Who better to ring in April Fools' Day than the Orioles' own Clown Prince? Friday night I caught a replay of the final game played in Memorial Stadium on MASN's Orioles Classics. I'd only seen clips and pieces of the postgame ceremony before, so it was a transfixing experience to witness the whole scene unfold.
The Orioles did a fantastic job of keeping their plans close to the vest. After home plate was dug up to be transported to Camden Yards, the field was cleared and some dramatic, "Field of Dreams"-type music began to emanate from the PA system. A familiar face appeared at the foot of the home dugout in a full vintage Orioles uniform with #5 on the back. As Brooks Robinson jogged out to rousing applause, he was already welling up with tears. He took his rightful place at third base, exhibiting all of the same mannerisms he had for twenty-three years. He was followed by #20, as Frank Robinson loped out to right field one more time. Next came Jim Palmer, the handsome righthander who had won 268 games in orange and black. As he stood on the mound, he too was crying. This really affected me; for some reason, I didn't expect that much emotion out of the polished and suave Palmer.
One by one, and sometimes two at a time, the players kept coming. No introductions were given; none were necessary. It seemed like they'd gotten every player in Oriole history to return and suit up; there was Boog Powell, soaking in one more "BOOOOOOG!" chant. Doug DeCinces strolled out to third base and shook the hand of the man who had moved aside for him, Brooksie. Davey Johnson, Jim Gentile, Bobby Grich. Mike Cuellar, Milt Pappas, even Dennis Martinez, who was still an active player in Montreal. Some of the very first Orioles, guys like Bob Boyd, Joe Ginsberg, and George Zuverink.
It was sobering and almost surreal to recognize several old heroes that have passed away in the seventeen years since that October day in 1991: Mark Belanger, Pat Dobson, Dave McNally, Steve Barber, Elrod Hendricks, Cal Ripken, Sr., and certainly others. It truly was like seeing the old White Sox players emerge from the cornfield as Kevin Costner looked on in amazement.
The final man out of the dugout was Earl Weaver; as the dozens of Baltimore's household names moved away from their old positions and formed a circle around the infield for a 360-degree photograph, the legendary O's manager wandered over to the empty hole where home plate had just been uprooted and kicked at the dirt for old times' sake. As the ceremony came to an end, the players milled about; old friends and teammates reminiscing and current, younger players like Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes introducing themselves to their predecessors. Scott Garceau and Keith Mills sat in the TV booth and observed that none of these men seemed like they wanted to leave.
It was abundantly clear that Rick Dempsey didn't want to go. The "Dipper", who had spent 12 seasons as a defensive specialist behind the plate in Baltimore and had been embraced by the city and its fans for his infectious enthusiasm and offbeat antics, wandered over to the third base side of the field and led one more crowd cheer, contorting his body to spell "O! R! I! O! L! E! S!". He reappeared a few moments later, his jersey stuffed with padding, and brought his famous rain delay pantomime out of mothballs. He stood in the batters' box, mimicked a mighty swing of a bat, and took off around the bases, imitating Babe Ruth's iconic home run trot. As he came down the third base line, a mob of former Birds dissipated just enough for him to belly flop dramatically home. The crowd, which had been on its feet and in full throat through it all, roared their approval.
There may be a time and a place to play the fool. But on a day when many were struggling to say goodbye to their home away from home, a building and an atmosphere rich with nearly forty years of baseball history, Rick Dempsey left them laughing.