At this point in my life, I'm rarely overwhelmed by anything in sports anymore.
Sure every once in awhile there are some pleasant surprises: Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria, Stephen Strasburg's start against the Pirates, even seeing Danica Patrick in a bathing suit for the first time. But for the most part, sports are an endless conveyor belt of 7-2 baseball games, two touchdown football blowouts and Louis Oosthuzien's 32 stroke British Open victory. In other words, everything kind of runs together. Nothing sticks out.
So heading down to Baltimore for my first trip to Camden Yards this week, I wasn't really expecting to be impressed. Even after hearing good things from everyone I talked to, I was still a little dubious. After all, what could a 20-year-old ballpark, home to a last place team really offer?
A lot apparently.
Because I can't lie, I didn't just like Camden Yards. I loved it. Loved everything about it.
The stadium is the perfect mix of old school sports charm and new school comfort, creativity and amenities. While having the ambiance of a stadium built 50 years ago, Camden Yards offers everything you'd want out of a contemporary ball park: Great sightlines, amazing food, clean and accessible bathrooms, you name it.
So for those of you who've never been, what do you need to know?
Here are the answers, in my Idiot's Guide To Camden Yards...
Do: Check Out the Sports Legends Museum Before Entering The Stadium:
Before I go any further, I already know what you're thinking: "Really Aaron? You want us to check out a museum? Come on."
And believe me, I was with you. When the idea was originally proposed to me, I had the same look of uncertainty on my face that Mel Gibson gets when his bartender tells him it's last call. Unlike Mel though, I took a deep breath, and was pleasantly surprised with what I found inside the museum.
Located right next door to the ball park, the Sports Legends Museum is literally a "Who's Who," of Maryland sports history. Want to see Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony's National Championship ring from Syracuse? The Sports Legends Museum is your place. Want to learn about the early 1900's Baltimore Orioles, a self described "Cocky, swashbuckling crew?" This is the spot to do it. Ready to check out Michael Phelps' dip cup, from one of his infamous all-night online poker sessions at www.partybingo.com? Come to the Sports Legends Museum! (Ok, I may have made the last one up)
But seriously, the best part of the museum is that you don't have to be an Orioles fan, or even a native Marylander to appreciate it. Sure there's quite an extensive exhibit on the Orioles, but there are also artifacts and info on the old Baltimore Colts, the new Baltimore Ravens, the Baltimore Bullets of the BAA (The precursor to the modern NBA) not to mention more Maryland college sports history than you'll know what to do with. Seriously, I always wondered who'd won the 1934 NCAA Women's Riflery Championship, and now I know, it was the University of Maryland. Thanks Sports Legends Museum!
While the layout isn't perfect (Navigating through the "nine inning," Orioles exhibit was like trying to waddle through a corn maze after three vodka tonics), the museum is perfect for the casual sports fan that wants to be in and out in 45 minutes, or a loser like me that wants to soak in every detail and ends up spending the whole day there.
The Baltimore Sports Legends Museum definitely gets an A+ from AT.
Do: Go to Pregame At One of the Bars Located Around the Stadium:
Look, in this day and age, it isn't enough just to have a cool stadium. Half the fun of going to a ballpark is the atmosphere surrounding the game. Especially when your team is as bad as the Orioles.
It's actually this reason alone that Fenway Park is still my favorite stadium in America. On game night, the streets around the park are a zoo; part big game atmosphere, part carnival, part college keg party. Even if you don't have tickets to see the Red Sox, you can still hang out around Fenway Park on game night, drink Sam Adams, hit on girls with Big Papi t-shirts on and just have a good old time. The same can't be said at other places like Citi Field, Yankee Stadium or Nationals Park.
But much like Fenway, the atmosphere around Camden Yards is awesome.
Before Tuesday night's game we ended up settling at a bar across the street from the stadium named Pickles, which came recommended to me by one of my followers on Twitter (@Aaron_Torres). With good music, $2.00 Yuengling cans and full of Orioles fans, the place didn't disappoint (Unfortunately, I can't tell you about the food at Pickles. I'll explain why in a minute). When we walked by the following day, the crowd was even better, which- considering that first pitch was 12:35 that afternoon- was especially impressive (I guess when your team is 30 games out of first place, any excuse to day drink is a valid one).
Other pregame places that come recommended by yours truly are Sliders (right next to Pickles) and the Nest, located on the opposite side of the stadium.
One warning however: While the drink specials on game night's are good at The Nest, the food was absolutely terrible. My tuna melt in specific seemed like it got thrown together by a cook that was three beers deep and trying to sneak out for a cigarette break. So be warned.
However, speaking of food...
Don't: Buy Food From Anyone But A Street Vendor:
If you're hungry, the place to hit is the traffic island located right across the street from Sliders and Pickles. There, street vendors serve any kind of food that a slightly intoxicated, couldn't care less about caloric intake, American baseball patron could want. Sausage with grilled peppers, three-quarter pound cheeseburgers, foot long beef hot dogs, you name it.
And what the street vendors lack in salesmanship (When I asked one what the name of the area was called, his front-tooth-missing, mumbled response was, "It don't have a name." Well then) they make up for in the quality of their food. The grilled sausaged I got was the best meal I've eaten in months. I guess it makes sense then why 25 Baltimore police officers assigned to work the game were standing in front of me in line.
Not to mention the prices were outstanding. The sausage that I bought outside the stadium was $5.00, compared to my tuna melt- which, again, tasted like it was dropped on the floor- that cost $9.00 in a restaurant. Burgers were the same, $5.00, and hot dogs were $3.00. In the beverage department, you could score three bottles of water for $5.00.
And you know what the best part was? As long as your food was wrapped and beverages unopened, you could bring them in the stadium with you.
Do: Walk Around The Ballpark Once Inside:
My favorite part of the ballpark was Eutaw Street, part concourse, part carnival that ran behind the right-centerfield fence. Eutaw was everything that modern stadiums should be about, baseball combined with entertainment, with food and drink stands side by side with a caricicaturist drawing pictures. It was also home to one of the best known restaurants in baseball, Boog Powell's Barbeque, run by former Orioles All-Star, and resident fatty, Boog Powell. While the beef barbeque sandwich I got wasn't all that good, Boog Powell's is just one of those food places you've got to try regardless.
The coolest part of Eutaw though, also doubles as the most famous landmark at Camden Yards: The old warehouse (Yes at one point it was an actual warehouse) that became famous in the 1993 Home Run Derby, when Ken Griffey Jr. became the first person to ever hit a home run off it. The building- Used by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad half a century ago- was apparently abandoned and decrepit until they built Camden Yards. Now it's a cool quirk that houses a team store, a bar and other stores and shops.
If you only do one thing at Camden Yards, my recommendation is to definitely spend some time on Eutaw Street.
Don't: Forget To Walk Over To Left Field Before The Game As Well:
For one, there is a set of picnic tables beyond the left field wall, which- once inside the stadium- becomes a nice place to sit down, relax and take everything in. This is also where I decided to eat my $5.00 sausage with peppers, a sausage I was enjoying quite a bit, at least until I dropped half of it in my lap.
More importantly though, standing in left field allows easy access to both bullpens, where you're literally just a few feet away from the starters as they warmup.
I found this especially enjoyable for two reasons:
1. Just the thought that, if any team in New York ever built a bullpen that close to actual, live players, one would end up dead within a week.
I could just see it leading Sportscenter right now:
Tragedy struck in New York early Thursday evening, when Royals pitcher Kyle Davies was killed while warming up prior to his scheduled start at Yankee Stadium.
Just moments after taking the mound, Davies was pelted by Yankees fans brandishing rocks, batteries, and mini-bats, part of a giveaway at the stadium Thursday night. Davies collapsed and was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 8:32 p.m..
Davies was 26.
(Cue slow piano music...)
2. The other thing I enjoyed about being so close, is that the pitcher warming up can't hide anything. Every facial twitch, movement and body language tell is right there for public consumption.
I noticed this while watching Rays starter James Shields warm up on Wednesday afternoon, a day in which the weather could best be described as "Comfortable in the shade, and hotter than the core of the earth in the sun."
Seeing Shields so close, you could tell he wanted no part of pitching Wednesday afternoon. He trudged to the bullpen. His hat was skewed to the side. He sucked in air after every pitch like Rosie O'Donnell walking up a flight of stairs. If there was one person who definitely didn't want to be at the stadium Wednesday it was Shields. Which is ironic, since, you know, he's the one getting paid millions of dollars to be there.
(And if you think I didn't use this piece of information for gambling purposes, think again. After watching Shields warm up, I sent a text to my buddy Steve telling him to put money on Baltimore. He ended up throwing some cash on their run line and won. Who said I'm not a good friend?)
Do: Remember To Wear Your Protective Cup:
If you're wondering, yes I was in the stadium when this happened to Carl Crawford Tuesday night.
And if you're wondering, no, I've never heard a sound quite like the audible "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh," that went through the stadium when the replay was shown.
Don't: Expect To See Great Baseball When The Orioles Take The Field:
Please understand that I'm not bringing this up to rag on the Orioles, because quite honestly I like their talent. I like Adam Jones and Nick Markakis as cornerstones. I like Luke Scott as a streaky hitter who looks like "The Natural," one day and a minor leaguer the next. I like Ty Wigginton, if only because he's one of those guys that you can always pick up on the waiver wire in fantasy to help out your team. I also like Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters, none of which I got to see during my trip at Camden Yards for various reasons.
The reason I bring up this point about the Orioles, is to open up the conversation on two good debates I had while at the stadium this week:
The first is this: Why is so damn hard to find quality relief pitching? I mean think about it, the MLB Draft goes 50-something rounds every year, at any given time every team has 100+ pitchers in their organization, yet no one can seem to find five guys that can come in for short spurts, throw strikes and get outs. Understand this isn't a problem strictly with the Orioles. Ask any Yankees fan and they'll say the bullpen is their biggest area of weakness. Ask any Mets fan and they want all their relievers deported. But why exactly is it so hard to find good relievers? In all my years watching baseball, I don't think I've ever gotten a straight answer on the subject.
The second debate was this: At what point does the culture of losing override the natural progression of a skilled baseball player? In other words, can a guy ever fully reach his potential if he's consistently playing on bad teams?
Take Adam Jones for example. As I mentioned, I like the guy, and so far in his career, he's played well, even making the 2009 All-Star team. But at the same time, when he came to Baltimore, he was one of the best prospects in baseball. As good as he's been, haven't we been waiting for something a little better than the 19 home run, 70 RBI season he put up a year ago?
Which begs the question, why hasn't that happened? Were our expectations of Jones just unrealistic all along? Or do players on losing teams simply expect and accept a little less than their best, when playing on such awful teams. Now I'm not picking on Jones in specific. But would his career arc have been any different if he'd been getting on the job training from Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada these last few years rather than decent, but hardly great players like Wigginton and Scott?
Again, please understand that I'm not trying to rip Jones. Just trying to provide some food for thought.
Don't: Expect Orioles Fans to Feel Sorry For Themselves:
Back in December I wrote about a trip to see a New Jersey Nets game. How the arena was dark and quiet like a morgue. How everyone had one of those, "Is this really my life," looks on their face. How everything was minor league and second rate.
Well, Baltimore was nothing like that, and I want to give their fans credit.
After being subjected to some terrible baseball through the years, their fans are suprisingly resilient and supportive of this team. Like a screenwriter that keeps grinding away waiting for his or her one big break, I feel like Orioles fans feel like their team is ready to turn the corner.
I noticed this especially on the Tuesday night, extra inning game I was in attendance for.
While there weren't a ton of fans in attendance that night, the one's who were there were fully engaged. They cheered no names like they were All-Stars (One guy behind me was especially high on backup catcher Craig Tatum. He cheered the guy on like they were long lost pen pals or something. Impressive and weird at the same time). They booed when calls went against them. And they went absolutely bonkers when their team made a surprising ninth inning rally against Rays closer Rafael Soriano. I'm pretty sure the guy in the throwback Cal Ripken jersey in front of me was actually holding back tears at one point.
Like I've said all along, Camden Yards was an absolutely awesome ballpark, but one that'll be about 100,000 times better once there's a winning team on the field. I for one can't wait to see what the place is like when that happens.
Be patient good people of Baltimore. Your time is coming.
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