You can't sidestep ballpark's worth

JOHN EISENBERG

April 23, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Asking a baseball man a frilly question is not unlike asking the Marlboro Man if he wants decaf in his tin cup.

You just don't do it.

Not if you want to keep your shoes from being splatted with a thin brown line of tobacco juice dribble.

A baseball man believes games are decided by the crafts. Pitching. Hitting. Throwing. Anything else is just a frill.

So you don't go up to a baseball man after a big win and ask, "Were you inspired by that beautiful sunset?"

You won't get a trendy "not!" But you will get an old-fashioned "splat!"

Same thing, just messier.

But sometimes the call of duty is stronger than concerns about

the cleanliness of your shoes. Thus did I descend to the Orioles' clubhouse the other day armed with a frilly question:

"Is the new ballpark going to make you a better team?"

I believe it is.

I believe the new ballpark will be worth wins to the Orioles this year.

How many? Can't call it. It isn't something that can be quantified.

But it will happen. I do believe it. The big crowds every night, the excitement in the air, the clean lines of the sensational new digs -- I think it will show up in the standings: inspire the players, jazz them, help raise their self-respect that so needed raising after 1991.

In sum, make them better than they would have been at Memorial Stadium. (Where they were 33-48 a year ago.)

Such thinking runs directly counter to that of baseball mandom, of course. It suggests a game can be decided by something other than the supposedly inviolable crafts. Splat!

Not that baseball men are so wrong for such hardheadedness. Their game is indeed more immune than others to such intangibles as emotion and setting. Emotion can hurt as much as help when you're trying to steady your senses, reflexes and concentration and hit a 90 mph fastball.

A ballpark rarely makes a difference. But it can. (See: Metrodome, postseason history.) And it will this time. Not that any card-carrying member of baseball mandom would admit it.

Anyway, I had to see for myself. Test the concept. (Actually, John Lowenstein had already given me confirmation. "Absolutely so: the energy will make a difference," he said when asked as a Former Player if the ballpark would mean wins. But he was wearing remarkably red shoes, undermining his status as a true spittin', cussin', grabbin' baseball man.)

OK, so there I was. Standing in the clubhouse with my frilly question loaded in my slingshot. Looking for a friendly face. A no-splat face. (Weird thing. Kept having this vision. I was a waiter. Jack Palance was at my table. "Do you prefer radicchio lettuce?" I asked . . . )

I knew not to get within 15 feet of Cal Ripken Sr., who is famous for his Cold War hatred of frilly stuff. I kept thinking about the spring-training game when the Chicken was on the field while the Orioles batted. If he had come within 10 feet of Senior, he would have been chicken salad.

Chickening out myself, I turned to the friendliest face in the room.

"I don't know if a ballpark can make a team better," Randy Milligan said, "but fan attendance sure can. Playing in front of a big crowd tends to make you concentrate a little bit more."

Moose -- and thank heavens he apparently wasn't seriously injured last night -- compared the grand slam he hit last weekend with the one he hit a year ago at Memorial.

"Completely different feeling," he said. "Last year it was a great moment, but just that. This year I was so charged up that I was flying. Running around the bases looking up at that crowd, hearing that 'Moooooose.' Man, that was everything. That can carry you for a while."

So, will the ballpark mean wins in 1992?

"I'd like to think so, one way or another," he said. "But that's a big question. Too big for me."

Too big for the Moose. What a concept.

The normally voluble Brady Anderson was a little more succinct.

"I don't know," he said.

He sounded like he had a cold.

John Oates was in his office, smiling at people because his team is winning.

"This team has had trouble winning at home," he said. "I hope the ballpark will be worth something. It's an individual thing, I think. I know it made a difference to me [as a player] if there were 5,000 or 50,000 in the seats. But there were some guys who didn't care. Overall . . . "

He paused to think. I leaned forward.

" . . . I think it's possible it'll make a difference," he said.

Possible.

I say definite. I say at least three games. But I say it out of earshot of baseball men.

I'm wearing new shoes.

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