June 14, 2008

Baltimore Orioles, City Reinvent Self

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Don't get me wrong, the Orioles are still mediocre. They're inarguably playing above themselves in compiling a .500 record for the first half of the season. I attended the game tonight, and noted that no Oriole hitter was batting over .290. None of the pitchers has impressive stats either. My group of friends tried to determine who the lone All-Star should be, and we really had no idea beyond possibly closer George Sherrill.

But, still, there is a remarkable shift in atmosphere this year. Perhaps tonight was a better-than-normal example, what with college night ($6 upper left field tickets) and post-game fireworks. Plus, this was the first Pittsburgh-Baltimore series since the 1979 World Series. The Orioles embraced this by wearing 1979 uniforms and having Earl Weaver, Scott MacGregor and others on the field in uniform before the game.
(Photo Credit - Baltimore Sun)
East Coast Bias
There's more than that though. The organization has decided to reflect the team and its fanbase, embracing the quirky Baltimore sense of humor. Home runs are now celebrated by Frank the Tank from Old School. Of course, the new Orioles Magic video was on display after the Orioles 9-6 comeback win over the pitching-deficient Pirates (the O's trailed 6-1 after 3 innings). After the game, but before the fireworks, the scoreboard displayed an informal survey, where multiple Orioles were asked to choose between Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey. Not surprisingly, the hispanic players all preferred Carrey (have you seen Univision?) while the American players all preferred Ferrell. After each player's vote they showed a clip from each actor. The fans cheered whenever a player voted for Ferrell, and booed whenever Carrey was the choice. Ferrell won in a landslide.
Cowboy Up
(Come to think of it, I'm suspect noted goof-off Kevin Millar also works in the front office now.)

Really, attending the game tonight got me thinking about a series of experiences I've had in the city recently. I don't know exactly when it began, but there has been a major shift in Baltimore culture the past decade, and the Orioles' new approach to fan entertainment merely reflects it. The city has embraced its weirdness. Racial boundaries, which were once very firmly entrenched, have rapidly eroded. Recently The (Baltimore) Sun ran a front page article about a statue of Baltimore's own Frank Zappa in Lithuania. The sculptor expressed a desire to have one in Baltimore, too. Within a week the city's arts council had unanimously voted to commission a Frank Zappa statue.

I really suspect The Wire has a lot to do with it. The debut of The Wire represented Baltimore's "fuck it" moment. I'm not a native Baltimorean, having been raised on the rural Eastern Shore, but there was definitely a perception (based pretty firmly in reality) that the city had struggled badly through the 1970's, 80's and 90's. Things improved, but the basic reality is the same - crack was replaced by heroin (by far the drug of choice), poverty and homelessness plague the city's poorer neighborhoods, blue collar jobs are permanently gone, crime is a daily reality and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV are rampant. The Wire smacked us in the face with all those realities, but for whatever reason the people of Baltimore took pride in the show.

Basically, The Wire smacked everyone else in the face. It smacked Bill Simmons in the face. We already knew about it. I think most Baltimoreans saw The Wire and thought, yeah, things are this bad, and yet things are really good right now. The city successfully transitioned from a rust-belt, blue-collar city to a white collar mix of government support and knowledge-based industry. The city built a tourism industry out of literally nothing, transforming a filthy harbor into a legitimate destination with fine hotels, a great convention center, world-class museums and the National Aquarium, two of the best stadiums in their respective sports and two great bar districts within walking or short cabbing distance. The Wire reminded the city of how much work is left to do, but it also made us think, "How the hell did we pull that off?" Sure, there are still two Baltimores, but the nice one is expanding and lifting many people with it.

That there was a resurgence in Baltimore Pride is inarguable, and The Wire and perhaps the Ravens 2001 Super Bowl win are the only events that can really be pinpointed. Suddenly Natty Boh's (National Bohemian) mascot was the official arbiter of all things Baltimore cool. Boh knows the Ravens. Boh knows Preakness. Boh knows Ms. Utz, and is seen proposing to her on a billboard over the Jones Falls Expressway. Mr. Boh is the embodiment of the new Baltimore. He's kitsch, yet blue collar.

Hampden, HonFest and Christmas Street all were suddenly cool again. Hairspray didn't bring back the Hon and the beehive. The Hon and the beehive brought back Hairspray. Fells Point never changed from a nice, historic strip of bars. It became a nice, historic string of bars that felt the need to host an annual pirate festival. John Waters never went anywhere. He just suddenly became fiercely protected by our city. After John Waters received criticism for a speech before the Association of College and Research Libraries that included commentary on homosexuality, teabagging, masturbation and Jackie O, the Baltimore City Public Libraries invited Waters to give another talk. Have librarians ever given such a clear "fuck you" to other librarians? Only in Baltimore. (The protection of city icons is not limited to Zappa and Waters. Disparaging Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Ed Norton or Cab Calloway is definitely grounds for an ass-kicking.)

Honestly, Baltimore becomes more like New Orleans, where I spent three years, every day. The music and food aren't there, but there is the unofficial competition to out-weird whatever came before. And yet, somehow, none of it is forced. It's just the product of a bohemian, educated-but-underpaid, socially liberal white population meeting a black population that has always been fun-loving and proud of the city despite its obvious flaws. Unlike gentrification conflicts in other (neighboring) cities, Baltimore's experience has been respectful and, I think, welcomed.

I don't mean to gloss over the bad. The murder total last year was the highest in years, and crime is still an every day reality. Mayor Sheila Dixon has done an excellent job overhauling city government, including the police and schools, and replacing now-Governor Martin O'Malley's cronies, but there is still much in need of repair. For families who have been closely affected by crime, no festivals will make them feel any better. Still, though, the city has reinvented itself and set itself apart. The Orioles have taken note and embraced the new atmosphere. If they continue to improve and exceed expectations, we can expect a return to the glory days of Camden Yards.
Earl Weaver
P.S. - I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention just how awful the National Anthem was tonight. A lady from the Postal Workers Union had the honor, but she obviously failed to learn the song beforehand. She had a card in her hand that clearly contained the lyrics. To compensate for not knowing the words, some of which she still butchered, she sang the song veeeeeeerrrrrrryyyyyy sssssslllllllooooooowwwwwwwllllllllyyyyyyy. She had a nice voice, but the anthem was interminable. My girlfriend thought she was drunk.
War of 1812
Remember that thing I said about Baltimore Pride? Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner across the harbor from the stadium at Fort McHenry. Please bother to learn it. It's not that long.

2 Responses:

Anonymous said...

Very good assessment - Baltimore is wierd, wonderful, quirky and full of dope addicts and other criminals - Ahhhh, Home Sweet Home!

jebediah said...

i agree with the guy behind me they odnt call it "bodymore murderland" for no reason. but its my home its fun ass town and wonderful city. i dont live there anymore but ill always have b-more in my hear i dont got 410 tatted on my arm for no reason.

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