EASTON — It’s not just any day. It’s the Baltimore Orioles’ opening day at Camden Yards.
It’s not just any flag that’s unfurled over the wall at centerfield. It’s the 15 stars and 15 stripes that proudly wave above Fort McHenry.
And it’s not just any group that unfurls this replica of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a crew made up of several diehard Orioles fans from the Mid-Shore area.
Anchoring the flag at the bottom corners? They’re Kevin and Kris George of Easton. Directing the flag operation? Kent Island native Mary Klepper, Kevin’s lifelong friend.
Up on the fifth floor of the warehouse that forms the backdrop of Orioles Park at Camden Yards, about 20 volunteers gather a few hours before the first pitch on opening day. Escorting a 75-pound rolling duffel bag, two park rangers have delivered the 30-by-42 foot flag.
The flag crew refolds the banner accordion-style along the 2-foot wide red and white stripes to ready it for unfurling over the centerfield wall.
“It’s just organized chaos,” Kevin says. Mary issues orders, making sure the folds are “tight and neat. Then she’ll holler out ‘Under!’ and then everybody folds in unison. If you’re not in unison, it’s easy for folds to be a little bent and crooked.”
“It needs to be perfect,” Kris says. The crew, including Mary, then escorts the flag to the sundeck above the wall, lay it flat and wait while the park fills with fans.
Mary says the object has always been to treat the flag with respect. “We wanted it to drape slowly over the banner wall. We didn’t want to just dump it. If you had it folded by the stripes, you could let it down in a gentle fashion so it would float nicely.”
As the Georges head downstairs to get into position — “We have a little date, it’s like our one getaway a year,” Kris quips. “(Kevin) usually laughs at me because I’m like, ‘Ooh, there’s Chris Davis, there’s Sossa.’ He’s accepting because he gets a little geeked out about it, too” — they try to sneak a few photos of the players before the anthem begins.
On the first note of the national anthem, the top crew gently pushes the huge flag forward. Kevin and Kris wait to catch it at the bottom and hold it taut against the wall.
“I don’t breathe until (it’s over) because you’re waiting to grab it — ‘What if I mess up, what if I let go?’” Kris says. “It’s just a very long 10 seconds.”
“And you’re thinking there’s all these cameras, because everybody in the park is essentially looking at you, so you want to get it just right,” Kris says. “And everybody’s really not looking at you — they’re looking at the flag you’re holding.”
“It’s a big deal. I feel very patriotic about the flag itself,” Mary says. “Without Baltimore, without the men who fought there — and it was not only white people, there were free blacks defending Fort McHenry — we’re back to being British subjects, you know. We were this young country that hadn’t proven our mettle yet right after the Revolution, and we did it — we held the line. D.C. burned — but Baltimore didn’t.”
Mary’s role as a professional tour guide who works all over the U.S. kicks into high gear as she describes events that took place 200 years ago.
“(Francis Scott Key) is this lawyer watching the bombardment all through the night. In the morning he sees this flag go up — the one that Mary Pickersgill made — so big the British have no trouble seeing it from a mile out, and he … says, ‘We’ve won. It’s still there.’ And he sits down and writes this poem, ‘The Defense of Fort McHenry.’”
Kris and Kevin say it chokes them up. “You hear that song and it certainly does incite something in your heart — patriotism,” Kris says. “I work in the school system and I recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, so it’s important.”
Kris works in the media center at Chapel Elementary School in her native Cordova. Kevin is an editor at American Farm Publications in Easton.
Still, they snap photos of the players before they are introduced and go out onto the field. “They’re right there. We don’t say anything to them, but gosh, they’re so close,” Kris says.
“I certainly like that vantage point of being so close to everything,” Kris said. She wasn’t able to take off work for opening day on April 4 this year, but Kevin went. She hopes to rejoin the crew next year.
“When they’re all situated on the infield, they turn and face us,” place their caps over their hearts, the national anthem begins, with fireworks punctuating the phrase “bombs bursting in air.” “It’s quite the ceremony,” Kris says.
“Once the national anthem is over, then the people up top just fold the flag back up, and our job’s done,” Kevin says. The flag crew “relaxes and mingles” and watches the game from the sundeck.
Eastern Shore connections
Kevin has been a part of the flag crew for nine season openers, at least one playoff game and the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort McHenry in September 2014, helping the friend he’s known since elementary school. They’re all part of a new “family.”
“We’ve made some nice friendships with people who we really only see that day of the year. It’s almost like a little family reunion,” Kevin says.
“We look forward to it,” Kris says. “It’s a tradition that we do,”
Kevin and Mary were childhood and church friends whose dads played softball together. She immediately thought of Kevin when she quickly had to assemble her own flag crew. “Those Kent Island-Queen Anne’s County roots run deep,” Mary says.
Mary’s role was thrust on her unexpectedly in 2010. While she had been a tour guide with the Orioles team since 2003, she didn’t join the flag crew until 2009. Fellow tour guide Harry Benninghoff had been in charge of the opening day ceremony for years and became very ill shortly before opening day 2010.
“He went to his supervisor and said ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to make opening day this year. I need to get a replacement and I feel that nobody would be better, and have the patriotism towards the flag — be respectful for it, really love it — like Mary would,’” Mary remembers.
Harry’s recommendation was “wonderful,” Mary says. However, “sadly, he died a couple of days later, and I’ve never gotten over it — I was so devastated.”
“Harry had always had his family and friends doing it,” Mary says. “All of a sudden, I didn’t have anybody’s numbers or anything, and so I was scrambling. In 2010, Facebook was new to me — I had only been on it since the fall of ‘09.”
“I reached out to a few baseball fans I knew would dig coming to opening day, so it ended up being a whole bunch of Eastern Shore people,” she said. “It was just a very emotional thing, and even today, all these years later, after the flag is unfurled, we have a beer and toast Harry.”
“I just feel this moment of great patriotism that I’m part of that,” Mary says. “Literally, I thank Harry every opening day for saying that I’m the one that he wanted to do that, and take over for him. He knew it would mean a lot to me, and it does, it really does. It’s just this moment of just extreme love for my country, for my state — and for my team. (If) they cut me open, I’m bleeding black and orange.”
“‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was written here. That’s ours — we should claim that as Marylanders,” Mary says.
“It’s this great moment in history,” Mary says. “And that’s why we sing ‘Oh!’ That’s our song. Yeah, it belongs to the whole country, but it’s here. It’s our moment. A lot of people find it disrespectful. I don’t — as much as I love the flag. Baltimore — that’s our song. The poem was done here — the song wasn’t — but that moment happened here, and we cheer that moment, we’re cheering the team — that’s us. I feel very strongly about that. That song really connects me to Maryland — the rest of the country can share it with us,” she says, laughing.
“There’s something very special about (the flag),” Kris said. “There’s the flag, there’s the patriotism, there’s the tradition of baseball that’s so important to us, and you’re sharing it with 45,000 other people at the same time. So there’s something very special about doing that. I sort of pinch myself sometimes. I mean, do we really get to do this with the flag crew? Mary has blessed us tremendously with this opportunity. Every time I do it, I think, that was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do it, and then she invites us back. So I get a little overwhelmed about it.”