8th consecutive loss, would have been nice, but the score was beside the point. On the walk back I slapped my Dad on the back and told him, “Happy Fathers Day.” He laughed. “This was a good present,” he told me.
Far from being a once-in-a-lifetime experience, what we saw today happens at least 81 times every year in Baltimore, with some slight variation in the details. Yet its normality renders it no less wondrous. Of all the gifts we have given ourselves, surely baseball is one of the finest.