The governor anguishes over Opening Day Schaefer unsure if he can attend on Opening Day

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 31, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

William Donald Schaefer is the most isolated man in public life, a condition that is both self-imposed and an accident of history.

He is the most successful state vote-getter of his breathless era, but he edges through his second term in Annapolis uncertain about appearing in public lest he be humiliated.

The Baltimore Orioles come home next week to inaugurate a new ballpark, and the governor of Maryland is reduced to launching trial balloons in public to see if people want him in their midst.

"Melancholy," is the word from Schaefer's inner sanctum, in describing the governor's current mood.

"Breathtaking" is the word to describe the governor's popularity polls, which have plunged to new depths in this past year of job layoffs and tax bailouts and poison pen letters born of dark frustration.

In six days, they'll begin playing American League baseball at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and Schaefer does not know if he'll attend. The Orioles assumed he would and cannot believe he's having misgivings. This only shows how short are their memories and how narrow their vision.

Last autumn, on the final afternoon of play at Memorial Stadium, Schaefer wrestled with his emotions and then failed to appear. In the gathering gloom on 33rd Street, with the ghosts of ballclubs past bidding emotional farewell, it fell upon the ballpark's Diamondvision scoreboard to give us a hazy glimpse of the governor, out of earshot several miles south, the picture of a municipal orphan, watching as home plate was ceremoniously planted at the new ballpark.

He didn't show up that last day at the old stadium for the same reason he might not show up for the first day at the new one: fear of embarrassment, the dread possibility that he will be booed when all else around him are bathed in good nature and cheering.

"It killed him, it just ate him up, that he couldn't go to that last game on 33rd Street," one Schaefer insider says. "He said, 'I remember that place when it was just a field. I needed to be there, I deserved to be there.' "

The same is true about the new Oriole Park: It's Schaefer's last big opening, the last major public works glamour project under his stewardship. He should be taking bows. Love it or not, revel in the architecture or decry the cost in these tough economic times, it was Schaefer who saw the handwriting on the wall and pushed it through: Get a new ballpark, or risk losing the Orioles the way we lost the Colts.

But now he's afraid that this day of celebration could be marred by a chorus of generalized boos having little to do with the ballpark. Last week, Schaefer appeared on Ron Smith's WBAL-radio program and expressed his misgivings.

"I'm just not sure I want to detract from the good time everybody else will be having out there," said the governor.

Call it sad or call it manipulative, but also read the anxiety between the lines. This swell party's being thrown, and everybody in the neighborhood's invited, and the governor has to wonder aloud if he can come, too.

Since last week's broadcast, the Orioles have fielded questions from virtually every news operation in the area: Will Schaefer be there?

"Does he think people hate him that much?" one Orioles official asked.

To a State House staffer, Schaefer said of the new stadium, "I've been there so many times. I love it. I'm just not sure I want to take away from everybody else's day."

Some of this is a man feeling sorry for himself in public, an attempt to test the waters before making up his mind. But it's a barometer of Schaefer's genuine isolation, his sense of himself as public outcast, that he would float his insecurities this way.

After all the years in public, and all the famous fights, he remains a man deeply needful of appreciation. And why not? He's the one who brought the city of Baltimore back from the dead by the sheer strength of his own will, the one who taught a community to believe in itself when the rest of the world had kissed it off.

He went to Annapolis and figured he could make it all work on a bigger stage. But history and personality worked against him. He was a spender in a tight-money time. He stared down a willful legislature after four terms of a malleable City Council.

And, the thing that many voters have overlooked, he ran out of help from those who should have helped.

Call it the Reagan-Bush years. Call it a White House that turned its back on cities, and then on entire states. Call it a philosophy of federal government that looked out for the rich and showed thinly veiled contempt for the poor, and then look at a roster of local chief executives who went down in flames trying to keep their communities alive.

Schaefer's worried about being booed on Opening Day? Why do we not hear similar fears out of the White House? Can George Bush enter a Baltimore ballpark to the sound of cheering while Don Schaefer gets the bird?

If that's the governor's worry, he has a few options:

Watch the game from a private box and take a pass on introductions.

Accept a few boos as part of the historic, good-natured fabric of baseball.

Turn to the president of the United States and say: "You hear those boos? If I'd had a little help from you, we might both be hearing cheers today."

Or hope that, nearing the end of an honorable public life, fans will remember all the good stuff and let you know it.

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