Hotchupretty! The Orioles are worth a damn.

That’s what my father would say, using the word he made up — a mashup of “hot damn” and “aren’t you pretty?” — to describe things that delighted him.

Forty-three summers I’ve abided, most of them a loogie in this spittoon of a baseball inheritance. And then. Spring! Out of that gunk rises this rose. Several roses, actually — named Adley and Gunnar and Mounty and Grayson and, maybe my favorite of all, a North Carolina-born, Georgia-raised Campbell Camel named Cedric. They’re all nearly half my age, but they’re family.

You want a fangraph? My existence as an Orioles fan until this year looked like this: 3,207 wins and 3,527 losses, a .476 winning percentage, an aggregate 848 games out of first place. We did have three Ripkens, I suppose. And, above all, we have a sacred stadium to share.

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And now … 101 wins and 61 losses, the top seed in the American League. I don’t know what to do with my face.

North Carolina’s been my home for about a quarter-century, but I spent nearly every day of my first 18 years in Maryland. My father was a Chesapeake Bay waterman. Few things make me feel more connected to home than chicken necks on a string, and that warehouse on Eutaw.

The lone World Series championship in my lifetime came in 1983, when I was 3 years old. Which brings me to this: My oldest son, George, is now 3. Apologies to the other playoff contenders, but you can’t doubt the power of signs and symmetry, and you can’t clip these wings. We’re gonna win it all.

Every night this summer, we’d turn on the Orioles down here in Charlotte. I’d carry games in my pocket while we fed the kids dinner, gave them baths. George started to ask for them as part of his bedtime routine. Night after night. Corduroy and Camden. Comeback after comeback. I’d tell him we would go see a game there one day, and he’d respond: “Right now?”

“No, not right now,” I’d say. “It’s too far away.”

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Late summer, though, the pull became too much. We had to go. We’d join my childhood best friend and his family for two nights against the devilish Rays. These would be George’s first games, and my first since a chilly April 2019 weekend I was in town to spread my father’s ashes in the Bay.

I figured George wouldn’t make it more than a few innings. But I also figured that one day he’d understand the fragility of time and the Orioles being worth a damn.

Michael Graff with his father, Fred.
Michael Graff with his father, Fred. (Photo courtesy of Michael Graff)

The summer before I turned 8, on Aug. 7, 1987, Dad took us to our first Orioles game. He was 43, and together my cousin and brother and I added up to 18. For $26, total we sat in four seats in the second row of the upper deck at Memorial Stadium wearing plastic gloves and orange shirts and tube socks.

We snagged programs and peanuts and a hot dog and walked through the concrete tunnel toward our seats. The noise of the concourse gave way to the new life of a major league stadium. Dad put his hands on my shoulders and jerked me still. “Look, Mike.”

How, I wondered, do they get the stripes in the grass like that?

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I was the oldest, so I had first dibs on my favorite player. I drafted Cal Ripken Jr. My cousin Blake, 6, was next and took Larry Sheets, one of many blunders involving Orioles personnel in my lifetime, considering it meant Eddie Murray fell to my 5-year-old brother, Kenny.

This was also the summer that I discovered my favorite movie, a Disney film named “Tiger Town.” It involved a little boy whose dad tells him, in a very Disney way, “if you believe in something, with all your heart, you can make it happen.” When his dad dies unexpectedly, the boy takes that lesson and applies it to his favorite baseball player, an aging Detroit Tiger named Billy Young, played by Roy Scheider of “Jaws” fame. As I remember, the boy goes to every home game and, whenever Billy steps to the plate, the kid clasps his hands together and squeezes them red, closes his eyes and believes. Then Billy hits another home run. He must’ve had 300 that season.

So that’s what we were going to do, I told Blake and Kenny. Whenever our favorite player came to the plate, we’d close our eyes, clasp our hands and believe.

A young Michael Graff, left, wore his Orioles gear with pride and still has the ticket from a memorable trip to an Orioles game in 1987.
A young Michael Graff, left, wore his Orioles gear with pride and still has the ticket from a memorable trip to an Orioles game in 1987. (Photos courtesy of Michael Graff/Illustration by Paul Mancano, The Baltimore Banner)

We’ve already won so much, this 2023 Orioles team we’re all part of.

My wife gave birth to another boy, Blair, on March 25. He was five days old when I cradled him and yelped as Adley Rutschman lifted a home run into the right field seats at Fenway in the opener. Off we went.

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Having a newborn is a baseball fan’s gift. A newborn keeps you home. A newborn means you don’t sleep anyway. A newborn is a license to fall asleep with a ballgame on.

Over 162 games, you develop a shared language with other fans. I have a handful of text message chains dedicated to the Orioles. Social media feeds me mostly Baltimore-based content. We’re connected by inside jokes and memories. We can’t see a beach ball without thinking of Austin Hays or a water gun without thinking of Mr. Splash. We stand up in front of our televisions and do the sprinkler. We understand where Yennier Canó’s arm slot needs to be. We know Brandon Hyde can be a bundle of joy, no matter what his facial expressions indicate. We think FanGraphs is a punk. Or is it “are punks”? Whatever the case, FanGraphs can kiss our collective tail feather.

To people who have interests other than the Orioles, we probably sound like your crazy uncle spouting off about Russia, a subject he knows entirely too much about for someone who’s not actually a member of the Defense Department. And, like your crazy uncle, trust us, we don’t care. Have you heard about Jackson Holliday’s numbers in Triple-A?

Up came Ripken that 1987 night. My first at-bat seeing him in person. I squeezed my eyes closed, just like the kid in the movie. I clasped my hands together until they hurt. I bit my lip.

The thing about shutting off some of your senses is that it amplifies others. The sound of that first crack will stay with me forever. I can still feel the crowd rise around me and my dad jumping to his feet to my left. I can still hear his voice, filled with energy, not slurring like he did in his later years.

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“Look, Mike! Mike!” he said. I opened my blinders and scanned for the ball but never saw it. I just saw Ripken rounding the bases, a home run we’d hit together.

I found the ticket stub for that game a few years ago when we were cleaning out our childhood house in Maryland. Dad’s brain had been battered by strokes in the years between. I searched for the box score online and was thrilled to learn that my memory of what happened in the first inning of that game was correct. Ripken did homer in the first at-bat that night, a three-run shot in a five-run first inning.

After that, my memory goes one way and truth veers another. The box score shows it was Ripken’s only hit of the game, but you can’t believe everything you see on the internet, and I seem to remember us hitting five or six more home runs, Cal and I.

“Why do we care about sports to begin with?”

My friend Tommy Tomlinson, who lives just a few streets over from me in Charlotte, wrote that line two years ago in an ESPN profile on former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. I think about it often, especially when it comes to the Orioles.

I’ve sworn them off many times. From 2018 to 2021, they didn’t win more than 55 games in a season. They lost more than 100 in three of them. Of course there was chatter of a well-seeded farm in the minors, but I figured the Orioles would screw that up somehow.

Then came last summer, the summer of Adley. And a 10-game winning streak. And the Gunnar call-up. And Félix and the Omar whistle. They fell short of the playoffs, but it was clear this group had something more than stats and a good run. They had personality, chemistry. They had fun.

They had this alien aura of hope.

At our rural home in Southern Maryland, Kenny and I played one-on-one baseball games with ghost men in our front yard. Anything that flared onto the dirt road was a foul ball. Home runs had to clear the two slug holes Dad shot into a tree during deer-hunting target practice.

We mimicked every Ripken batting stance: the straight-legged pose of the 1980s, the squat-kneed, bat-level-with-the-ground pose that led to a .323 average, 34 home runs and an American League MVP in 1991. Then, after a slump, he was standing upright, bat pointed to the backstop. Ripken made us believe that, even amid the consistency of showing up to work every day, we can reinvent ourselves.

We never scored a Ripken autograph like all the other kids of our era. A fisherman’s 3 a.m. alarm meant we couldn’t stay late after games. But still we went a half-dozen times a summer, for a few years to Memorial and many more to Camden.

There was the night early in the 1995 season when Armando Benítez beaned Tino Martinez and the benches cleared. There was the all-timer in 1996, when the Orioles were down 13-10 in the ninth inning, and Chris Hoiles lined a grand slam on a full count with two outs.

The only game my Dad missed with us, as I recall, was the rainy night of Sept. 6, 1996. The remnants of Hurricane Fran were battering his boat down on Solomons Island, so Mom took us to Baltimore. We waited out a few rain delays, and Eddie Murray launched his 500th homer just over our heads in the bleachers.

Dad loved the bleachers. Specifically, he loved the fence behind the bleachers. In those early days of Camden Yards, you could smoke on Eutaw Street, so he’d lean up against the gate with a Winston Light between his fingers. We had a closet full of Boog Powell autographs because of his proximity to Boog’s barbecue stand. Between innings, we’d go back to hang out with him and watch people walk along the concourse.

I’ve read and watched this year as Camden Yards has been reduced to conversations about ownership and taxes and leases. But it’s far more than that to most of us.

It’s a storage shed of some of my most precious memories.

Author Michael Graff and his son George on their trip to Camden Yards.
Author Michael Graff and his son George on their trip to Camden Yards. (Photos courtesy of Michael Graff/Illustration by Paul Mancano, The Baltimore Banner)

This summer, I’d dress George in that lucky orange shirt at least once a week — twice, if we need to stop a skid. Given our location in the Carolinas, his day care friends would point at him and say, “Clemson!”

It’s almost too small now. It showed a little belly when he lifted his arms to climb into the truck as we set out on our eight-hour drive to Baltimore that September morning, the Orioles nursing a one-game lead over the Rays in the East.

I said, “We’re going to see the Orioles at Camden Yards today.”

And he asked, “Are they not too far away?”

“Not today,” I said.

My father died on a Friday evening in January 2019 in Room 6 of a quiet hospice house in North Carolina. He took his final breath while a little Bluetooth speaker we’d set up played the Penguins’ doo-wop song “Earth Angel.”

He would’ve laughed at that. And he’d have laughed at this whole essay. Dad was more practical than religious — Are the fish biting, or ain’t they? Are the Orioles worth a damn, or not? — and he certainly didn’t believe in ghost men.

Let me tell you about walking onto Eutaw Street that first time with my son anyway.

I’d booked us a room at the Hampton Inn across the way from the ballpark, just in case George melted down. The streets were slammed in front of Pickles Pub. So I shouldered all of our bags and had George ride his scooter into the hotel. After all that driving, our room wasn’t ready. The hostess apologized with a bag of crab chips. George scooted around the hotel lobby and became everyone’s favorite fan. By the end of the weekend, the staff was calling him “short legs” and asking where his “whip” was.

We eventually got our room. And about 6 p.m., we dropped our bags and made our way over. George wore a little glove. We cleared bag check. The ticket-taker scanned my phone and told us to enjoy. At that, all the logistics were conquered — the week of packing, the hotel delay, the debates over how many applesauce pouches the stadium would allow me to take in — and we were on Eutaw Street.

Then it leveled me, maybe the biggest wave of emotion I’ve felt since Dad’s memorial service four years ago.

Each night before bed, I run through the list of people who love George — his mom, me, his grandmothers and uncles. I finish it with “Grandpa Fred.” And I tell him, “Grandpa Fred was Daddy’s daddy, and he loved me more than anything in the whole world, and now I love you more than anything in the whole world, because that’s how love works.”

“You get love,” I say, putting my hand to my chest, “and then you give it away,” and tickle his belly. We do this five times.

“You get it, and you give it awayyyyy.”

I guess that’s what we were doing in that stadium that night. Yes, we were there to see two games of a pennant race (the O’s lost on Friday but won the second Saturday thanks to Gunnar’s bat and Grayson’s arm), but the call of Camden Yards is larger than that. We were transferring something. Something that can only be transferred in a ballpark that hangs around long enough for us to pass it down from one generation to the next.

I squeezed George’s hand. Standing there, I didn’t think we traded places, like I was my father and George was a younger version of me. I didn’t “see my dad.” This isn’t that kind of trite father-son ending. I didn’t see ghost men.

Instead, I felt my father drop down on that ballpark like a parachute. He was all over the place.

Years became dust. Death, a foul ball.

I noticed my cheek was wet. My jaw was trembling. I swallowed hard, put my hands on George’s shoulders and pointed him in the direction of our seats. We weaved our way through the Eutaw Street carnival with all the other believers.

Author Michael Graff has passed on his love of the Orioles to his sons.
Author Michael Graff has passed on his love of the Orioles to his sons. (Photos courtesy of Michael Graff/Illustration by Paul Mancano, The Baltimore Banner)

Michael Graff is an author, editor, essayist and the Southern bureau chief for Axios.

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