It probably was not a coincidence that the Mariners vs. Orioles game I tried to attend with Paul earlier in the month was rained out. Instead of entering Camden Yards, we got our fill at Pickles Pub and walked through the drizzle around the park, wondering what a pleasant night we would have had if the rain hadn’t fallen.
It also was not a coincidence that while looking at the weekend games when the Athletics were in town, rain Saturday night led us to agree that the Sunday afternoon game between Oakland and Baltimore was the best bet.
On Saturday, Paul contacted his father’s old friend Frank Kolarek, a former player and scout and the father of Adam Kolarek, an Oakland reliever.
Also on Saturday, Zac Lowther was called up to the Orioles for the first time in his burgeoning career. Lowther attended Xavier University through 2017. There, Paul broadcasted Lowther’s games, along with those of several other Musketeer draft picks. Xavier was an NCAA regional finalist in both 2016 and 2017.
Also planning to be at Camden Yards on Sunday was Paul’s high school friend Connor Barron, a die-hard Oakland sports fan and March Madness clairvoyant who correctly predicted UCLA to advance to this year’s Final Four, albeit intending to pick Michigan State, who lost to UCLA in the First Four and was therefore replaced by the Bruins for subsequent picks in the bracket, which for some reason fails to distinguish between First Four counterparts.
It was a gorgeous day, if somewhat chilly, as Paul and I arrived at the stadium district, just west of Baltimore’s inner harbor. At M&T Bank Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Ravens, COVID vaccine distribution was ongoing–and based on the things I’ve read on social media, some of these vaccine recipients haven’t so much been to a restaurant in the last 13 months. But traipsing through the football parking lots was a crowd of baseball fans who, regardless of vaccine status, frankly cared more about having a relaxing afternoon at the ballpark. A fun juxtaposition of two American cultures.
The walk from M&T Bank Stadium to Eutaw Street gave me flashbacks to the first MLB game I remember attending–in 2003 between the Devil Rays and the Orioles. At that time, my dad was an O’s fan, though suffering through what would become his last years of allegiance to a suspicious Baltimore organization. And as I walked down the promenade in 2003, little did I know the effect baseball would have on my life. Then, I was just happy to have a Pepsi and Cracker Jack in my hands.
Part of Camden Yards’ genius is the seamless transition between Eutaw Street and the park’s interior of green seats that gently slope from street level to the luscious field. Looking down Eutaw, the B&O warehouse appears just an urban remnant of industrial America. But looking across the field, it becomes one of the most unique, intimate backdrops in the game.
Paul and I took advantage of the limited pregame free time to walk around the lower bowl and check in with the ushers, who were happy to be back in a ballpark after the lengthy layoff. The broadcaster side of Paul has a charming interpersonal talent with service industry workers. They all shared our sentiment that the previous night’s game should not have been played through the rain. We’d all have rather watched a doubleheader on Sunday.
On the centerfield end of the left field stands, the final columns of seats were roped off to prevent fans from getting their COVID-infested breath on the players and coaches in the bullpens. On the outfield grass in front of us, a few players from each side warmed up.
Paul and I marveled about the tangible awe of being next to a big league field for the first time in two years.
“The thing that gets me is just how big the players are,” Paul said. “Like look at that guy’s calves.”
Catcher Aramis Garcia began tossing, his calf muscles bulging through his green and yellow-banded socks pulled up to his knees. I looked on with envy at the ease with which he released the ball.
My arm used to feel good. So did Paul’s. But after a meager game of dodgeball the previous Friday afternoon, my entire right side felt more sore than it had after a 120-pitch outing I threw in high school. It will take more than intramural softball season to get any elasticity back.
Paul texted Connor a few times to try to schedule a meetup. But he didn’t really need to. Of all the sections and all the rows in Camden Yards, Connor and his dad ended up with the two other seats in our same row, the middle of which was ziptied up to allow for social distancing.
Connor had smuggled in a Ziploc bag of Brach’s candy corn, which he had begun eating as a gameday snack two weeks prior when Oakland began its win streak. On this Sunday, the A’s had won 13 games in a row. He wasn’t about to let “no outside food or beverage” signs stop the streak.
Cedric Mullins, Baltimore’s burgeoning speedy centerfielder, led off the game with a single through the infield. It was good to be back.
At the end of the first, Paul and I walked up to the concourse behind home plate to meet Frank, who was happy to talk with a couple young baseball fans. Frank retired from scouting a few years ago and now has a foundation with which he helps disabled children learn the game. He talked a bit about Adam’s career, and Paul reminisced about watching Adam Kolarek, previously with the Los Angeles Dodgers, battle Juan Soto in the 2019 playoffs.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, the A’s were sent down in the top of the second. We stopped by a concession stand on our way back to the seats for Paul to indulge himself with an overpriced Bud Light. I decided to go for the more bourgeoisie option of a canned Mai Tai. Having been gone for almost an entire inning, what happened next was inevitable. As the indecision of fellow fans slowed the concession line, Austin Hays blasted a dinger for Baltimore, furthering my habit of missing home runs with concession, bathroom, and team store trips. That tradition began long ago in this very ballpark.
Luckily for us, Austin Hays wasn’t done. He homered again in his next at-bat. Ramon Laureano went yard for Oakland. Later, Maikel Franco homered again for Baltimore, so we did end up witnessing 75% of this game’s dingers.
John Means, through it all, pitched a gem for the O’s. He threw 6 ⅓ innings of two-hit baseball, with his only run the Laureano homer. Oakland’s win streak was on the fritz.
We later went back to supplement our beverages with ballpark food, which Paul was all too happy to consume.
“It feels so good to overpay for a bad hotdog and beer again,” he said. “The problem is, if I tweet that, people will think it’s sarcasm. But it’s not.”
The perils of being popular on social media.
With a 3-1 lead going into the eighth, Baltimore was in a save situation. To Paul, that was unfortunate because it meant Zac Lowther would likely not be called on to make his MLB debut. But in the bottom of the eighth, Oakland’s bullpen unraveled. Deolis Guerra gave up a leadoff homer to Franco and walked the bases loaded around a pair of outs. After a lengthy battle with Ryan McKenna, Guerra walked him to force home a run.
Guerra’s day was rightly done, and in came lefty sidewinder Adam Kolarek, whose father was now sitting just behind home plate a few sections over from us. Kolarek induced a groundball from Cedric Mullins that would have been an inning-ending fielder’s choice. The fielder, though, chose an error and the inning continued with another run in for Baltimore. To Adam, Frank, and Connor’s collective dismay, Trey Mancini then singled home two more runs to stretch the Orioles’ lead to 8-1.
Baltimore’s closer sat down in the bullpen, the lead now substantial, and Lowther began warming. Paul got giddy. He was about to witness the debut of Xavier’s first major leaguer since 2014.
In the top of the ninth, in marched Lowther to close the game. He allowed a leadoff single to Jed Lowrie, but then induced a flyout and groundout in order to settle down. Lowther froze Matt Chapman on a two-strike changeup to earn his first MLB strikeout and seal the win for Baltimore.
Lowther was, by Paul’s count, the first baseball player he had broadcasted to make it to the bigs. The first player under Paul’s press box purview to make it to the highest level in any sport was Dayton Football’s Adam Trautman, who debuted with the New Orleans Saints in 2020.
Following our idyllic ballpark Sunday, though, Lowther was sent back down to the minors. Kolarek too, after a rough start to his 2021 season, was sent down. Had that happened a day prior, Frank may not have even come to Camden Yards. It’s unclear whether or not Connor is still eating candy corn after the end of Oakland’s win streak.
But it’s gratifying that weather and coincidence drew us to Camden Yards on April 25. Although as John Paul II said, “In the designs of providence there are no mere coincidences.”
So it’s likely not a coincidence at all. Nor is it one that Paul and I met at a school named for the pope-turned-saint. Nor is it that Paul is now in Bowie to broadcast games for Baltimore’s Double-A team on what will hopefully become his own road to the majors. Then maybe one day a former Xavier baseball player will be watching a game and say that Paul is the first broadcaster who called him to make it to the show.