Ball park opponents still think they're right COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY

March 27, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Commentators have crooned over the classic lines and traditional look of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. National news reporters are framing its opening as the quintessential story of spring, another quiver of rebirth for a troubled city that just won't say die.

But lost in the roar of the crowds are the voices of the opponents, a loosely knit coalition of community crusaders, neighbors and politicians who fought a hard but losing battle several years ago against the new baseball stadium.

They still consider the stadium a mistake, but most have grown philosophical as the steel and brick have taken form in the industrial neighborhood. Some have made peace with the project and have bought season tickets. Others are vowing to avoid attending games there, although they admit some temptation.

Lasting friendships were made, and political careers advanced and set back during the brief but spirited debate that cleaved the state and left some combatants bitter.

"I still think it was the wrong priority. When you've got kids hungry and people in need you don't build a stadium," says C. Lawrence Wiser, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the fight in the House of Delegates.

His efforts prompted Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a stadium proponent, to campaign for and contribute to Mr. Wiser's opponent in the next election. He lost re-election after 16 years in the House and Senate.

Now a private attorney in Kensington, Mr. Wiser says he probably will spend Opening Day at his desk, researching business contracts.

"I have no reason to step into that stadium. I'd rather go to the Walters Art Gallery," he says, acknowledging he was never a baseball fan anyway.

Objections to the stadium ranged widely. Most opposed spending the money at a time when schools were begging for books and homeless were wandering the streets. Others simply liked the storied Memorial Stadium or didn't want the extra congestion downtown. Still others resented any effort to assist wealthy team owners and their private businesses.

A pair of local attorneys founded an organization called Marylanders for Sports Sanity (MASS) shortly after the General Assembly approved the stadium project in April 1987. The group collected a near stadium-full of signatures, 44,000, on a petition to put the issue before state voters in a fall referendum.

But stadium backers said the delay would have hampered the city's bid to attract a National Football League team (land has been readied for a football stadium near Oriole Park, should the league award an expansion team to Baltimore). Besides, said supporters, Baltimore had just lost the Colts in 1984 and would be relegated to minor league status if the Orioles moved.

Although the Orioles never made overt threats to move, most experts agreed that a modern stadium with moneymaking premium seats and deluxe concessions was the best way to compete with baseball-hungry cities trying to lure a franchise.

In September 1987, however, the Court of Appeals ruled that the legislation was not subject to referendum under Maryland's Constitution.

A Sun Poll that summer indicated that the referendum, had it been held, may have stopped Camden Yards in its tracks. With 25 percent of the respondents undecided, 39 percent said they opposed the plan, 29 percent favored it, and 7 percent said they didn't know.

"I won't say I'm bitter about it, but I think it was a very bad decision by the Court of Appeals," says Alexander J. Ogrinz III, who was vice president of MASS.

He has since moved to Charleston, W.Va., where he is a federal administrative law judge. He doesn't think he will ever attend a game at the new stadium and probably will spend Opening Day hearing a disability insurance case.

Mr. Ogrinz has fond memories of the effort, which plucked him from the obscurity of a law practice and dumped him on the local talk-show circuit. He still keeps in touch with friends met passing out petitions.

"My boys loved it. They had a stick-in-the-mud-type Dad, and suddenly he was taking them to the state fair or the Bay Bridge walk to collect signatures," he says.

"I don't regret any of the effort and sacrifice. We were little guys, and we got the governor really worked up about things," he says.

A self-described libertarian Republican, Mr. Ogrinz says he was impressed by the diversity of the stadium opposition. The president of MASS, William Marker, for example, is a liberal, he says.

"Bill wanted the money for the homeless and education. I wanted it for tax reduction," Mr. Ogrinz says.

Mr. Marker, who lives a few blocks from the new stadium, was reluctant to discuss it because of his new job (he works for the state now). He says he has arranged to be out of town Opening Day and won't go to any games this year but might next season.

Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County Republican,helped lead an unsuccessful filibuster to defeat the stadium legislation in 1987. He still opposes the project and says, "I don't expect I'll ever set foot in that place.

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