News of the Orioles’ cancellation of Opening Day festivities spread quickly through Union Station on Monday morning, but many O’s ticketholders boarded a MARC commuter train and headed to Baltimore anyway. Some riders went ahead with the excursion because they had already taken the afternoon off and had nothing better to do. Others made the trip to mourn the loss not only of a game, but also of a mode of transportation.
Just a week before the start of baseball season, the Orioles and MARC jointly announced the cancellation of the “Baseball Train,” the express rail service that operated between Washington’s Union Station and, quite literally, the front door of Oriole Park at Camden Yards before and after all home games.
The last regular commuter train departs Baltimore for D.C. at 6:40 p.m. Monday through Friday, and there is no MARC service on weekends. That means D.C.’s Orioles fans can only ride the rails to and from weekday afternoon games, of which only five—including Opening Day—are on this year’s 81-game home schedule.
“I’m going to miss these rides,” says Capitol Hill resident and GOP fund-raiser Charles Schwarz as he takes a regular MARC train toward the soggy, empty ballpark on Monday. “They were an opportunity to get out of Washington with a whole group of people that was focused on going to a sporting event. There’s always lot of talk, and none of it is about politics. You get the energy of the ballpark in your train car for the whole ride up, and that’s a great, fun thing. To me, it’s a big loss.”
MARC publicly, if only halfheartedly, blamed the cancellation of the Baseball Train on low ridership last season, though if that were the real reason, the announcement would have come months ago. Given the timing, it’s far more likely that the February commuter-train crash in Silver Spring—which proved that a burning MARC car is slightly harder to leave than Alcatraz—had something to do with the decision. In any case, the Baseball Train’s demise was so sudden that fliers trumpeting its availability were still being passed out at the Union Station information desk on Opening Day, like some cruel April Fool’s joke.
“I think the whole thing stinks,” shrugs Gary Beanblossom when asked about the late cancellation. Beanblossom, an Alexandria resident and Opening Day train rider, had renewed his Orioles season tickets for 1996 just before the rail commute option was ripped away. Last year, Beanblossom used the service for every game he attended. “I don’t drive to Baltimore,” he says.
The Baseball Train started choo-chooing when the faddish stadium first opened four years ago. It played a huge part of the retro hype surrounding the venue’s opening: Camden Yards, after all, was the site of a rail yard whose operation predated the Civil War. And at around $10 for a round-trip ticket, the Baseball Train also counted as one of the few bargains to come out of Memorial Stadium’s abandonment.
But for Schwarz and other fans, the train was more than just a good buy. “I like trains,” Schwarz sighs. “Everybody likes trains.”
Providing further proof of its cruelty, MARC added a postgame bus line from Camden Yards to replace the lost rail service. What sort of oaf (other than Charley Casserly) would rate that as an even swap?
“I don’t like buses,” Schwarz says. “Nobody likes buses.”
Hey, MARC: Kids don’t have bus sets, do they? Tolstoy didn’t throw Anna Karenina in front of a bus! Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct Strangers on a Bus; Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t often dream of buses! Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash don’t yearn for bus whistles, the Monkees for the last bus to Clarksville, or Cat Stevens for the Peace Bus, fer Chrissakes! And, to get this back to a baseball level, did anybody dub Walter Johnson the Big Bus? No!
Think train stations and you think majestic, time-tested structures, places like Penn Station and Grand Central Station and any number of grand Union Stations. What do bus stations conjure? Port Authority! Whores! Pimps! Toilet mints!
And buses surely can’t compete for comfort: Trains provide bigger seats, freedom to move from car to car, multiple bathrooms, no vile smells, etc.
The death of the Baseball Train also marks the end of a great sightseeing trip. The rail ride is thoroughly absorbing, though only Baltimore favorite son John Waters would describe it as picturesque. Trackside curiosities include: the D.C. Coliseum, the broken-down building where the Beatles played their first U.S. gig, which is now used to store garbage; the art-deco Hecht Co. building on New York Avenue NE, which is a really good whitewash away from being the coolest building in the city; a bypass through the bowels of Laurel, a place notable only for Arthur Bremer’s misdeeds and the massive Laurel Park parimutuel palace; a barbed-wire monstrosity of a penitentiary in Jessup; the Genstar gravel pit in Savage; and the Black Label brewery in Charm City, which oozes industry like nothing inside the Beltway. None of these sights is available on the I-95 bus journey.
“Ever notice that the train tracks tend to stay out of the good neighborhoods?” laughs Steve Latour of Mount Pleasant, taking in the blight on the way to the stadium.
As the train pulls into the Camden Yards stop, MARC ushers are telling anyone who asks that there’s a real decent chance the Baseball Train could return. In a few months, they explain, the state will break ground on a football-only stadium at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Ravens. During construction, O’s fans will lose at least 5,000 parking spots. That will mean political and economic pressure for more mass transit.
“I’ll see what I can do to get the Republicans involved in getting the Baseball Train back,” chuckles Schwarz, who insists that he’ll boycott the bus. “I’ll talk to Jim Bunning first. He’ll be on my side on this issue.” (Bunning, a Republican congressman from Kentucky and recent Hall of Fame inductee, is the only House member to throw a perfect game in the big leagues.)
On Monday evening, MARC made a surprise announcement to baseball fans, though not the one they wanted: Anybody taking the train from D.C. to Camden Yards for the rescheduled Opening Day game on Tuesday would receive a free piece of cake, to “help MARC celebrate” the fourth anniversary of its commuter rail system. Thanks for nothing. —Dave McKenna