Billy Reed: Despite Pimlico’s problems, Baltimore has plenty to offer

Billy Reed: Despite Pimlico’s problems, Baltimore has plenty to offer
Billy Reed says that while Pimlico Race Course leaves plenty to be desired, there are plenty of good things about the city of Baltimore.

"On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." -- H.L. Mencken

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The acerbic Baltimore newspaper columnist wrote that long before Donald Trump trashed his native city while lashing out at Elijah Cummings, who represents much of Baltimore in the U.S. House of Representatives.

No doubt that Mencken, were he around today, would write something very similar in response to Trump. No doubt he would write something like what the current Baltimore Sun editorial board wrote: "Better to have a few rats," wrote the editorial, "than to be one."

I must confess that Trump's claim that Baltimore is a "rat-and-rodent-infested place where nobody would want to live" surprised me. I've been to Baltimore many times over the years, mostly to cover the Preakness Stakes, and I always felt that city's problems -- crime, drugs, blighted neighborhoods – weren't much different than those of any other large American city.

In fact, I like Baltimore and could very easily see why people would want to live there.

I’ll certainly admit that I see Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, is a dump located in a declining neighborhood. In fact, the track’s owner, the Stronach Group, purposely neglected Pimlico in favor of Laurel Park, its other Baltimore-area track, so it could shut down Pimlico and move the Preakness to Laurel.

That plan has been challenged by the City of Baltimore and is currently in court.

Still, even as it became obvious with each passing year that Pimlico was declining due to not-so-benign neglect (to play on a phrase made famous by former Nixon vice-president and Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew), it could become a festive and happy place on Preakness Day.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a couple of friends, John Carroll and Mike Waller, who were back-to-back editors of The Sun. Every Preakness, the paper would have a hospitality tent in the Pimlico infield, and I spent a lot of time with them talking about the city's problems and their jobs, not to mention wagering tips.

They both were proud of Baltimore. The Inner Harbor had improved the city’s downtown immeasurably, providing upscale restaurants, hotels, and retail stores. And, of course, it was the home of Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles and MLB’s first retro baseball park.

It was fun to go to Camden on a warm summer night. You never knew what you were going to get out of the game, but you knew that Cal Ripken would be at shortstop for the Orioles. The holder of baseball's consecutive-games-played record, Ripken was perfect for Baltimore, the ultimate working man who punched the clock and did his job day in and day out.

I also felt an affinity for Baltimore because two players with Kentucky roots were among its sports icons. Johnny Unitas, who became "Mr. Quarterback" while playing for the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s and 1960s, played his college ball at the University of Louisville.

And Westley Unseld, another UofL graduate, spent his career playing for the Baltimore Bullets, who morphed into the Washington Wizards. He led the team to the NBA title in 1977, but is best remembered as the only player ever to be named MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

I also should mention Frank Robinson. When the Cincinnati Reds traded him to the Orioles before the 1966 season and got virtually nothing in return, I was apoplectic. I still say it's the worst trade in baseball history. His first year with the Orioles, Robinson won the American League Triple Crown and led his new team to the World Series.

I also liked Baltimore for its seafood.

At the top end of the scale was The Prime Rib, a place so elegant that Baltimore business magnate and arts patron Harry Meyerhoff, owner of Spectacular Bid, rented it out for a private party after Bid won the Preakness in 1979.

Only the best was good enough for Meyerhoff, so his guests sipped (or guzzled, as the case may be), only the finest beverages and food. I don't know what that party would cost in 2019 dollars, but you could probably buy a nice Thoroughbred with it.

And then there was Klemkowski's.

My friend, the late Dan Farley, used to pride himself on finding dives with great food. He loved to eat and drink and talk horses. In Baltimore, he also liked to pound down crabcakes and crack the steamed Maryland crabs.

Somehow he found Klemkowski's, a classic working-class neighborhood bar that also happened to make what Farley swore were the best crabcakes in Baltimore.

So that became our go-to place every Preakness. It also became the scene of one of the best put-downs I ever experienced.

Klemkowski's employed a waitress of startling beauty and charm. One night, after a few poppers, some of my friends got the brilliant idea that I should show her my Sports Illustrated business card and tell her I was the editor of the swimsuit issue.

It didn't take much to get me to do it, I admit.

After going through my spiel, I said, "Have you ever done any modeling?" She gave him a withering look that told me she knew horse manure when she saw it.

"Just a minute," she said.

A minute later, she came back toting some large posters of herself in a provocative SI swimsuit pose and said, "They're $8.50 apiece ... How many do you want?"

And so, while my pals were howling with laughter (I was, too), I bought two posters. They were the best souvenirs I ever bought in Baltimore.

Earlier I mentioned living in Baltimore.

My late friend Dale Austin, longtime racing writer for the Sun, bought a little beach house a few miles south of the city. You could see the ocean and feel its breeze.

The Sunday after the Preakness, Dale and his wife Ann invited me and some other friends to spend a few hours at their home before we had to go to the airport to catch our planes home.

I loved those visits, so peaceful and relaxing. And I thought, from time to time, that if I ever had to leave Louisville, I would really like to have such an arrangement if I could get one of my friends to hire me at The Sun.

I haven't been to Baltimore for several years, but I seriously doubt it deserves the garbage Trump is dumping on it. It's a big city, for heaven's sake. So I'll return to Mencken for the right take:

“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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