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  •   Surviving Season's Beatings in Baltimore

    By Jonathan Yardley
    Washington Post Columnist
    Monday, May 2, 1988; Page B2


    Residents of New York, Los Angeles and other provincial cities may find it surpassingly difficult to believe, but life in good old Baltimore goes on. Take it from one who lives there. Our house is barely 2 1/2 miles from home plate, yet somehow the grass still grows and last week the leaves actually made their scheduled late-April appearance on the trees. The grocery store still stocks cat litter and frozen orange juice, the first-floor toilet still leaks, the U.S. Postal Service still requires two days or more to deliver a first-class letter from Washington, and I still wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning whether or not I want to.

    Yes, it may defy credulity, but Baltimore has not knuckled under. You can still buy a Polish hot dog and a Maryland crab cake at Lexington Market. Fort McHenry is open for business as usual, and at this time of year the view from its ramparts is especially clear and lovely. The developers are still turning Towson and Owings Mills into parking lots. The waitresses at Thompson's and Frazier's still call you "hon." And when you pay for your purchase at just about any local store, the sales clerk is still likely to ask, "How 'bout them O's?"

    Indeed: How 'bout them O's? That is the question I was asked at least a dozen times last week, as friends and strangers phoned from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Washington and New York, and places in between. They had called to ask if my pulse still moved and if the flag was still there. The answer, on both counts, was in the affirmative: Me and my city are doing just fine, thank you.

    But you'd never know it from the media avalanche that has descended upon us. As we go about our daily business, innocent Baltimoreans now find ourselves afflicted with steno pads and television cameras as the ladies and gentlemen of the press probe the local psyche. Psychiatrists and psychologists are trotted out to spout oceans of psychobabble about the crippling effects of defeat on communal morale. Editorialists all around the country -- even at The New York Times! -- scratch quills across parchment and ponder the deeper meanings of The Streak.

    Ah yes: The Streak. I was there when it began, in my accustomed seat in Lower Section 39 at Memorial Stadium, though I confess that I did not stay for the end of the beginning. When, on Opening Day, the score against the Orioles rose to 5-0 and showed every sign of rising still further -- as of course it did, all the way to 12-0 -- I picked up my stadium cushion and my binoculars and went home. Life has taught me many things, one of the most valuable of which is that there is no point to hanging around at the old ball yard when a sufficiency of damage has been done. You may wax as rhapsodic as you like about the beauties of the game -- the balletic pirouettes at second base, and all that baloney -- but beauty turns with remarkable rapidity into extreme monotony when the game is no longer a game but a rout. See you later, alligator.

    There's going to be a lot of that in good old Bal'mer this summer, I fear, if the first month of the season is any guide: games that are over before they're over, 6-1 fifth-inning deficits from which the poor Orioles have neither the heart nor the firepower to recover. There's no need to fret over staying up past bedtime in Charm City this summer: Who's going to lie awake sweating out another 9-2 loss?

    But hey: It's okay. No big deal. For a quarter of a century Baltimore had the best damned team in baseball; we can stand the worst for a year or two. We survived something approximating civic rape at the hands of the loathsome Robert Irsay, who as every Baltimore schoolchild knows stole the Colts away in the middle of a winter's night; surely we can survive the earnest ineptitude of Jeff Stone and Wade Rowdon and Bill Scherrer and other names sure to burn brightly forever in our collective memory.

    In a way Irsay did us a favor: He taught us that sport really doesn't matter. He took the Colts away and -- would you believe it? -- Baltimore survived. William Donald Schaefer went into a terminal tantrum, but he does that all the time; the rest of us bayed at the moon for a couple of nights and then returned to business as usual. Come the following September, football season opened and Baltimore went right along as though the Colts had never been there in the first place. Of course many people missed them, and the prevailing sense that the city had been robbed certainly was warranted, but it didn't take long for us to realize that having a professional football team really was not so crucial to civic happiness as Schaefer and other interested parties had wanted us to believe.

    Ditto for The Streak: Having a losing baseball team -- the losingest baseball team in the whole long history of the American League itself -- does not mean that we have been dragged into the Slough of Despond. We had a winning team for a quarter century, and what good did it do us? After all that championship baseball the slums of West Baltimore are every bit as desperate as they were in 1960 -- truth to tell, they're worse -- and the city school system is still struggling for self-respect and the crime rate is still terrible, except that it too is worse. Thanks a lot, Brooks and Frank.

    Sure, The Streak is no fun, though there's a certain perverse pleasure to be taken in having a ringside seat for the ball club's induction into the Hall of Calamity. No doubt it's true that several of the players are overpaid, but watching them suffer these daily humiliations is no picnic; the truth of it is that in the circumstances their behavior has been both professional and admirable. The city is a little tired by now of being a laughingstock for people on television and in print who fancy themselves comedians, and all of us will be glad when the trends machine focuses its attention elsewhere.

    But Baltimore is doing just fine, thank you. Tonight it's staging a big party at Memorial Stadium, to welcome the Orioles back from the worst road trip in the team's history and to let them know that it loves them anyway. Tomorrow we'll all go back to doing the same old things we do every old day. We have the good fortune to live in a workaday sort of city that is usually, and mercifully, overlooked by the media, and this has taught us that life's vicissitudes are nothing to get so excited about. You win one, you lose one; you win none, you lose 21 -- so what? Besides, tomorrow is another day. And another defeat.

    AAARRRGGGH!!!

    © Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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