Tuesday, December 19, 2023

My Christmas story


Oh, Christmas tree --

The author, 2023

 what a spell

 you cast on me

 For most of my life, I've had a love-hate relationship with Christmas trees. I even told about this a mere 16 years ago on a stage in front of an audience of hundreds of people, in a Baltimore show called Stoop Storytelling. The theme of the night: Holidays From Hell, Part Deux. 

 Blame it on my childhood. When I was growing up, my parents never had a Christmas tree.

 Well, maybe that's understandable. After all, we were Jewish.

 One year, my father took me across our street in Northwest Baltimore, to visit a neighbor family and see what Christmas looked like. It was the home of the Landsmans -- Ray and Dorothy, and more kids than I could quickly count.

 Ray was Baltimore's first Jewish police lieutenant, but Dorothy was Catholic and they came to an agreement that their children (about a dozen of them, all with names beginning with the letter 'J') would be raised in the Catholic faith. 

 They had a tree, presents in various stages of unwrap, the kids running around in seeming chaos, the smell of a ham in the oven wafting out from the kitchen, and Dorothy upstairs in bed nursing the youngest of their brood. The Madonna of Royce Avenue. Close to 70 years later, I still remember it.

 We celebrated Hanukkah, of course. But no, we didn't have the proverbial Hanukkah bush. I had a modest Lionel electric train set, with a small figure-eight track that wrapped around a leg of our rarely-used dining room table. My father Ben set up the train every year for the holiday season, and by New Year's Day it was gone back into storage.

 The Jewish dropout

 Religion was not all that important to me. I had a nasty teacher in Hebrew school -- and early in fourth grade I walked out of the class in anger and never went back. My parents got a call from the school two weeks later asking why I hadn't been attending. 

We had a difficult conversation in which I was threatened with punishment, but the crisis was resolved with a compromise of taking private lessons for my bar mitzvah. And at 13, after the synagogue ceremony through which a boy becomes a man, I became a religion dropout as well.

 At 19, in a courthouse ceremony, I married a girlfriend, Vol, who had been raised in a Christian family -- but like me, religion was not relevant to her life. But there was this little thing that carried forward: She/we had to have a Christmas tree. In our mid-20s we also had a daughter. And in one of my last pictures of us as a family, she and our 4-year-old Jennifer (who later changed her name to FL) are sitting by the tree with presents. 

A few months later, after a decade together, our marriage ended.

 And I got married again. My second wife, Kathleen, also had been raised as a Christian, and like the first she came hard-wired for Christmas. We even once attended the midnight Christmas Eve service at the nearby Lovely Lane -- known as the mother church of American Methodism. It was, in fact, lovely. 

As for our tree, she believed in buying good ornaments -- and for my young daughter, a top-quality stuffed animal lion she named Li-Li (pron: lie-lie) that saw her through some challenging times as she bounced between parents in Baltimore and Florida.

 Marriage number two lasted about four years, and when Kathleen departed I was left with ornaments including a small herd of beautiful silken carousel horses and elephants that had graced our trees.

 The third proves the charm

 And I got married again. Yup, third Christian for this lapsed Jew -- this one not only having had a strong religious upbringing, but playing the organ in church and at age 12 leading a cherub choir. 

Attending Frostburg state college in Western Maryland, she made a point of going to services at every church in town -- eventually becoming the lone white person in the only black church there. The minister. Joe Gipson, became a friend, and after services each Sunday she traveled with him about nine miles down the road to Cumberland for his services at a second black church. She was their pianist.

 And near her 1967 graduation, when Bonnie married the first time, Joe was the soloist singing at her Baltimore church wedding.

 When we embarked on a life together in 1980, in our mid-30s, a Unitarian minister who was a favorite customer in her camera store, Bill Barnett, officiated the wedding in the living room of her little house just south of the city. And six weeks later, the daughter we created together was born.

 We began attending Bill's Unitarian Universalist church in Annapolis, which I enjoyed whenever I managed to stay awake during services. We wanted our daughters to benefit from its ecumenical education program, which was free of dogma and included sex education. Its services drew on beliefs and traditions from multiple faiths, with Christmas seeming to have a far greater joy than Easter. The existence of Christ was pretty much acknowledged, but for some in the congregation not necessarily a resurrection.

 At home, of course, we had a Christmas tree. Fortunately, Bonnie took care of decorating it. I just didn't enjoy the task -- or, for that matter, having to buy a damn tree every year. At least Bonnie preferred trees that were a little bare of branches. Lush trees did not show off the ornaments as well. Not quite a sad Charlie Brown tree, but one that looked good with its bare spots in back facing a wall. And usually priced lower than the "good" trees.

 And our collection of ornaments began to grow. The horses and elephants from my days with Kathleen galloped and trumpeted beautifully in company with "Baby's First Christmas" ornaments from 1944 (Bonnie Jean) and 1980 (daughter Lauren), little mice, a rhino and a hippo, lace snowflakes, intricate balls crafted by a blind Frostburg college friend decades ago, a German shepherd harking (not barking) to our dog Miss T, favorite teacher ornaments given to Bonnie by middle school students during her career as an educator, a tiny baseball symbolic of the too-much-attention I gave to my favorite spectator sport.

 And now, a dark turn...

 In 1994, I had a great idea: Why do we have to buy a tree? Why don't we walk into the woods near our home in suburban Pasadena and get one the old-fashioned way. Bonnie reluctantly agreed to my plan. 

Daughter Lauren, then all of 14 years old, was invited to join us on that December night, and was not so keen about the idea.

 "You mean you're going steal a tree?" she said. "Why don't you just buy a tree?"

 "I think poach would be a better term," I replied.

 So it was just me and Bonnie heading out about 11 o'clock, under a full moon on a foggy and unseasonably warm winter night. It seemed incredibly romantic. I drove us in our station wagon the nearly quarter-mile to edge of the woods, and, carrying a saw, was leading the way on its path in my usual fashion -- to make sure any residual spider webs did not reach my bride. 

 A little more than a tenth of mile into the woods, the path takes a curve and as I stepped ahead of Bonnie, she encountered an unexpected obstacle. I heard a thud and a cry of pain, and turned to find she had slipped in a small patch of mud and was thrashing around on the ground.

 I reached to help her up, and saw the bone protruding from her left wrist. We managed to get her standing, and as she was shaking I held her right arm on the short walk back to the parking spot. I gallantly put my jacket on her seat -- well, actually, to keep the seat from getting muddy because Bonnie had mud just about everywhere.

Back home, I helped get her clean and in fresh clothing for our ride to a hospital about seven miles away.

 The orthopedic surgeon on duty assessed the injury, and told us, "I have good news, and bad news Which would you like first?"

 "How about bad news," I suggested.

 "This is one of the worst fractures I've seen. But the good news is that I can fix it."

 I breathed a sigh of relief that proved only temporary. 

 "But I have more bad news," he continued. "First I have to break it again to get it into the right position."

 Bonnie was given some joy juice -- an intravenous painkiller -- and I held her right hand as the doc gave a quick twist to her injured wrist. The cracking sound stays with me even now, nearly 30 years later.

 While Bonnie was recovering from anesthesia after the ensuing surgery, I was dispatched about 3 a.m. to a nearby all-night pharmacy to fill her prescription for a pain med she would need at home. The pharmacist looked at the prescription and asked, "Do you want the name brand or a generic?"

 "What's the difference?" I asked.

 "The generic is 10 dollars, and the name brand is 35."

 Okay. I admit it. I was too cheap to pay for a Christmas tree. But now, I was overwhelmed by guilt. It's like the yin and yang of my Jewish upbringing. What to do?!!

 "Give her the good stuff," I stammered.

 So the upshot is I spent $50 for the emergency room co-pay, $35 for Percocet pills, and didn't even have a tree to show for it. 

 The next day, as Bonnie recuperated at home, I drove two miles up the road to Ace Hardware and found most of the Christmas trees had already been sold. But among those left in the store yard was the perfect tree for Bonnie. Not purely Charlie Brown. Just a nice, not-too-branchy tree. A store employee cut a few inches off the bottom so it would stay fresh resting in the water of our tree stand, and helped me tie it to the station wagon roof rack.

 I was pretty pleased with myself, and after pulling onto our driveway went into the house and invited Lauren outside to see the wonderful tree I had bought for $10. And looking it over, with more wisdom than any 14-year-old should possess, she stared straight at me and gave me the come-uppance I so cheaply deserved: "I told you so."


 Bonnie continued over the years to demand a tree at Christmas, and I coped as well as I could. One year a local garden center was having its last-day going-out-of-business sale, and had a beautiful $500 artificial Christmas tree priced at 90 percent off. I told Bonnie.

 She said no.

 In 2019, my friend and former newspaper colleague Frank Roylance posted on Facebook that he and his wife were downsizing for a move into a condo and did anyone want their artificial Christmas tree -- free! And I jumped at it, begging Bonnie to relent. So off we went, to Frank's house north of the city, and together we managed to get the long and heavy box wedged into our hatchback car.

 We stored it on a high shelf in our backyard shed, but in ensuing years the tree just lay in its long heavy cardboard box. We were not able to set it up for Christmas in 2019, as I had just battled a life-threatening ordeal with a MRSA infection and sepsis.

 And in 2020, the pandemic turned our world upside-down. Bonnie late in the fall had surgery to remove her gallbladder, and there would be no Christmas fanfare. And in early January of 2021, as the first vaccines for Covid were rolling out, we learned that Bonnie had advanced and aggressive pancreatic cancer.

 A few weeks later, Bonnie wrote about the uncertainty of how long she would survive -- hoping that she might be able to attend a nephew's wedding, or see another Christmas with our families. But it was not to be. Her life journey ended in March, 10 days before the arrival of spring. 

 And the tree lay in its box in the shed, until this week.

 Inspired by a friend I have been dating in recent months, and her artificial but lovely tree I had helped assemble in her apartment (yeah, she is a Christian... just the way my life continues to play out... and seriously hard-wired for Christmas), I trudged back to my shed a few days ago and lugged that heavy box into my house. 

 Sunday night, I took it out -- it was in three pieces, the bottom and middle sections very heavy and the top relatively light. I cleared away from the living room half a dozen boxes of some of the too-much-stuff accumulated during four decades in suburbia, pieced the tree together in front of the bay front window, and plugged it in.

 Miraculously, every little light bulb on the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall tree was illuminated.

 On Monday morning, I climbed into the attic and went down to the basement to retrieve boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations, including some that have outlived three marriages and half a century of moves, divorces and loss, and set to work.

 I had never in my entire life trimmed a Christmas tree solo, and I spent hours at the task, sorting through ornaments that came with memories of mostly happy times and joys.

Bonnie's 1944 ornament

 There were the sand dollars netted from the surf on Florida's Gulf coast by our kids in 1989, which they painted for that year's tree and endured for nearly 30 others over the course of our lives. Some were so beautiful and evoked such wonderful memories that I was in tears.

There's even a dragon ornament, purchased at a science fiction convention years ago -- before Game of Thrones hatched three of them into pop culture.

 The tree left only a few inches to spare below the ceiling, and was too tall for one tradition that had been a continuing bad joke: Deciding who gets to put the tree up the angel's butt. Well, that would be me this time. The angel was much too tall, so I set it on the windowsill next to an ornamental Buddha. Several smaller angels, in various sizes, found perches elsewhere on the tree.

 When I was done, I turned off the lights in the house and plugged in the tree.

 I was overwhelmed by its beauty

 And I thought maybe I wasn't really alone, after all. 

My 2023 tree, in its glory


Tree dragon

A closer look

Sunday, December 10, 2023


Not a birth picture, but at least a birthday suit -- Bonnie Schupp poses for her first portrait in early 1945. This picture graced the bunk of her father Alvin on a U.S. Navy ship taking him to Italy near the end of World War II.


 Remembering Bonnie

on her birthday

 Today is Bonnie Schupp's 79th birthday. Or it would have been, had pancreatic cancer not intervened nearly three years ago.

 In between our respective bouts with life-threatening illness, we would talk on our occasional walks together about how to celebrate turning 80. We fantasized a big, catered party, inviting all of our friends and family. There would be performances by musician friends, a chance for others to say a few words -- kind or, preferably, funny about us and our relationships with them. It would be a celebration not only of our lives, but our friends while we still were around to appreciate and thank them.

 (We also poked fun at ourselves. For years on her birthday, I'd joke about how I'd never been to bed with anybody that old before.)

We did have a party, just not in the way it was intended. She only reached the age of 76. But it was a celebration of her life -- which she wanted instead of a funeral -- as well as the friendships that enriched it.

Age was not -- is not -- relevant. Especially not when it comes to love. It grows and endures.

 Poetic perspective

A few days ago, taking steps to freshen Bonnie's Google account so that the Overloads of Cyberspace would not erase her digital life, I stumbled onto her first efforts in blogging from the early days of the 21st Century. The blog was called "Blooming Journeys" -- its intent largely to post about the world of education, from the viewpoint of a retired teacher. It was a forerunner to her infinitely wider approach to blogging and creativity in an online journal of sorts, which she renamed simply "Journeys."

And one of those early "Blooming" entries was about being born, and a poem written on the day it happened by her great aunt, Gleasie Leatherbury.

 Here's what Bonnie posted:


Note: My great Aunt Gleasie, before she died while in her 90's, gave me this poem she wrote on the day I was born, December 10, 1944.


Fifteen Days Before Christmas


"Twas fifteen days before Christmas on a Sabbath morn,

In the Norfolk General Hospital, a baby was born.

There were other babies too--ones I've never seen

But this one in particular is little Bonnie Jean.

She was tucked in her basket with the greatest of care

Without the slightest idea that Daddy was near.

He was -- and Granddaddy too --

Awaiting news of a baby in blue.

Thirty hours he waited in great suspense,

Till the doctors thought he'd have no sense.

So he bit his nails and paced the floor,

When suddenly a nurse appeared in the door.

Said she, "Mr. Schupp, your wife presents you with a fine baby girl."

But she realized his head was still in a whirl

When he still imagined she had said a boy,

because like a sailor, he simply shouted, "Ship ahoy!"

Now that all is over, and Mother and baby are doing well,

Daddy feels much better too, as everyone could tell.

He is not disappointed, and confidentially I think,

He is perfectly satisfied with a little girl in pink. 

Bonnie in 2009, posing with one of her photographs -- an image of "Baltimore Hons" that remains a visual landmark in the window of M&T Bank on 36th Street in the city's Hampden neighborhood.



Tuesday, April 25, 2023


Then: At a guess, fourth grade at School No. 59. Me, upper right.

Memory Lane 

Pupils of School No. 59

have a 'final' hoorah

Louisa May Alcott closed 50 years ago

The hallways and classrooms emptied of children half a century ago, but memories of Baltimore's Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 were alive and mostly well on Sunday as about 100 of its pupils gathered at a suburban synagogue for what was billed as their "second final reunion."

 A few of them hobbled from the infirmities of aging -- and the oldest among them, Sylvia Cohn, at 98, had more difficulty with short-term memory than in recalling the lower Park Heights neighborhood of her childhood. She told of picking cherries from a tree behind the old Pratt Library branch half a block from the school on Keyworth Avenue.

Their school -- our school -- was shut down in 1972, viewed by the city as substandard, lacking a cafeteria and air-conditioning, but remains a landmark. Used for a time for regional offices and as a warehouse, then vacant for a decade, the oversize three-story brick and stucco building dating to 1910 nonetheless was added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its architecture.

And for the last two decades, the restored building -- now known as Alcott Place -- has been lovingly maintained as subsidized housing for elderly residents. The principal's office is gone, replaced by an elevator shaft, and each classroom was turned into an efficiency apartment. A fourth level was added in a huge former attic space and turned into an activity and computer center with its own elevator from the third floor. 

 The school had a core group of teachers who lasted there long enough to have instructed multiple generations of the same families.

 Six years ago, days after his 94th birthday, I had the pleasure of taking the well-known Baltimore writer and storyteller Gilbert Sandler on a tour of our old neighborhood, and School 59, which we had attended 24 years apart. We both had "Miss Esther" Freilachoff in first grade. And we were given a tour of the building by a gentleman who lived there -- and showed us his apartment, in what had been my sixth-grade classroom.

In hallway on 2019 visit

 I attended the school from 1951 to June 1957, at the enrollment start of the postwar "baby boomer" era, from a neighborhood that was entirely white and largely Jewish. The reunion had demographics to match.

 The first black pupil at Louisa May Alcott arrived in September of 1957, three years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision ostensibly ending racial segregation of public schools. That year was also the beginning of a decade of rapid racial change that swept northwesterly along the Park Heights Avenue-Reisterstown Road corridor, with "blockbusting" tactics by real estate speculators scaring white homeowners to sell at distress prices and fueling much of the "white flight" toward the suburbs of Pikesville, Randallstown and Owings Mills. 

Interestingly, the reunion program book listed relatively recent housing sale prices, street by street, in some cases noting names of the School 59 children who had formerly lived in them -- a range from around $22,000 to a few exceeding $300,000.  Conditions along neighborhood streets range from third-worldly horror to decent and improving.

On Towanda Avenue, row house ruin a few blocks from School 59.

 My own street of 1940s-vintage row homes has held up well. (Taking a recent visitor on a tour of Baltimore, we encountered a woman unloading groceries outside her row house across Royce Avenue from the one where I had been raised. She told us she had moved from D.C. in buying it last year, that the former owner had died and it had been beautifully restored for sale. According to our program book, the price was $202,000.)

 The first School 59 reunion was held in 1993, attended by more than 800 former students -- a sell-out event from which more than 200 others were turned away because of space limitations at the catering hall. Sunday's gathering was the seventh -- and billed as the "second final reunion."

 Attendance at the previous gathering in 2017 had dropped to 151, according to Bob Cohen, a reunion committee member and master of ceremonies. 

 Only a few of those attending on Sunday live in the old neighborhood's 21215 Zip Code -- known postally as "Zone 15" back in the day. Most now have suburban addresses. But some came from long distances -- as far away as California, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and, of course, Florida. 

 Bob wrote in the program book that this final reunion was planned by "new blood" -- a committee of those "younger than 80." And most likely, it was the final final. 

And now, the final reunion: Hard to believe we were all once very young, at School 59.



Sunday, April 2, 2023

From my 1965 yearbook, the newspaper staff at the College Crier shows me (top left) and Chuck Milland (bottom right).


Remembering a friend

who tried to be a good cop

From 43 years ago: A night on duty together


"At nearly 4 in the morning," my story began, "the whisper of the downtown streets is broken by an alert on the police radio: '10-31 rape in progress, Mount Royal and Cathedral, 10-31.'

"Lt. Charles Ford Milland glances at the only civilian car on Calvert Street and hammers the gas pedal. The blue dome light reflects off building walls as the Central District cruiser roars with the surge of power.

"Braking at each corner, the lieutenant checks for oncoming traffic and hammers the pedal again. Two minutes at speeds of up to 50 mph to Mount Royal, and the radio blares again: 'Suspect running west toward Mount Royal.' "

The crime, an ensuing foot chase, and the arrest of the suspected rapist by a couple of patrol officers were highlights of a routine overnight shift for Milland -- and my ride-along for this story that ran on the Metro section front page of the Baltimore Sun on June 22, 1980.

Milland called me later that day, and his funny reaction to my story has been frozen in my memory for nearly 43 years: "Geez, Dave, now they'll never let me have a new patrol car."

Saturday morning, a mutual friend called to let me know that Chuck Milland had died after a year of declining health, including respiratory difficulty.

Chuck and I had been friends since the early 1960s -- first as students at Pimlico Junior High School, then at Baltimore Junior College where, oddly enough, he became my first editor when I joined the features staff of the College Crier newspaper.

Our lives diverged sharply in the ensuing years, as I  lucked into a career at the newspaper and Chuck, after briefly teaching at an eastside elementary school, joined the city police force in 1970 and a decade later added a law degree to his resume. But he was also a good writer, and attained some notoriety for an essay published in Gallery magazine (a Playboy imitator) titled, "Why Cops Hate You."

The essay came to the attention of a popular Baltimore radio talk show personality, the late Allan Prell, who invited Chuck to talk about it on his "Lunch With Uncle Allie" show. Chuck pointed out that the article was intended to explain what many cops on the street think, and why they get annoyed with the public. It was not a reflection of police department policy or his own view, he said -- but top police officials were not amused.

For a time, Chuck was moved from his shift commander role in the Central District covering downtown Baltimore to the communications division overseeing dispatchers at police headquarters. Eventually, though, he was back on the street as a shift commander in the Northern District.

In junior high, we were casual friends and classmates, and it was just by chance and curiosity that I walked into the college newspaper office and found him back in my life... my first editor. On the rare occasions when our paths crossed at the nexus of reporter and cop, we would smile at our newspaper link. And it helped explain why Chuck was helpful to reporters at crime scenes or occasionally as an unnamed source for information -- at least with reporters he came to trust.

His police career came crashing down in 1998 after a couple of domestic disputes with his girlfriend -- a former addict he was trying to keep off drugs -- resulted in his arrest. His girlfriend had called police, and Chuck fled for several days before surrendering on a domestic assault charge. But soon after his arrest, she retracted her complaint that he had hit her and said she was too drunk to remember what had happened.

The case nonetheless drew the ire of the police chief, and his days with a badge came to a sad ending.  But at least he had a backup career as a lawyer.

"I love this job," Chuck told me during our night together in 1980. "I had more fun being a patrolman. I don't have as much fun now," he added, referring to the paperwork that came with the brass lieutenant's badge, "but the fun is more intense."

That night remains my best memory of Chuck Milland, him walking through the bars and back rooms of strip clubs on "The Block" -- the downtown adult entertainment section -- to assure a semblance of order in the minutes before the 2 a.m. closing time that sends "revelers, drunks, prostitutes, and even an assortment of just-nice-folks onto the sidewalks."

"He walks along East Baltimore Street," I wrote, "checking on the welfare of women in a massage parlor where, he acknowledges, something else obviously goes on in the back rooms. 'Sure they're whores,' he says, 'but whores get robbed, too.'

"On the street, the lieutenant offers to meet one of the Block 'girls' at the station to talk about her problems. She had been there the night before, drugged or intoxicated, claiming there was a 'contract out' on her life.

"Around the corner, at Fayette Street and Guilford Avenue, the first action of the night begins with the arrest of a female impersonator known as 'Bubba.'

"Lieutenant Milland assigned a special detail to arrest a few of the growing number of female impersonators soliciting for prostitution, to give them something to worry about. The charge is loitering for the purpose of prostitution.

"Bubba, 6 feet tall, about 190 pounds with legs like a linebacker, has been waving one of them at passing traffic through a slinky black dress slit to the thigh. He, or she, is the first of three to be locked up for the night."

The night continues with Chuck checking on staffing at assigned spots -- businesses where trash cans have been thrown through store windows, a clothing store that had been an occasional smash-and-grab target,  the lone patrolman watching over a bustling construction site for the future Charles Center subway station.

"On the district's western fringes, the cruiser crunches through a coal-black alley paved in broken bottles. A giant pile of debris and garbage narrows the passageway, and an overfed cat ignores a few scampering rats and the approaching police vehicle.

"A little past 4, on North Avenue, a disco closes for the night and the scene on The Block is repeated. Lieutenant Milland parks the cruiser and watches an old wino waving his arms like a bird and staggering on the sidewalk.

" 'He's going to get mugged,' the lieutenant says."

My story came a few days before the firing of a white city police detective named Stephen McCown for his shooting of a black 17-year-old he thought was holding and about to rob a pizza shop. The young victim, Ja-Wan McGee, who had been holding a cigarette lighter, was left paralyzed from his wounds.

The view from inside the Central District police station, I wrote, was that the police commissioner was bowing to racial pressure and firing a good cop.

But it was hardly the first and or last such incident in Baltimore, or nationally -- and only in recent years, particularly with the proliferation of security and cell phone cameras, has the violent intersection of race and police brutality or mistakes come into clear focus.

Chuck Milland was always on the side of his cops, and outspoken -- such as suggesting publicly that the Constitution be suspended for 30 days, giving police free rein to address growing urban crime.

At the station roll call that began our night, Milland discussed policing with his shift of officers. "The silent majority out there have a lot of respect for you guys," he said. "You don't run into it because of the nature if the people you deal with."

He added that 'it takes just a fraction of a second to be blown away," while worrying about whether to draw a gun and fire it. "There's an old saying, 'Better to be judged by one than carried by six.' "

"You got to use good sense and act in good faith. That's really all I have to say."

With Chuck Milland's death at our mutual age of 77, I am left wondering about how his life and world view would have turned out had he, like me, gone into journalism -- or after his first decade in uniform tried his hand at fiction to voice his views on policing.

Considering the roads not taken can be maddening.







Thursday, April 7, 2022


Play Ball!

The field of dreams was soaking wet,

but players were readying for action

on eve of (minor league) season opener

It's drizzling, the temperature around 52 degrees, much like an early spring day in England. But it was less than ideal for baseball here in the suburban Maryland town of Bowie, where a dozen so players are tossing around balls and loosing up muscles in late afternoon on the eve of Opening Day.

The infield is covered by puddles atop a protective tarp, and the outfield grass between center and right fields is wet under the cleats before the session is cut short by a downpour. There's thunder in the distance.

Getting loose despite the rain

This scene is the backdrop for "Media Day" at Prince George's Stadium, halfway between Washington and Baltimore and home to the Double-A Bowie Baysox. Just a couple of writers and a popular Baltimore radio sports and talk show host turn out for quick interviews in advance of the season opener -- and many of the games here are also sparsely attended.

But it's a great place to watch a game, intimate in size with maybe a tenth of the seats common to Major League ballparks. Ticket and food prices are cheaper -- there's even dollar hotdog nights, and games when fans can bring their own dogs (the kind that wag tails, that is). And a carousel diversion for children is ready near the cheap seats near deep right field.

Quaint it may feel, but there's serious business at hand for the young players for whom Double-A baseball is something of crossroads for Major League dreams -- most of which begin to die here.

The baseball mother ship is Oriole Park, just 26.6 miles to the north, but only a few of the Baysox players will ever reach it wearing uniforms. There's another rung on the advancement ladder of baseball, Triple-A, but the Baltimore Orioles affiliate is further away in Norfolk, Va. In an emergency, it could take just one phone call and a half-hour drive to fulfill the dream -- even if only briefly.

For the 80-minute Media Day session, held under an open-sided tent along the right field concourse, the first banter is with the team's new manager, Kyle Moore, who has been part of the Orioles organization for 13 years as a player, coach and manager for its minor league affiliates, working his way up. Last year, he managed the High-A Aberdeen Ironbirds, north of Baltimore.

A catcher and outfielder in his playing days, Moore looks younger than his age (36) and has more the look of a rangy middle infielder.

Asked what marching orders he gave to the team, Moore offered that they have to hustle running the baselines and keep the dugout tidy. He acknowledged the overriding mission is player development, but added that he also would like to win every game.

Among the players who took turns fielding media questions were the team's three shortstops -- Joey Ortiz, Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson -- who manager Moore said he expects to play at least two games each week at that position, and handle others or fill the role of designated hitter in other games. (In my fantasy league team, I found myself with three shortstops in one year's player draft outcome -- and got rid of two of them early in the season for the sake of position diversity)

Gunnar Henderson fields questions

Two of the Baysox shortstops, Henderson and Westburg, are among the minor league players for whom the Orioles have highest hopes this year. Even their names have a baseball ring to them, especially Gunnar, a top hitter who is relatively unusual in having been drafted straight out of high school by the Orioles rather than playing college ball. The reported $2.3 million signing bonus he received might have been a factor in making the early jump into professional baseball.

Physically, among the players taking turns fielding questions, Gunnar Henderson appeared to be the biggest in physique -- and has a great smile and movie star looks. Last year, he advanced through the system in playing for three teams including the Baysox.

Among the few revelations, and the most entertaining during the 80-minute media event, was Henderson saying he's been working on his batting swing using a pitching machine that lobs foam baseballs.

We'll see how that worked out beginning Friday evening, April 8, as the Baysox open their 138-game season against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The forecast: Dry, a tad chilly, and dreams aplenty.