Oriole Park (continued)

The building is only 17 years old, but Oriole Park carries a palpable mystique just the same. Doug Pensinger /Getty Images

Photo gallery: Oriole Park at Camden Yards | Buy Orioles tickets

Inside the park, Eutaw is pocked with baseball-shaped bronze plaques. Each marks the landing spot of a home run, noting the date of the blast and the name of the hitter.

Weaving through a connect-the-dots pattern of familiar names like Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada, I felt a bit like I was reading a page from the Mitchell Report. But my mood lifted any time I saw a reference to the Iron Man, and again when I spotted one that had been raked by the new face of the Orioles -- outfielder Nick Markakis.

I later asked Markakis what it took to plant one on Eutaw.

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"The pitch has got to be in, for starters," the lefty slugger said. "To get it out there, it's definitely a good poke. It's only 318 feet down the line, but it's also up in elevation and 50 or 60 feet behind the wall and over a gate."

Markakis has signed with the Orioles through 2014, so he'll have plenty of chances to practice -- and, O's fans can hope, perfect -- that stroke.

If your tickets put you on the Eutaw side of the park, look for the special orange seat that marks Eddie Murray's 500th homer and the red one commemorating Cal Ripken's 278th four-bagger, which broke Ernie Banks' record for homers by a shortstop.

It's up in the cheap seats where one often can hear the best heckling, and the Baltimore faithful did not disappoint. A 20-something sporting a rally cap stood up and screamed at a Rangers outfielder, "Hey, Cruz, your socks are untied!"

Zing! Laughter and high-fives all around.

In order to escape the blaring sun, I left Eutaw and walked back through the covered promenade that houses most of Camden's concession stands. There are unique food smells there that will always remind me of Baltimore: tangy vinegar for the French fries and piquant Old Bay Seasoning for darn near everything else.

I returned to the upper deck to chat with Schott about where to go after the game. Pratt Street for the bars, he suggested. The Inner Harbor for shopping and museums. And Little Italy for great Italian food, naturally.

I intended to ask him the million-dollar question -- where to get the best crab cake -- but our conversation was interrupted.

"Heads up!" Schott shouted.

I took one step back just as a screaming foul clanged off of the metal railing right in front of me and dropped into the section below.

That's how I became acquainted with 46-year-old Cole Bacon and friends. Another Baltimore native -- who, with his dark glasses on, bore a striking resemblance to author and Orioles part-owner Tom Clancy -- Bacon had escorted friends from Virginia to the game. One of his compatriots had caught the ball, then promptly handed it to Bacon for approval.

"Can you believe it?" Bacon said. "I've been coming here since this place opened, and I've never caught a foul ball." He then gestured to his friend from out of town. "He hasn't been to a game in 20 years, and he gets a souvenir."

The impersonal nature of physics couldn't put a dent in Bacon's good time, however. His natural affability lent credence to Baltimore's nickname, Charm City.

"Naw, that's what you guys call it," Bacon said. "Those of us who live here call it Smalltimore; everybody here is a friend of a friend."

My own new pal, Schott, overheard this statement and came down, engaging in an impromptu session of "Six Degrees of Cole Bacon." After a few minutes of conversation, the two had settled it, Indeed, they had an acquaintance in common: a teacher in Schott's hometown of Towson.

Having gone to Orioles games for a lifetime, Bacon acknowledged a soft spot in his heart for Memorial Stadium, which the Colts and Orioles shared for decades before the former left town unceremoniously and the latter built a baseball-only cathedral.

"I loved Memorial. It was my stadium," Bacon said.

"When I first came to Camden, I was determined to keep it at arm's length. But by the second time I came to a game here, it already felt like home. I was showing new people where to eat and where the best seats were."

That sense of being in the right place is exactly what Oriole Park at Camden Yards is meant to conjure up. The building is only 17 years old, but it carries a certain mystique just the same.

"People want to feel part of a small neighborhood," stadium architect Spear said. "As long as it's all about their hometown, fans can fall in love with a stadium.

"Clients ask me all the time how long a building will last. And to me the right answer is, if we work together and design something people can fall in love with, it'll live forever."

Good food. Beautiful buildings. Nice people. If you're a fan of television's "The Wire," none of these things might enter into your mental picture of Baltimore. But there is a lot of civic pride here, and spending a day in the warm embrace of Oriole Park at Camden Yards is an excellent way to experience it firsthand. There's nothing like a day at the ballpark to reveal the down-home charm of Smalltimore.

I never did find out where the city's best crab cake is served, but there never seems to be one answer to a question like that. Looks like I may have to put in a little personal research next time I'm in town.

Eric Angevine is a freelance writer from Charlottesville, Va. He pens the weekly Auction Block column for ESPN The Magazine and can be reached at collectespn@gmail.com.