A letter to Matt Wieters on the eve of his major league debut
So I know you're a little busy, what with your major league debut this Friday. And I'm sure you're a little bit nervous, too. You probably won't have time to read this. No one will think less of you if, by the way, you've got a few butterflies in your stomach. Quite honestly, it would be weird if you didn't have them. You probably spent much of your childhood dreaming of this moment, and now it's finally here.
Soon, you're going to walk out onto the field inside Camden Yards holding your mask and be showered with applause, and then crouch down and call your first pitch. I'm thinking three up, three down, no problem. And if you somehow get a chance to bat in the bottom of the first, I think the whole stadium might twitch with nervous energy. If you get a hit, we may even wake up Babe Ruth's ghost. The whole day will probably feel like a gigantic blur to you, so have someone from the team clip copies of Saturday's Baltimore Sun and send them to your parents. It will be a great way to explain to your kids one day what this crazy thing called newspapers were. (By the way, can we interest you in a subscription?)
But before it all begins, on behalf of the city of Baltimore, I'm wondering if, as a transplanted Marylander, I can offer a few pieces of advice. Don't think of these as absolutes, just as a potential road map for what's ahead of you. This city was a little overwhelming to me when I arrived eight years ago. But somehow, I've grown to love it. Hopefully you will too. But here's the way to make that happen:
1. One day, when you have a night game and don't have to be at the ballpark too early, wander down to Lexington Market and get a jumbo lump crab cake platter from Faidley's. Sure, there are fancier places to eat in town. And there are a lot of places that brag about having the best crab cakes. But for my money, these are the best, and one of the best ways to capture the real spirit of working-class Baltimore is by strolling through Lexington Market to get them. This is a place where you can literally buy muskrat (although they call it Swamp Rabbit), which is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. But it's true Charm City, hon. Order some oysters and a couple Natty Bohs (still the best cheap beer you can buy), then devour a crab cake with a couple sides. Soak in the atmosphere and tell yourself, "These are my people." And remember, some food just tastes better when you eat it standing up with a plastic fork. No joke.
Photo: Megan Morrow/Norfolk Tides
2. Go to a concert at the Recher Theater in Towson. There are a lot of fun places to listen to live music in this area, but none fit the criteria of "dive bar" better than the Recher. (And that's a compliment. Dive bars rule.) Since you're like 6 feet 5, you won't even need to shove your way to the front to enjoy the show, unless you want to, of course. Sure, a lot of your teammates are going to want to take you to places to meet girls, and that's cool. Power Plant and Federal Hill and Fells Point have a diverse selection of skanks that would love to meet you and try to marry you, but sometimes a man just needs to hear some real rock 'n roll in a tiny, overcrowded venue where people step on your shoes and spill beer on your shirt. I saw Drive-By Truckers here recently and they absolutely rocked. My wife saw Wilco here right before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out. Gaslight Anthem just had a show here. I might make it my personal mission to make sure you don't have terrible at-bat music this year, especially since I plan on listening to it for the next 15 to 18 years. (And maybe longer if the O's move you to first after your knees give out.) Might I suggest the Old 97s show on June 27? This isn't that far from my house, so if you want to car pool, let me know. Maybe we can even talk Michael Phelps into coming, since his mom lives in Rodgers Forge. With Phelps in training for the World Championships, and having learned some hard lessons from his "youthful mistakes," maybe he'll even agree to be our designated driver.
3. Pick up all five seasons of The Wire on Netflix. Don't follow Jimmy McNulty's lead. On one hand, it would be pretty awesome if Adam Jones could be the Bunk to your Jimmy (we're already assuming in this scenario that Nick Markakis is Nick Sobakta and Peter Angelos is The Greek) but on second thought, we'd prefer you didn't develop a self-destructive streak brought on by narcissism and alcoholism, no matter how good you remained at your job. Still, The Wire is the most complicated yet beautiful portrait of an American city ever shown on screen, and it will give you a decent idea of what exists beyond the manicured outfield grass of Oriole Park. Just ignore all the talk you're likely to hear that Season 2 isn't as good as Seasons 1, 3 and 4. (Season 5 should never be ranked higher than fifth, and this has nothing to do with the fact that it's about the Sun.) In fact, Season 2 is, in my humble opinion, the most important season of The Wire, because it shows you that David Simon's goal wasn't to make a show about cops and drug dealers, but to create an entire fictional universe and then use it as a stage to tell stories about economics, morality, fate and the broken promises of the American dream. Watch Season 4 and suddenly you won't feel so bad about going 0-for-4 against the Yankees or Red Sox.
4. Buy an Ed Reed jersey, or a Haloti Ngata jersey, or even a Kelly Gregg jersey, and wear it to a Ravens game. Talk radio loves to bark about Ray Lewis this, Ray Lewis that, and it probably wouldn't hurt to throw some praise in the direction of the king. You can even mumble something about how you've always been a big fan of the middle linebacker, and how you thought he was framed. (On second thought, don't say that.) But if you really want to have this city eating out of the palm of your hand, all you have to do is embrace one of those players like they're South Carolina kin, and people will never forget it. Anyone can pretend to be a Ray Lewis fan or a Joe Flacco fan. But go with something a little different, something that suggests you're the kind of player who just shuts his mouth and takes care of business, and all the dads out there whose father's named them after Brooks Robinson will want to complete the circle and name their first-born son Matt.
5. During Hon Fest, come to Hampden, drink too much, eat too much funnel cake, threaten to start a fight, yak in front of Holy Frijoles, and then make out with a chick with a beehive hairdo. Seriously. To the fan base, you represent absolute perfection and endless possibility right now. It would be good for everyone to realize you're human and allowed to make the occasional foolish mistake. Because then it won't be a let-down if you go into a slump. We like our stars to have a few flaws, or at least be human. (See: Lewis, Ray) This would seem like harmless fun. I promise I won't send the pictures to Deadspin.
6. Consider living here in the offseason once you're an established star. I know you're a South Carolina kid right down to the bone, and you're probably going to want to skip town the day after the Orioles World Series parade. (Not to put any pressure on you, but yeah, you have some of us dreaming of parades.) But once you have a family of your own, and you're thinking about putting down roots, give Baltimore a chance. For whatever reason, we just like it when our sports stars consider this city, and all its wonderful flaws, a place that feels like home. We're not saying that you have to teach your kids to play lacrosse or cheer for the Terps in basketball, but consider investing in us the way we're about to invest in you. It probably seems absurd, but people in this town kind of like the idea of our sports heroes fighting Beltway traffic, battling the humidity and complaining about local government, just like the rest of us.
7. Walk with kings, but don't lose the common touch. Seems silly to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, a British author, for advice when we've got Edgar Allen Poe's grave right in the heart of downtown. But Poe's connection to Baltimore is a little more tenuous than we'd like to admit (he died here, but he lived many different places) and Kipling's "If" fits our modus operandi better. Plus, we'd prefer if your career was a bit less dark (OK, a lot less dark) than much of Poe's writing. It seems like you've got all the tools to be one of the greats, Matt Wieters. But you have a heavy burden to bear, kid. You're the biggest building block in a rebuilding project that has now taken 11 years to truly get going. Along with Markakis and Jones (and maybe even Nolan Reimold!) you're allowing us to believe in baseball again. This used to be a baseball town once, and it could be again. We've been beaten down for so long, we just want to go to the park in late September (or, Lord willing, October) and feel excited. Feel like we're a part of something. Also, it wouldn't suck to see you compete for a batting title, now that we think about it.
Lastly, no pressure, but ... please, please, please ... be for real.
Kevin Van Valkenburg