Most people assume that, as a longtime baseball fan, I’ve spent time in dozens of major league parks.
Like many assumptions, that one is false. Until last weekend, I had witnessed games in precisely seven major league venues — including the three Seattle facilities (Sick’s Stadium, the Kingdome and Safeco Field). For the record, the others were Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Anaheim’s Big A, the Oakland Coliseum and, most memorably, Boston’s Fenway Park.
That number increased by two recently when I took advantage of a a travel voucher, generously offered by Daily World management for my 40-plus years at the newspaper, to visit Washington, D.C. During the week’s vacation, I attended games at Washington’s Nationals Park and Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
One reason I’ve resisted ambitious road trips in the past was because of my notoriously poor sense of direction. I missed my intended first visit to Fenway Park in 1990 because I couldn’t find the proper highway exit.
Fortunately, on this trip, I was accompanied by former Daily World reporter Glen Potter, a retired employee of the City of Eugene in Oregon and a far more experienced traveler.
While my confidence was momentarily shaken by his admission that on a visit to Pisa, Italy, he was forced to ask directions to the Leaning Tower, Glen proved to be a lifesaver in avoiding directional mishaps. Since he rejected one of my light-rail suggestions that, as it developed, would have left us stranded in a rundown area of Baltimore at dusk, the lifesaving terminology is not offered lightly.
In addition to the games, we also visited Capitol Hill twice (once to be turned away by a bomb scare; the other just in time to see both houses of Congress recess for lunch), toured Arlington National Cemetery and a couple of Smithsonian museums and ate at former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s restaurant in Alexandria, Va. The famously verbose Theismann was not on hand, sparing us possible 30-minute descriptions of each entree (“Now, let me tell you about the pork loin…”).
Most surprising, at least to me, was an unlikely connection between the Smithsonian and one of the most detested figures in Seattle sports history.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is located in the Kenneth E. Behring Center. That’s the same Ken Behring who, as owner of the Seattle Seahawks, nearly relocated the Hawks to Southern California before Paul Allen bought the franchise in 1997.
Behring gained naming rights to the building by pledging some $100 million to the Smithsonian. A small plaque near the entrance to the American History museum refers to him as a “Businessman, philanthropist, patriot.”
Seahawk fans would have little difficulty characterizing him with three other words, at least two of which would likely not be printed in a family newspaper. At least he has yet refrained from threatening to move the Smithsonian to Los Angeles.
Our second full day in D.C. ended with thunderstorms so fierce that a tornado watch was posted. The weather was cold and clear, however, when we ventured northeast to Baltimore for a Sunday afternoon game between the Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Barely 40 minutes from Washington via Amtrak and light rail, Camden Yards is the prototype for such family friendly parks as Safeco Field — a relatively compact, baseball-only facility that is the centerpiece of a neighborhood. It is surrounded by a baseball museum named in honor of Baltimore native Babe Ruth, a warehouse located beyond the right-field bleachers and a seemingly endless line of taverns.
Glen’s only gripe about the experience concerned the rendition of John Denver’s 1975 song, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” during the seventh-inning stretch. That’s been an Oriole tradition since the late 197os.
“Bad song and inappropriate for Baltimore,” Glen sniffed.
Many spectators showed up wearing Jones uniform tops — vivid testimony to one of the worst trades in Seattle Mariners history.
Center fielder Adam Jones, who has earned All-Star recognition and a Gold Glove since being shipped to Baltimore in exchange for oft-injured pitcher Erik Bedard in 2008, went 2-for-3 against the Dodgers and ended the day batting .365.
The Orioles, in fact, are well-populated with ex-Mariners. Twenty-five-year-old Chris Tillman, whom the M’s generously included in the Jones-Bedard trade, pitched six scoreless innings the following night. Former Mariner third baseman Jim Presley is the Baltimore hitting coach.
A notoriously wild swinger perhaps best known for playing ahead of Edgar Martinez for a couple of years when Edgar was clearly ready for major league duty, Presley was to plate discipline what Brian Bosworth was to acting. He must be doing something right in Baltimore, however. The Orioles rank as one of the better-hitting teams in the American League.
Jones’ third-inning home run helped stake the O’s to a 4-1 lead. But Baltimore starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who had been cruising with a one-hitter through four innings, suddenly lost his control in a four-run fifth that put the Dodgers on top.
Los Angeles owned a 7-4 advantage when ex-Mariner Brandon League emerged from the Dodger bullpen in the ninth inning. Ignoring my prediction to Oriole fans seated nearby that a comeback was likely, the erratic League closed out this contest without further damage.
While leaving the park, I heard Baltimore television commentators observe that Arrieta could reflect on several positives from this outing. If so, he will be doing his reflecting in Norfolk. He was demoted to the minors the next day.
When Glen wondered aloud during the game whether Washington’s Nationals Park was superior to Camden Yards, a spectator seated in the row in front of us silently shook his head.
That negative assessment proved to be accurate, at least in my view. A splashy quintuple-decked stadium (and the only ballpark in my experience in which ushers use some type of aerosol spray to clean off your seat), Nationals Park has its charms, but lacks Camden Yards’ intimacy.
Nationals Park is a pleasure palace. Camden Yards is a ballpark.
In fairness, we might have caught the Washington stadium on a bad night. The main scoreboard experienced several malfunctions in the early innings. There was also a bizarre pre-game incident in which an Army Reserve general strode to the mound but never actually threw a ceremonial first pitch.
Some of the Nationals’ between-inning entertainment was provided by its presidential mascots — people impersonating five former presidents.
The new addition to this year’s lineup is William Howard Taft, who in Smithsonian terminology could be described as “President, justice, mascot.”
The only ex-president to be appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, Taft is also one of only two former presidents (John F. Kennedy being the other) to be buried at Arlington. He probably owes his place in the mascot sweepstakes, however, to his girth (he weighed more than 300 pounds) and his status as the first president to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day.
Political conspiracy theorists may note that, of the presidential mascots, only one (Thomas Jefferson) is a Democrat. Taft is one of three Republicans, along with Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, while George Washington was a Federalist. Richard Reeves or E.J. Dionne may weigh in on this imbalance any day.
The Nationals-St. Louis Cardinals game we attended shaped up as a pitching duel between Washington southpaw Ross Detwiler, who entered the contest with an 0.89 earned run average, and Cardinal ace Adam Wainwright. For once, such a match-up lived up to its billing.
Detwiler faltered only in the fourth inning, in which the Cards parlayed four consecutive opposite-field hits into two runs.
That was enough support for Wainwright, who is making an impressive comeback from Tommy John surgery two years ago. The veteran right-hander allowed only five hits — two to Nationals phenom Bryce Harper — in 8 1/3 innings before Edward Mujica needed only three pitches to record two outs and close out a 2-0 St. Louis win.
It was the fifth loss in six games for the Nats, the consensus favorite in the National League East. That triggered apocalyptic comments from players, management and the Washington media.
Washington manager Davey Johnson said he was at “rope’s end.” First baseman Adam LaRoche, who struck our four times, said he believed the team had hit rock bottom.
The loss, however, dropped the Nationals only to the .500 mark — a record that would leave Mariner fans giddy with excitement.
The M’s, meanwhile, were in the process of dropping two out of three games to lowly Houston and tumbling seven games below .500. Even William Howard Taft — the president and the mascot — might agree that comes a lot closer to rock bottom.
Rick Anderson is The Daily World’s sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or via email at email@example.com