Call it a laugher that didn’t seem that funny at the beginning.
Despite it being hot enough in Baltimore to turn steel into taffy, Mike Pelfrey couldn’t seem to get loose. Or something else was wrong with him for a worrisome percentage of the game: From the beginning we were faced with the old Pelf, looking twitchy and cranky as he yanked on the bill of his cap and stomped around the mound. Luckily, he found himself, looking far more impressive after 90 pitches than he had after nine. And luckily, he was working with a pretty big and springy net, as David Wright slammed two home runs and Jason Bay added one of his own and three more hits to boot, and Chris Carter got another chance to work on his home-run trot. Which could use a lot of work: Not since Mike Kinkade have the Mets had a player who seems so ill at ease circling the bases after a home run. Carter’s “trot” is more of a broken-legged, elbows-churning sprint, like you might see on a hunter who got a quarter-mile into the forest before realizing he forgot to apply bug spray. Does Carter want to get back to hitting so badly that running the bases is an annoyance? Or is he just incapable of doing anything with less than maximum effort, so that a 360-foot jog has to become a contest with his own parts to maintain his interest?
If Carter’s home-run rumble was the most amusing sight from Sunday, Jesus Feliciano’s first big-league hit was the happiest. Of all big-league rituals, the first hit may be my favorite: The player who just earned that 1 in the Baseball Encyclopedia reaches first (usually), retreats to the base to retouch, gets a butt slap from the first-base coach (thus accounting for approximately 40% of first-base-coach duties), and then tries to be cool about it, as if something that has never, ever happened except in years of dreams and imaginings happens every day. This is of course impossible, and inevitably the relieved, slightly dazed smile breaks out, usually as the ball alters course for the friendly dugout. Feliciano’s smile was a bit slower to come, but bigger and brighter for the wait. Which is understandable: If you’d waited 13 years in Yakima and Vero Beach and San Bernardino and Jacksonville and Orlando and Bakersfield and Montgomery and Harrisburg and Oaxaca and New Orleans and Buffalo and then New York, amassing 4,876 professional plate appearances before that 1, your smile would be pretty damn big and bright too.
When you win by seven you can dwell on Chris Carter’s trotting and Jesus Feliciano’s smiling, along with welcoming relievers you’d recently prayed would stay far from the proceedings, and you can also race over to the computer to check the standings even though you know them perfectly well, and be upset that there’s an off-day when you want one least.
Along the way, something Gary Cohen said led me to check into ballpark histories, and discover something startling: Camden Yards is now, by my calculations, the 11th oldest park in the major leagues. Somehow the Orioles’ state-of-the-art retro-park is now nearly two decades old, and to say it’s been imitated would be an understatement. Rather, it’s become the template for all that has followed in 18 years of dizzying construction.
I knew this on one level, but hadn’t grasped quite how thoroughly baseball has remade itself in Camden Yards’ image. The 10 parks older than Camden Yards (forget that Oriole Park shit) include three beloved classics (Wrigley, Fenway, and Dodger Stadium), three pre-Camden Yards parks generally considered decent enough (Kauffman, New Comiskey and Whatever the Heck Park the Whatever the Heck Angels of Whereever the Heck play in), and four multipurpose disasters (Soilmaster, the Tropicana Dome, Oakland and the Rogers Centre). The Marlins are getting a replacement for Soilmaster (though, sadly, not one far from Miami), so that will leave nine parks older than Camden Yards, only three of which will make the average visitor daydream about a wrecking ball.
It’s become fashionable now and again to bemoan that we live in a new era of cookie-cutter parks, but these are pretty good cookies. The new parks are intimate, angled for baseball, devoid of stupidities to accommodate lesser pursuits such as football, eschew artificial turf, insist that any roofs open and understand that women like baseball too and thus need access to a civilized number of restrooms. Have things gone too far here and there? Sure — I could do without quirky outfield walls for stadiums sitting in the middle of oceanic parking lots, goofy flourishes like hot tubs and little forests beyond fences, and the relentless mallification of the proceedings. But I grew up in an era of sparse crowds in concrete donuts, and it’s an era I’m glad to see gone. I spent my first day in Camden Yards craning my head around in happy disbelief: It hadn’t occurred to me that you could see a baseball game in a place that didn’t look like filthy, falling-apart Shea; scuzzy, imperious Yankee Stadium; or the Super Mario-colored, thug-filled hell that was the Vet. If Camden Yards being the new normal bugs you, ask folks in Toronto or Oakland or St. Pete how they feel about it.