Friday, January 05, 2007

Hondo Sets Me Free

32 weeks after my Washington Senators played their final game at RFK Stadium, ending the innocence of my childhood, they were back, this time as The Texas Rangers--playing in Baltimore, against the Orioles. It was May 10, 1972. There was NO WAY I was going to miss it.

Originally scheduled to begin a 3 games series at Old Memorial Stadium on May 9th--The Rangers and Orioles were rained out. And, that proved fortuitous for me, as I was scheduled to play a Junior League Baseball Game that night in Alexandria for AA Beiro Construction Company--our sponsor. My parents would not let me skip my teams game to see the Ex-Senators. "You have a responsibility to your teammates first, you have committed to them, you can't turn your back on them, you will go play baseball, not watch."--My Father told me. "But, its THE SENATORS!!", I cried. Dad just stared at me with that look. The face that says this conversation is OVER. I was not going to win. So, I went to play. We got rained out, too. Justice was served.

That night, my brother, Michael, and I, called around to all our friends, rounding up who wanted to see The Rangers play the Orioles the following night--a Wednesday Night. A school night. Our parents said we could go, if we finished all our homework, had a parent drive and chaperone us--and no matter what, be home by 11:30PM, safely.

Dave was in. Tim was in, but the most important piece to this puzzle was Nick. If Nick would go, his Dad needed to drive us. As I had posted before, no one respected my love of baseball and The Senators more than Nick's Dad. He was the linchpin to making this trip happen. You bet I was sent over to his house, two doors away, to suck up to the big guy.

As it turned out, I didn't even need to warm up. My Dad and Nick's Dad had apparently talked about this date for some time, knowing how important the game would be for me. It was a foregone conclusion that he would drive all of us to Baltimore for this game.

Boy was I ever stoked!

None of us had ever been to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Heck, none of us kids had ever been to Baltimore. Nick's Dad had, but never to the Orioles' Park. There wasn't MAPQUEST then, no internet to do all the work for you. To think back, how in the world do we all survive without the internet? Did we all live in caves?

Anyway--the very next afternoon, we came home from school--finished off our homework. I put on my Senators Tee and Red Plastic, Curly W, Batting Helmet. My outfit for my last Senators Game, was going to be my outfit for their return--it was only fitting. No one else wore anything special, but we did bring along 3 Washington Senators Pennants.

We gathered at Nick's house, (it was still very overcast, with more rain expected) loaded up in the station wagon and off we went. From the West End of Alexandria, over to Duke Street, onto the Telegraph Road Interchange, to the Beltway, across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to The Anacostia Freeway, then to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Things were running smoothly--no problems, this is going to be a breeze.

Then we landed in Baltimore--Pre Inner Harbor Baltimore. Fairly UGLY CITY, then Baltimore (not the Charm City of today). Memorial Stadium was on 33rd Street, in a residential area, across from Eastern High School. Nick's Dad took a wrong turn. We passed the City Jail. Then, into a very decrepit neighborhood. Approaching 13 years old, I knew this was not where we were suppose to be.

Nick's Dad spotted a Baltimore Police Officer at an intersection. He called him over. We asked the officer "What's the easiest way to Memorial Stadium from here? In one of the classic remembered moments growing up, The Baltimore Police Officer said "Fly", and promptly turned around and walked away, not saying another word. It was so incredulous, it was funny. Fortunately, there was a second officer across the way. He heard the comment, came over to apologize (I can't recall his excuse for his colleague), and lead us back to the correct course. I will always remember that remark. I still laugh about it to this day.

We found our way, turning onto 33rd, you could slowly see the lightstands from the stadium rising among the trees on the horizon. It was 6:15PM, the Stadium lights were on, but it wasn't raining. Then as we cleared those last trees, the Huge Brick Facade of the Main Entrance to Memorial Stadium appeared right before our eyes. "Wow! That's cool." --I remember saying.

Nick's Dad parked directly across the street, next to the High School, sardine style. Once you parked your car, you were not leaving until the folks around you also decided to leave. That Parking Style became something distinctly Baltimore, that I would come to actually enjoy throughout the following 19 years attending games at Memorial Stadium. I always want to stay until the game was over, and sardine parking meant everyone else had to stay until the end, also. You couldn't really leave early--you wouldn't know whether your car could freely drive away. It also meant there were a ton of minor scratches and dents on most any car parked in the lots as the, free for all, leaving Memorial Stadium after games was like watching a demolition derby. You never knew how it might pan out.

Across to the stadium, we walked up to the ticket booths. We found out The Orioles used the 3rd base dugout. We wanted to sit behind the Rangers Dugout. Nick's Dad obliged. 6 Seats, in the first row behind the Rangers Dugout. $6 apiece was the price. They were outstanding seats. A program cost 25 Cents, a hot dog, coke & fries $1. Memorial Stadium was open to centerfield, with houses on the other side of the tree line. The SCOREBOARD with the Baltimore Sun Logo and National Bohemian Beer Sign in Center was HUGE!! The biggest free standing scoreboard I had ever seen at the time. This place was cool.

We settled in as The Rangers were ending Batting Practice. Players were shagging flys, coaches hitting fungoes to infielders (Hitting fungoes to infielders--what a lost art today). My Favorite Player of All-Time, Frank Howard, was nowhere to be seen. In fact, looking out on the diamond, it looked mighty strange seeing those Texas Rangers Uniforms. They wore a Western Style "RangerS" with the R & S capitalized for "Robert Short", the carpetbagger owner that moved the Senators to Dallas-Ft.Worth. A square styled "T" on a Blue Cap with Red bill. Those Spandex Uniforms of the day on the players, never looked good if you were overweight, at all. There were plenty of familar faces and names on those jerseys. Maddox, Billings, Randle, Harrah, Nelson, Grieve, Bosman, Gogolewski, Lindblad, Pina, Cox and Shellenback. All former Senators. But, there were many others, we were not familar: Ford, Jones, Hal King, Kubiak, Suarez, Hand, Paul and Stanhouse. Not many good players--sorta reminds me of our current Washington Nationals situation.

Former Senators 3rd Base Coach, Wayne Terwilliger (on the left in this photo with Nellie Fox), was still coaching for Texas and hitting fungoes right in front of us. We yelled out: "Where's HONDO!!" Terwilliger turned, saw the Senators Pennants, waved, yelling Back "Glad to see we still have fans here!! Hondo's in the trainer's room, he's starting tonight." We started chanting "HONDO, HONDO, HONDO!!" And, out of nowhere, Manger--Ted Williams appears, sticking his head out of the dugout "Who's making all that noise!!" "The Senators and Hondo's Favorite Fans!!" I screamed out. "Well, We are just going to have to do something about that." Williams said--ducking his head back down into the dugout.

About one minute later, BIG FRANK HOWARD looks over the dugout "Is this THE FRANK HOWARD FAN CLUB!!", he shouted. "You better believe it!!"--we all chimed in. Number 33 walks over to the side of the dugout, greeting each and everyone of us. I went for the hug, and Hondo responded in kind--gently squeezing me. Nick's Dad mentioned to Howard that we had all attended the very last game, sat right behind the Senators dugout at RFK, and these very same kids had screamed madly for him that night. Hondo, knowingly remembered, nodding his head up and down, looking right at me stating: "You're the kid that yelled out to me in the on deck circle, how much you were going to miss me, and I pointed my bat at you". I was FLOORED!!, Hondo remembered me!! "Yes", I replied, "and I meant every single word" Nick's Dad adding "like you wouldn't believe, this boy was crushed by The Senators, and you, leaving town."

My eyes started to water (what a surprise!), and Hondo consoled me, leaning down, whispering in my ear "Its OK, I loved playing for you in Washington, its a great, great place, and I hope to live there again, some day. I am honored that you enjoyed my play and I will remember your love for many years to come."

Louder now, to everyone, still with his arm around my shoulder, Hondo stated how proud he was to "consider all of us his friend" and how "honored I feel that you made the effort to come see me, I am quite touched." Many other Senators Fans were now trying to jam their way down and squeeze in a moment with Frank Howard. Hondo wanted to oblige them, too, but he told us and Nick's Dad he would have something special for all of us later, so don't leave until the game is over (I guess Frank never parked his car at Memorial Stadium). We thanked him profusely, and I gave Big Frank another huge hug.

Nick's Dad looked at me stating, "You picked a great person to have as an idol. He is, not only a fine player, but a very nice gentlemen. I am proud of you, too."

In words, I don't think I could accurately describe my feelings over this encounter. Totally thrilling and rewarding to be recognized by your favorite childhood star, in a meaningful way. It gives me goosebumps just to remember those precious moments today.

The game itself was an old fashioned pitchers duel, lasting exactly 2 hours. Dartmouth's, HOT SHOT PHENOM, Pete Broberg, was on the mound for Texas. Dave McNally for Baltimore. Both went the distance. Broberg giving up just 2 hits, McNally 7, all hits were singles. Hondo singled twice, but didn't score. In the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles loaded up the bases with 1 out. Brooks Robinson meekly grounded to 3rd. Rangers 3rd baseman, Dave Nelson, threw home to retire the hard charging Don Buford (the Nats 2005 first base coach), but catcher Ken Suarez through wildly to first, the ball getting past Hondo, for an error on Suarez, and the unearned game winning run. 1-0 Baltimore the final score.

Only 6,617 showed up on this misty, grey, but warm night. Not the crowd numbers I figured would post up for the former Washington Senators. Later, when the Rangers returned to Baltimore in July, with school out and a makeup doubleheader--over 43,000, many partisan Washington Fans, showed up for that one.

As Frank Howard walked off the field, obviously upset at the night's result, he looked over at us and began to smile. I remember him saying "sorry for disappointing you after driving up here--but I want you to remember your night here, fondly." Whereupon, Howard looked into the dugout, asking the batboy to bring him some items. The BatBoy brought to Hondo a series of brand new baseballs--that Hondo personally signed for each of us. He then presented all of us with TED WILLIAMS signed baseballs. Then, MY FAVORITE PLAYER OF ALL TIME, thanked me again for being his BIGGEST FAN, telling me not to fret over Washington not having a team, someone will place a team there very soon. And, hopefully, some day, he would be involved with that new team.

With that, Frank Howard said his goodbyes, gave me one last BIG HUG!! waved and stepped down into the dugout. I was excited and thrilled by the encounter, but felt my team was now properly put to rest. My Washington Senators were no more. They were The Texas Rangers, and I disliked their uniforms, greatly.

As we left the stadium that night in Baltimore, Nick's Dad looked over at me and asked me how I felt. I told him "Happy, and I know My Senators do not exist anymore. Besides--Hondo says a team will be back soon, maybe the Padres will move to Washington." Unfortunately, it would not be the expansion San Diego Padres from 1969, but the Expansion Montreal Expos from 1969. And they would not arrive for 34 more years.

I loved baseball. I needed a new team to root and call my own. That team became the Baltimore Orioles. I really enjoyed Memorial Stadium for seasons to come, have many, many fond memories from that old ball yard. Although, it has never compared to RFK Stadium, the ballpark of my youth. The home of some extraordinary childhood remembrances.

Later in life, and through the years, I have been fortunate enough to meet Hondo again on a few occasions. Frank Howard has always remembered me, and I am forever grateful for that friendship and kindness Hondo showed me.


Mike said...

What a great story, SBF. I envy the memories of the Senators that you and Farid at Beltway Boys write about, and I can't tell you how much I love reading about them. I was only 10 when the Senators left town, and have memories of going to only one game at RFK before they moved to Texas. I too adopted the Orioles as my home team in the intervening years, and still root for them as my AL team. Until MLB announced that the Expos were moving here back in the fall of 2004, however, I did not realize how hungry I was for a team here in DC. I recall anticipating our new baseball team with the kind of excitement I had as a kid at Christmas. It's so great to have a team playing in RFK again, and we're all accumulating a bunch of new great memories.

phil dunn said...

In April 2005, my son and I had a nice chat with Hondo in the lower concourse of RFK. He is much thiner now, probably weighs 100 pound less then his 300 pound playing weight with the Senators. He is still the fine gentleman he always was.

tadcranky said...

Great story. My first baseball memory was my dad taking me to Montogmery Wards on Rte. 50 in Falls Church to see Hondo, who was signing balls that day. Unfortunately, that was also my first baseball, so I didn't know any better than to immediately start using it, and scuffed it up so the autograph was beyond recognition. That was a mistake I didn't make again.

Like your neighbor, my dad seemed to have a difficult time finding the way to Memorial Stadium, it seemed like we got lost every time. But I always insisted that we leave as soon as school was out, so we were never late. As I got older and drove to games myself, I became obsessed with finding the best routes and trying to set personal records of driving from Arlington to the stadium. It was much more fun going with my dad, though.

farid said...

as usual, another great story -- thanks for sharing it.

I never got to see the Rangers at Memorial Stadium - my dad wouldn't have driven me that far for something he didn't enjoy.

When they became the Rangers, I turned my back on them -- I couldn't have cared less about how they did (save Frank Howard of course).

The betrayal I felt was probably stronger than how a spouse feels after being cheated on. I mean, I wanted their plane to crash (with no casualties -- I'm not that mean).

Screech's Best Friend said...

Mike, Phil, Tadcranky and Farid: Thank you all for your nice comments. Obviously, I love Frank Howard, he was the hero of my youth and he meant so much to me. Even after all these years, its important to realize that Hondo was, not only a fine player, but a decent and great person, also. Very important in this day and age of spoiled athletes. I can't say enough about him--obviously. Thanks again.

farid said...

By the way, I also saw Pete Broberg pitch against the Brewers -- I remember Shelby Whitfield and Ron Menchine both saying he was going to be the team's next ace.


Anonymous said...

Were you the guy that poured beer on Bob Short's head?

Screech's Best Friend said...

Anonymous. Unfortunately--NO!! I would have love to claim that prize, though.