President's eye may have missed city's real story

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 07, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They opened the new Baltimore baseball park yesterday, and the president of the United States dropped in, and if we all got very lucky then somebody directed George Bush's attention out to left centerfield and said, "There, Mr. President. It's out there."

Out there, beyond the bleachers and beyond the 44,568 citizens who scrounged up tickets to the first Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, is that piece of unreal estate known as the City of Baltimore.

It looked beautiful in the afternoon sun yesterday. The buildings glistened as if somebody, God or some master electrician, had thrown a switch and turned everything on.

But it's not so beautiful up close, and when they introduced the president there was booing along with the polite applause -- not only partisan boos in this election year, but the hoots of people who feel ignored by the last 10 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who have looked the other way while cities are dying.

On days such as yesterday, where people gather as if engaging in some outdoor group therapy session, we tried to put such matters aside. Baseball's our withdrawal. But it isn't easy.

"It's a lovely park," said City Councilman Joe DiBlasi, whose district surrounds much of the place. "But what goes on in here has to spread from the ballpark to the rest of the city. That's the whole point, isn't it, because we've got so many troubles."

So somebody should have pointed the president toward left centerfield yesterday, out toward the Bromo Seltzer tower and the Holiday Inn, out toward restaurants and bars and office buildings you can see between the wall in center and the bleachers in left.

They looked beautiful, and they're a healthy reminder to everyone who enters this park: The City of Baltimore's out there, and it welcomes those who fled to suburbia and sometimes feel reluctant to venture back.

But there are some who sleep outside those buildings, or hit people over the head, or find any way they can to survive in a city reduced to beggar status while the residents of the White House turn away.

Before the game yesterday, George Bush hoisted a ceremonial first pitch from the mound. It bounced before reaching home plate, and the president put his face to his hands in a gesture of comic despair.

He should show such emotion for the city.

In the afternoon's flight from reality there were signs of joy all through the big park yesterday, and in the streets beyond: Little sidewalk celebrations outside bars and restaurants, and all of the energy that comes from thousands of people rushing through city streets at midday.

There was fellow named Ted Freed, who grew up here but moved to Toronto several years back. He came down just for Opening Day. In fact, he sat in his own season ticket seat, which he's never given up -- either here or at Memorial Stadium -- since fleeing to Canada. He still uses the tickets a few times a year and sells them to friends the rest of the time.

"This place is wonderful," he said. "It beats the hell out of the Blue Jays' ballpark, I'll tell you that. The seats are too far away up there, and the fans don't know how to cheer."

Down here, we know how to cheer. It's just the lack of opportunity that's killing us. Not for the Orioles -- hell, that's just fun and games -- but for the city which has supported them beyond belief.

The ballclub is our diversion from reality. In 10 years, this city has gone from talk of a great renaissance to fear of disintegration. The schools have turned out a generation of illiterates. The drug dealers vastly outnumber the cops. In Annapolis, the legislators struggle with a budget because any more cuts will leave vulnerable people bleeding.

When George Bush looked toward centerfield in yesterday's second inning, he could have seen Mike Devereaux. The Oriole outfielder turned his back to the plate and ran and ran until he came to the wall, and then he plucked a fly ball out of the afternoon sky.

For a moment, it looked like the young Willie Mays back in the '54 series, robbing Vic Wertz and breaking the backs of the Cleveland Indians.

It was beautiful to watch, because it did the thing for which baseball was invented: It pulled us out of reality, into a place of youth and good cheer and rules that cannot be broken.

The new ballpark is lovely, and the Orioles, even in this era of Eli Jacobs, will be better than they were a year ago.

But it's crucial, as Joe DiBlasi said, what goes on just outside the ballpark. If it doesn't translate to the business of keeping a community afloat, then it's an awful lot of money merely to watch ballgames.

"I have a feeling," DiBlasi said, "that it's gonna help the area a lot. I keep thinking of Harborplace. People had their doubts, just like they did here, but you're not gonna find anybody who was opposed to it a few weeks from now."

Maybe not. It's a nice place to watch a game. But, at these prices, it's got to be more than a ballyard. In a time when Washington ignores the American cities like Baltimore, and George Bush shows up Opening Day but never sees past the outfield bleachers, it's fallen to the cities themselves to hold on.

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