At Camden Yards, an Orioles tradition comes alive – Baltimore Sun

As Orioles relievers line up near the bullpen, watching the starting pitcher complete his warm-up, their attention has time to wander. They know that in a few moments they will be participating in a daily handshake line, but in the minutes before a large green stem catches their eye.

It was a mid-season addition, one that took relievers’ arms by surprise. One day it was there – a tomato plant. As the season progressed, the plant grew and the vine-ripened tomatoes got bigger. And every day, these lifters record the development of Mother Nature.

“We’re taking a look to see what the progress is on tomatoes,” said right-hander Bryan Baker.

The story behind the tomato plant has yet to infiltrate the bullpen. They appreciate its presence – Baker joked that they “should start a garden there” – but the historical significance of this plant has remained a mystery.

“I was going to ask you,” right-hander Joey Krehbiel said when asked if he knew the story of how a tomato plant started growing in the bullpen. “I think it has something to do with luck? »

Not quite, though there might be something to that, helping to turn a bullpen full of waiver requests into one of Major League Baseball’s most reliable. The origin dates back long before any current Orioles reliever was born, when the competitive spirit of manager Earl Weaver met the expertise of gardener Pasquale “Pat” Santarone in the 1960s.

Now, all these years later, the tomato plant has returned to a Baltimore baseball stadium for the first time since Santarone retired in 1991 – shortly before Camden Yards opened. In the meantime, the head gardeners had refrained from introducing tomato plants at Camden Yards, and Nicole Sherry, who the Orioles refused to release for this story, was no different.

But when she noticed that the plants that had originally grown in the lifter area needed to be replaced, Rob Doetsch, the tarp crew captain, recommended adding tomatoes – one way to add lushness. glitz and a nod to the past at Camden Yards 30th anniversary.

The two beefsteak tomato plants were planted in June and started fruiting in late July. All the while, breeders keep a close eye on a tradition they have little insight into beyond the immediate progress of the plants.

“These tomatoes are already starting to get huge,” Baker said.

“Sometimes it’s super small,” Krehbiel added. “We just got back from a road trip, it’s huge and red, and I’m sure it gets picked off.”

It’s just what Santarone and Weaver would have wanted. The pair met in Elmira, New York, when Weaver ran the Double-A branch there for the Orioles and Santarone served as the Pioneers’ fielder. Weaver brought Santarone to Baltimore in 1969, and after winning the 1970 World Series, the Tomatoes found a home in Memorial Stadium.

Santarone grew his plants along the left field line in the field crew area, and after teaching Weaver some gardening secrets at Weaver’s, the manager posed a challenge.

“Earl and Pat were best friends, and Earl decided he wanted to have a contest with Pat,” said Bill Stetka, Orioles alumni manager and team historian. “He thought he could grow better tomatoes. So they launched this contest every year: Who could grow the best tomatoes? And Pat always won.

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“I’ll say it for him,” Santarone said of Weaver in a 1979 interview with The Baltimore Sun. “He’s a tenacious SOB. He hates being beaten, whether at baseball, golf, cards, or tomato farming.

And in Weaver’s mind, maybe there was a reason his tomatoes looked worse than Santarone’s plants, even though Santarone had to wash his tomatoes with water after games to get rid of the beer and spilled soda because he didn’t want alcoholic tomatoes.

At the time of Santarone’s death in 2008 at age 79, Weaver joked in a Baltimore Sun obituary that Santarone might have played a part in how Weaver’s tomatoes turned out: “Well, he was there when I was going down the road, and I think there was a little mischief he may have pinched some of my buds.

They put aside their competition to team up with the establishment of Earl ‘n Pat’s Tomato Food in 1983. There is still a small packet kept at club level at Camden Yards in a display case near the left corner of the field.

The tradition lasted during the time Santarone and Weaver were both with the Orioles, but became inactive after their departures. Camden Yards never knew him. But as the stadium turns 30, Sherry has backtracked on a custom she knew from legend.

As Doetsch and other gardeners tend to the plants, the tomatoes grow bigger in their small patch next to the bullpen. So far, three tomatoes have been eaten by field staff, and Stetka “can’t wait to taste one”.

And as relievers watch their outgoing pitcher warm up, they get to see an old tradition come to life.

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