In the early summer of 1965 I had my first real taste of defeat. Running home, crying like the eight year old I was, after just having been cut from the local Little League team tryouts. I was good enough to play the sandlot games with the other boys near my age, so why did that old man think I wasn't good enough for his team? This was also the first time I felt a desire to improve physically.
That next summer the tryouts were a little different. I had actually improved my draft status to the point the old man acted like he really needed me! Baseball, that day, was officially in my blood. I would go on to become an All Star in Little League and Babe Ruth, helped my high school team to it's first ever State Tournament, recieved a scholarship to college in baseball, and even played some American Legion ball. But it was that summer of 1966 that had such a profound influence on me.
My uncle, who was a cook in the Marines in the late 50's and early 60's, had befriended a man named John Powell while stationed in Maryland. They became big fishing buddies, and both enjoyed cooking. Even after moving back to Kentucky, he and Mr. Powell stayed in touch. Knowing how excited and proud I was to finally make the Little League team, and have a successful rookie season, my uncle surprised me with the promise of taking me to my first Major League game in the fall. And not to nearby Cincinnati, but as a bonus I would get to fly on a jetliner for the first time! Mr. Powell had provided tickets for us to see the Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium.
Arriving at the stadium, and having never attended a major league game, I guess I really didn't give it a second thought when a team official directed us to an entrance other than the ones used by the rest of the crowd. When we finally got to the end of that hallway, there were grown men putting on uniforms in front of lockers. Then this huge red haired giant came over to us, shook my uncle's hand, patted him on the back, and turned to me and said "Hi, I'm Boog Powell. Let me introduce you to some of the guys."
I got to meet Brooks Robinson (who would become my baseball hero), Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Jim Palmer, and most of the team. It was just so surreal and I may have even been in shock, but the day couldn't last long enough. That is, until this little kid (must have been five or six years old) came up to me and kicked me in the shin! Well, adrenaline took over, and I wrestled the kid to the floor and pinned him down with my forearm across his throat. This, of course, was an embarrassing moment for my uncle as he pulled me off the kid. Needless to say, the remainder of that day wasn't as much fun, although we did see the O's win from our seats behind home plate. The remainder of that season was, however, a gift from above. The Orioles went on to defeat the Sandy Koufax led L.A. Dodgers in four straight games to sweep their first World Series title.
Our family has had a huge Christmas party each year since 1959. At that party in 1995 my uncle and cousins were reminiscing about everything when sports talk turned to baseball. We were marveling about how Cal Ripken, Jr. had just broken Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak record the previous September, when my uncle asked me, "Do you remember the day I took you to Baltimore to see that game"? Well, duh, that had to be the single point in my life that everything changed, baseball wise. He said,"Do you remember that kid you got in a tussle with in the clubhouse. That was Cal Ripken, Jr.". I nearly had a panic attack. Cold chills from head to toe. Mouth agape. Eyes bugged wide open.
Cal Ripken, Sr. was in the Oriole organization for over 43 years and it was not uncommon for his children to be playing at the stadium. Other than Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, Jr. has been my all time favorite Oriole. An ambassador to the game, both as a major league role model, and a creator of a Little League system with his name on it(only he and Babe Ruth can claim that), and a truly great human being. It took 29 years before I finally found out, but, I kicked Cal Ripken's butt that day.
If you're ever in Baltimore near the inner harbor, check out Boog's Barbeque on Eutaw Street down the right field line at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It's my uncle's recipe.