Camden Yards just helps to prove Baltimore is best of the baseball towns

JOHN EISENBERG

April 07, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

We live in the city of the baseball monster.

It is enormous. It is elephantine. It is as big as a balloon in a Thanksgiving parade, hundreds of feet high. It is bigger than anyone ever imagined it could be.

And still growing, and growing, and growing . . .

"I looked around in the sixth inning," Elrod Hendricks said yesterday, "and what I saw was amazing."

What he saw was the city of the baseball monster. Bawlmer, hon. Yes. The former football town.

A city of sellout crowds in a new ballpark that is as perfect as a 5-hit shutout on Opening Day.

A city with baseball alive on the downtown streets, so alive you almost can touch it. Everyone walking it, talking it, sharing it. Did you see Devereaux's catch? How about that Sutcliffe?

A city where people even bleed it. Yes. Really. We bleed baseball now. Bleed it like no one else. Bleed it like no one else in those cities where they have other teams to cheer for.

Bleed it like we used to bleed Colts football.

What's our choice? We have just one team now, see, and it shows. Nowhere else is baseball bigger. Maybe it's as big in Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati. But not bigger.

Nowhere else is it more celebrated, anticipated, discussed. Nowhere else does Opening Day so completely dwarf the Final Four on the front page. Nowhere else does the game remain such a 12-month passion even if the team wins 66 games. And now this ballpark, this centerpiece . . .

"Nowhere else is baseball happening like it's happening here now," said Hendricks, the bullpen coach, who was wearing an Orioles uniform in 1968. "And the ballpark is the last piece of putting it all together."

No doubt about it. Did you see it? There was a real game in the new ballpark for the first time yesterday, and it was all in big bold letters, the whole day, and suddenly the sweep of all this modern history was just so obvious. The fact that we'd been building to this for years. The monster.

"It all started in 1977, really," Hendricks said, "when people started showing up. No one had been coming to watch us for years. Remember, we couldn't even sell out the last game of the 1971 World Series. Most nights during the season you could hear yourself talk. We're talking 5,000 or 6,000 fans for some dynamite teams."

Teams that won 100 games, American League pennants, World Series. Teams that would leave this city breathless today. No one cared back then, or at least not much. The Colts owned the mortgage.

"I'd ask people why, and they'd say, 'Well, baseball isn't as exciting as football, but we do listen on the radio,' " Hendricks said. "Can you believe that, looking around now? But then the people up in section 34 [at Memorial Stadium] started raising hell in 1977, and the noise got louder and louder, and more people started showing up, and it just took off."

The monster has been growing for 15 years now, through the last great rise of a decade ago, then the demise of the Oriole Way. Bigger crowds. More interest. More talk on the radio. More print in the newspapers. The game moving to the center of the city's soul, especially after the Colts' departure in 1984.

And now: the grandest stroke. The arrival of the centerpiece. The new ballpark. A physical summoning of all that emotion. A home for a monster.

Baltimore is the place for baseball now. People will come from all over the East, all over the country, and when they see the new park that drew them here, they will see the special circumstances that attend the park.

The way it will become the life of the city after dark. The way the people will spill into the streets after the last out, talking the game, filling the streets with it, taking it with them to the Inner Harbor.

"It's what they wanted to happen in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, where they built the parks in the city," Hendricks said. "But it hasn't always worked in those places. It's going to work here. With a stadium like this, so beautiful, such a special place, it's going to work."

Nowhere else will the game feel bigger and better and . . .

So perfect.

"Three millions fans in one summer in Baltimore," Hendricks said. "Amazing."

The real amazement, of course, is that the immediate prelude to this was years of losing baseball, terrible baseball, cheap baseball. It didn't matter. The monster still grew. And it's still growing. If this ballclub is any good this summer, of all summers, what a summer it's going to be.

"It's just that this is such a baseball town now," Randy Milligan said. "In so many other places, baseball is a way to pass the summer. But here it's the thing, the No. 1 item. You know everyone's talking about it, reading about it, arguing about it. It's the way it's supposed to be, just fun. I can't imagine playing anywhere else. People talk about New York, LA. I've been there. There isn't a better place for the game than here. Not now. Not with a home like this."

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