Guv deserves some kind words for saving Orioles

MIKE LITTWIN

October 16, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Though not a popular position these days, I wish to say some kind words about our own beleaguered governor.

No, seriously.

He needs some kind words, and, in this case, he even deserves them.

Here's why. The Guv has been made victim to what we might call revisionist history, which is now written something like this: The Guv led us to the current $450 million shortfall in state revenue by, in no small part, allowing himself -- and thereby us -- to be blackmailed by the Orioles into building a stadium for which we have no real need.

Here's the truth: The Guv led us to the current $450 million shortfall in state revenue by, in no small part, allowing himself -- and thereby us -- to be blackmailed into building a stadium for which we have no real need because otherwise the Orioles might not be here today.

It's that simple.

Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the Orioles, was dying. He had not, and would not, agree to more than a one-year lease on Memorial Stadium. He would sign a long-term lease only if there were a new, sky-box-rimmed, closer-to-D.C., more-money-in-his-pockets-and-less-in-ours stadium.

If Williams had died before signing a lease, the value of the Orioles would have skyrocketed. This takes no economics degree to understand. If not burdened by a long-term lease, the Orioles could have been bought by anyone and moved !c anywhere, the key word being anywhere.

As an example, Denver billionaire oilman Marvin Davis, a close friend of the Williams family, could have whispered into Mrs. Agnes Williams' ear that she shouldn't worry about a thing, and here's a $100 million cash in his pocket in return for which he'd just take that nasty baseball team off her hands, thank you very much. The next day, they could have been the Denver Orioles, which is, if my atlas is right, a really long commute for your typical Orioles fan.

So what we had was the Guv, who had been mayor when one team got away, faced with the possibility that another team would follow. He wasn't going to allow that to happen. And so he bullied, in his style, the new stadium through the legislature and rigged it so the stadium would be paid for off-book (by the way, don't kid yourself, it's still being paid for by the taxpayer). By doing so, he ensured that the Orioles would stay. Williams signed a 15-year lease, and, beginning next April, we can start living happily ever after.

The question, I guess, is whether the price was too high.

The answer, I'd suggest, was never more clear than in that still keenly recalled Memorial Stadium going-away party. All the tears were spent not in the memory of some giant wedge of concrete. The stadium is no beauty. It has no compelling character. No one compares it to Fenway or Wrigley. It isn't so old it has to be preserved for preservation's sake or so ambient that to lose it would be a blow to lovers of architecture. It was just a stadium like a lot of other stadiums, many of which have been torn down and long forgotten.

No, it had nothing to do with Memorial Stadium except that the Orioles played there (and, yes, the Colts, too).

This was -- and I hate to get too George Will-like here -- a going-away party for the memories of our youth. And the one compelling memory that transcends all the cliched boundaries you want to put forward that separate one group from another is the stuff that happened on 33rd Street. That's what made the day, and the place, special.

So, yeah, I'd say building the Camden Yards stadium was worthwhile, the economic benefits of a downtown stadium aside, if it meant keeping the Orioles. And it did mean that -- just that. Obviously, the money, which will be paid out over a long period, could have been better spent on so many needed and important services. But here's another truth, and I think we're learning that now: The money wouldn't have been raised for anything else. The city firefighters can tell you that.

And so, it was sort of sad that the Guv, who might have been the hero of the day, didn't show. He didn't show for the end of Memorial Stadium, and he didn't show for the plate-laying ceremony at Camden Yards. He was expected at Camden Yards, where they would put on just the kind of photo op that politicians live for. Although the Guv has given his excuse for not making it, the most likely reason is that he was afraid of being booed.

Booing the Guv is fun. It's especially fun if you think it might get you an angry letter from the State House or maybe a visit from a state trooper, if there are any left.

There are those who suggest the moment was too much imbued with good feeling for anyone to be booed, but the Guv would have tested that theory. Apparently, he didn't want to take the risk.

That's too bad because he should have been a part of it. He deserved that much.

Seriously.

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