Because so much favor and fervor has been created by the Baltimore Orioles and their new downtown park, a situation has evolved that merits inspection. Safety Patrol Day, when the club gives away admissions as a reward to youngsters, has been sharply reduced but, fortunately, not eliminated.
The event has been held for 37 years to honor elementary schoolchildren of Baltimore and Maryland counties who protected the pedestrian safety of fellow students. A total of 17,900 tickets were distributed last season to public and parochial schools for use by the youngsters, their supervisors and teachers.
This time around the number has dropped to 3,500, which makes for an alarming contrast. There were times during the past three decades when the Orioles hosted 30,000 safety patrol members and, instead of attending one game, two days of the schedule had to be utilized to accommodate the gathering.
It was the Orioles' way of congratulating the guards. Not all schools participated, but the safety patrol guards, too often overlooked for the important responsibility they perform in all kinds of weather, looked for ward to seeing a major-league game.
The Orioles obviously are in a predicament that is going to be officially explained in a letter to school officials.
Julie Wagner, community affairs director for the Orioles, said, "We want it understood we are not abandoning Safety Patrol Day. It's important for all of us. We once gave out as many tickets, rather admission coupons, as requested. But we can't do it this year. If 6,000 children showed up there just wouldn't be seats for them. We had to make a tough choice."
So a scaled-down Safety Patrol Day is to be held May 24, with the Orioles meeting the California Angels. "We did not want to cancel it," Wagner said. "It means too much. We just had to reduce the number. We've been starting to get calls. That's why we're sending out a letter to outline the Orioles' position in the matter."
It's the team's plan to return to past Safety Patrol Day practices next year, even though the public demand for tickets is going to be even more intense, considering the 1993 All-Star Game is to be played in Baltimore.
When the Washington Senators, once members of the American League, weren't interested in hosting a similar program, the school guards from Montgomery and Prince George's counties turned to the Orioles and were told they would be included here. The grand idea was originated by Paul Burke, the Maryland Traffic Safety Commissioner; Dr. Frank Bennett, of the Baltimore County Board of Education; Lt. Larry Jacques, of the Baltimore County Police Department; and Lucien Peters, a school principal in Baltimore County.
Herb Armstrong, the club's business manager and all-around public servant, was elated the Orioles could participate in a program that represented so much good to the communities. Peters is the only member of the original founders still living and, although retired from his educational pursuits after 49 years, dedicates himself to directing Safety Patrol Day and the myriad of details associated with it.
It would be disappointing if the Orioles, because of their new-found affluence in a ballpark built by public monies, decided to abandon the safety patrol program. Wagner insists there's no danger of that happening. Although there's concern at the school level and in the ranks of the sponsor, the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Association, the reaction of Peters is different. He insists the Orioles "should not be blamed" for the reduction.
"We never had a problem in the past," he continued. "The Orioles always had space for us at Memorial Stadium. But you have to remember they weren't filling the seats during that time period. Now with a new downtown park there's public excitement to want to be there and that means they don't have capacity to accommodate us.
"Julie Wagner of the Orioles promised us last December that next year the Orioles would take another look at seat availability. This gives us hope things will open up and we
can continue as in the past. I certainly understand what faces them."
Admittedly, it's difficult to ask any organization, in business to make money, to give away its product. But Safety Patrol Day had a positive reaction and even became a tradition. Unfortunately, in 1964, a Safety Patrol Day at Memorial Stadium resulted in an escalator accident that led to the death of a child and injuries to 40 others. Ambulance crews, fire and police departments, nearby hospitals, and Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro III, responded to the incident and, under the circumstances, provided all the emergency help humanly possible.
Joe DeStefano, treasurer of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Association, believes the Orioles arrived at this year's Safety Patrol Day total on the basis of the number of seats they projected would be sold to regular ticket buyers. "They are giving what they can give," he said, while noting the decrease came to almost 15,000.
Bottom line: the Orioles' overwhelming success at the box office dealt a blow to Safety Patrol Day but hopefully it'll only be temporary.