Comiskey's new dark hat won't fit here

Ken Rosenthal

April 22, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

CHICAGO -- Fans gather on ramps at the new Comiskey Park taking pictures. The old Comiskey is just across 35th Street, and a wrecking ball has left the rightfield corner exposed. For those requiring one last dose of nostalgia, it's the perfect photo opportunity.

The view for Orioles fans won't be as dramatic at Camden Yards next year, for Memorial Stadium will remain standing on the other side of town. But after 38 years, the range of emotions will be similar, and understandably so.

The old Comiskey opened in 1910, and like Memorial Stadium many believed it should endure. But the White Sox remained in Chicago only after threatening to move to St. Petersburg, only after the Illinois state legislature approved last-minute funding for the new park.

It was blackmail pure and simple, yet that's where the parallel ends. Those who suggest the Orioles followed the same unseemly course in pursuing their new downtown ballpark are not only misinformed, they're missing the point.

The point was to keep the team in Baltimore, and ignoring his own best interests, the late owner Edward Bennett Williams did. Not only that, he signed a 15-year lease for a ballpark that likely will eclipse the new Comiskey and become the envy of baseball when it opens next year.

Williams died almost three years ago, but a certain segment of the local population still questions his motives, believing his true goal was to move the team near his home in Washington. The fact is, he never exploited his leverage the way the White Sox ownership did on June 30, 1988.

That was the last day the Illinois legislature could vote to build the new Comiskey. As the midnight deadline approached, Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf actually called St. Petersburg officials and put his receiver next to the radio so they could listen to live reports on the speaker phone.

It was nothing short of shameless, but Reinsdorf got his new park -- and St. Petersburg, after committing to the $138 million Suncoast Dome, was left to enter the expansion sweepstakes. Sadly, the city's financial future now appears to hinge on whether it lands an NL franchise.

Williams, dying of cancer, easily could have played the same game in Baltimore. But when he refused to sign a long-term lease for Memorial Stadium "that was not to be misinterpreted as any kind of threat to leave the city," Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad said yesterday.

No, Williams wanted to stay, but in a ballpark that would maximize the club's resale value -- a ballpark with luxury boxes, club lounges and premium seating, the features expected to generate an additional $5 million to $10 million per season at Camden Yards.

For Williams, it was not simply a case of greed; more lucrative options existed. He could have sold the Orioles to the highest bidder. Or he could have refused to sign a long-term lease, guaranteeing his family the highest possible return under terms of his estate.

According to club president Larry Lucchino, Williams rejected an offer to sell the team shortly before his death in August 1988. The offer was "quite high," Lucchino said, but the prospective buyer intended to relocate the club. Williams' reply: "Absolutely not."

Instead, he signed the lease, knowing his commitment would bind the sale of the Orioles to the approval of major-league owners even after his death. A group headed by Eli Jacobs ultimately bought the club for $70 million in December 1988.

"Some of the cities that are so hungry for expansion, what the heck would they have done to get the Orioles?" asked Bruce Hoffman, the authority's executive director. "It could have gotten to the point where he couldn't have afforded not to move."

Luckily, it never reached that point -- and the best part is, the new ballpark isn't some ill-conceived concession, but an architectural wonder. Ditto for the new Comiskey, which was designed by the same architect, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK) of Kansas City.

Where's the harm in all this? Not a single tax dollar was spent on either park. The new Comiskey, built for $135 million, was financed by a hotel tax. Camden Yards, with an estimated cost of $105.4 million, is being financed by instant lottery proceeds and other revenue sources.

Oh, the old Comiskey will be missed, and so will Memorial Stadium. Fans never forget where they attended their first game, where they first saw their childhood heroes. As White Sox executive Terry Savarise said of his new park, "Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth will never play here."

Yet, it goes even beyond that. Hoffman said, "When you live with a facility 30 or 40 years, it's like a friend to you." Memorial Stadium qualifies, but like the old Comiskey, it could only go so far. Chicago discovered an even better friend. Like it or not, Baltimore will, too.

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