ANNAPOLIS -- Six weeks before Opening Day, Orioles season-ticket customers still are talking about misplaced orders, unreturned phone calls and seat assignments that don't live up to the team's long-standing promises.
But now they've found a new ear -- the Maryland General Assembly. About a half-dozen disaffected fans took their cases to the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday, testifying in favor of a bill that would offer them powers to fight their new and, they contend, unjust seat assignments.
The bill would require sports teams to offer "equivalent" seat locations to ticket customers when they move into a new, state-financed stadium. Fans not getting a fair shake
could take their disputes to independent arbitrators -- paid by the teams.
The legislation, introduced by Del. Joel Chasnoff, D-Montgomery, is expected to die in a committee in which some members apparently believe the state would be meddling in the Orioles' private affairs.
There are other problems, including this minor one: The season begins April 6. At best, an arbitrator maybe could have solved a handful of cases by then.
Still, Chasnoff said the bill had merit.
"Let's see what can be done to help the fans who have supported the team and paid their bucks to the Orioles, and who are now looking to us to help them out," Chasnoff told committee members.
Chasnoff cited a letter sent by the Orioles to their ticket customers in November 1988. The team attempted to lure new business by promising fans buying full-season tickets for the 1989 season would be "guaranteed comparable, if not better" seats when the Orioles moved to the new ballpark.
Chasnoff said lots of fans responded to the letter with new orders, "only to discover the 'comparable or better' guarantee did not apply to them."
The Orioles acknowledge they have received about 1,200 complaints, but say they've been able to satisfy more than half of those disgruntled fans. The team opposes the legislation and, in a two-page letter to committee chairman Tyras Athey, D-Anne Arundel, Orioles president Larry Lucchino said almost everything that can be done to accommodate fans is being done.
"We have taken fans on special tours of the ballpark, held open houses and conducted orientation sessions. None of this should suggest that we have not made some mistakes, or that we have reached 100 percent fan satisfaction -- if that is indeed ever possible," Lucchino wrote in the letter.
That explanation has not been enough for some Orioles fans, who contend, among other things, that their phone calls have been ignored, as have their seating requests.
Among them is Phil Hall, who lives about six Sam Horn home runs beyond the right-field wall, in Otterbein. Hall told committee members how he bought a 29-game ticket plan three years ago at Memorial Stadium and kept the obstructed-view seats, expecting to trade up to something far better at the new ballpark.
In the new ballpark, Hall went for a full-season plan. His seats are along the right-field line in the upper deck. It is not the view he'd hoped for.
"I'm one row behind Bob Uecker," Hall said, chuckling.
Larry Stickler of Fallston bought his first season tickets in 1969. In the new ballpark, he told committee members, "If my seats were any farther back, they could give me a TV set and a couple of folding chairs -- I'd watch from the parking lot."
Stickler is protesting. But he's also renewing his tickets, even if the Orioles offer no relief.
"Stupid, isn't it? But I saw one sports team leave town. I don't want that to happen again," he said.
Committee members listened sympathetically. Few seemed to embrace the bill, however.
"I don't know that this bill is the answer to anything," said Ellen Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, who said she generally was opposed to measures that interfere with the policies of private business.
But Sauerbrey added: "This is in a different category because you have a stadium built with public funds."