Stadium Stories

June 23, 1991|By MARK HYMAN

During a short visit to our city last month, a prominent guest (hint: she wears a crown) was treated to a grand tour of Baltimore's professional baseball ballparks.

On her way into town, the visitor caught an aerial glimpse of the new downtown stadium now under construction at Camden Yards. A few minutes, and miles, later, the guest (of English extraction) stood inside Memorial Stadium.

The sight of the two massive and, to the untrained eye, identical structures located within the city boundaries raised an intriguing question.

Innocently, apolitically, the lady was overheard to ask, "Why do you need another stadium?"

How do you answer a question like that?

Would you keep it simple, and wave a finger in the general direction of the Baltimore Orioles' executive offices?

Is it better to talk of the shifting economic realities of professional sports in the 1990s, stopping to point out that Orioles third baseman Tim Hulett will earn more this year than George Bush?

Wait. Here's the ticket. Escort her to one of those sections in the upper deck at Memorial Stadium in which ample leg and arm room are only rumors. If she isn't back in two innings, send a chiropractor after her.

Maybe you should lose courage and escape altogether, claiming you're late for an appointment with former Orioles manager Joe Altobelli.

I know how I'd handle it. First, I'd ask our inquisitive guest if she'd ever heard of, in no particular order, William Donald Schaefer, Edward Bennett Williams, Robert Irsay, Herbert J. Belgrad, the Maryland General Assembly, the B&O Warehouse, Babe Ruth, Larry Lucchino, John Steadman, ARA-Martin's and gridlock. If she said she had, I'd suggest figuring it out herself. Any other response and I'd offer the following Five Reasons Why They're Building a Ballpark at Camden Yards:

1. The Orioles want one.

In my book, this always will be the mother of all reasons. Sure, fans will enjoy the comforts of wider seats, perfect sightlines and tastier ballpark cuisine offered at the new ballpark. Sure, the ballpark's design is handsome and innovative. Sure, it won't be as peppy around here when we no longer can spend the night arguing whether the name Oriole Park is inspired in its simplicity, or simply dumb.

But is there any doubt who stands to gain the most from the $105.4 million, state-financed ballpark? Taxpayers? Or Orioles management? Count up the new dollars that will be generated for the team owners, in part, by 72 luxury boxes, 5,000 club seats (each equipped with its own lavish cup holder) and perhaps 50 percent more box seats. We're talking the gross national product of Belize.

2. Irsay doesn't live here anymore.

When the Baltimore Colts owner absconded with his National Football League team in 1984, we were devastated. But at least we were free of a cum laude graduate of the Emmett Kelly Clown School.

Or were we? Raise your hand if, while the Colts debacle was fresh in mind, you ever questioned whether the Orioles were soon to follow, if not to Indianapolis, then to Phoenix or to BTC Tampa-St. Petersburg. It doesn't matter where. Isn't it time they tasted the major leagues in Catonsville? In absentia, Irsay shaped public policy. Pleasing the Orioles, the state's remaining major sports attraction, assumed priority status. Golly, we got a new stadium not long after that.

3. The power of the minority.

Did you know that each time there is a sellout at Memorial Stadium, 4,337 fans wind up staring at concrete posts instead of Cal Ripken? Did you know that the same 4,337 fans have been assigned to these godforsaken, obstructed-view seats for every sellout ever recorded at Memorial Stadium? Did you know these people are fed up?

Four years ago, they started sending letters, telegrams, empty Coke cups, PVC pipe and concrete block to their state representatives, anything to garner support for a stadium without posts. Then came the ballpark at Camden Yards, where every seat is an unobstructed seat. The pipe must have done it.

4. Ladies and gentlemen, Edward Bennett Williams.

Some people liked the guy. Others blame him for everything from turning the Orioles into a bunch of overpaid underachievers to flaking tile grout.

Whatever your private reflections of the late Orioles owner, politico and storied defense attorney, you must stand in awe of his flair for public speaking. He was eloquent. He was persuasive. Usually, he got what he wanted. His most impressive performance was one of his last. In March 1987, Williams appeared before the Maryland General Assembly to press for approval of the project's $235 million budget, then in deep trouble. Republican and Democrat, Orioles fan and Orioles agnostic, Williams knocked them out. A month later, financing was approved.

5. Hot pastrami on rye.

Starting next year at the Orioles game, you can buy a variety of deli sandwiches, freshly sliced and, one fears, aggressively priced. By the way, will that be cash or charge for your mustard?

Mark Hyman is a sports writer for The Sun. Janis Rettallita is a Baltimore free-lance photographer who began this series of photographs in April 1990.

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