New ballpark keeps a good drive going

MIKE LITTWIN

May 22, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

The word from L.A. is that Herb Belgrad is optimistic. Belgrad, who heads Baltimore's NFL expansion effort, has now effectively shown he can be bi-coastally optimistic, from sea-to-shining-sea optimistic.

He's optimistic despite some ill-timed (though not particularly damaging) words from the mayor on the future of Memorial Stadium.

He's optimistic in the face of a conventional wisdom that seems to want to place Baltimore third in an expansion race that will produce only two winners.

He's even optimistic about the NFL's intentions despite commissioner Paul Tagliabue's courageous refusal to characterize himself as either optimistic or pessimistic that expansion would take place on schedule. Belgrad, given the same opportunity, did not equivocate, even though counting on the NFL to be honorable is probably going way beyond optimism.

Allow me to quote Belgrad: "I think there's every reason to be optimistic."

And yet, I think he basically has it right.

I don't know whether Baltimore is first or fifth among the five cities remaining in contention, and no one else does either, but it's becoming clear to me that Baltimore could not possibly look any better than it does right now.

Why now? I can tell you're dying to ask.

Well, there was, of course, the all but ignored (in places outside Baltimore) sellout of the upcoming NFL exhibition game in which all the tickets were sold in -- I may have this wrong -- a minute and 12 seconds. But that's the kind of stuff any city can do. Even Memphis can do that. Even Jacksonville. The sold-out exhibition game is basically an initiation rite that the boys of the NFL force on expansion candidates. It's sort of like fraternity hazing, except they charge admission.

No, what separates Baltimore from everyone else is Camden Yards.

You can spout statistics. You can talk demographics. You can argue the size of TV markets. You can cite geography, you can even cite oceanography. But nobody else can cite what's going on at Camden Yards, night after sold-out night.

Let's face it, Camden Yards has surpassed all expectations. In a package Belgrad provided the NFL owners, he included rave notices by everyone from Sports Illustrated to the Times of London. He probably included some attendance statistics, too. Remember when it was predicted that the Orioles would draw 3 million this year? Now, it looks like 3.5 million. The Orioles put out an announcement Wednesday about seats available for the weekend. There were 6,000 -- for the three games combined.

The ballpark is a momentum-maker. It's a jump start. Belgrad has invited each of the NFL owners to stop by for a low-key, no-publicity visit, to see the game from the stadium authority's sky box and get up-close and nearly personal with what is pretty much a phenomenon. He might mention that the money is in place to build a football stadium next door.

It's tempting for us to see the negatives associated with Charlotte and St. Louis, the presumptive front-runners. The Charlotte people are committed to paying the franchise fee and then building their own stadium, all with private funds. Try to imagine the debt service. In St. Louis, the leading investors have purchased the New England Patriots as a favor to the NFL. What if they can't dump the team, which no one could sell before, in time to take over an expansion team in St. Louis?

On the other hand, Charlotte has great geography and St. Louis has beer. I don't know what counts.

But, the only negative I can see in Baltimore's bid is Mayor Schmoke's recent suggestion that if the NFL delays an expansion announcement beyond the calendar year, he may have to consider tearing down Memorial Stadium. I'm still trying to wonder why he said it. No one has come forward to redevelop the area. It costs at least $5 million just to knock the building down. It seems Schmoke, as politicians will do, is pandering to the voters, in this case those who live in the neighborhood around Memorial Stadium. But he's pandering to one neighborhood while running the risk of alienating a hundred neighborhoods.

The truth is that nothing is going on with Memorial Stadium. It's just talk. The stadium will be standing long enough to serve until a new stadium is ready -- if there's expansion ahead for Baltimore.

The real danger is, of course, the NFL's penchant for delay. We're awaiting the big June trial in which the players are seeking free agency. If the players win, expansion could be put off indefinitely, which could mean forever. The smart money continues to bet against any expansion. That would be a great loss to Baltimore. I can't handicap the city's chances, but I do know that you can't look at Camden Yards without thinking that Baltimore is, at the least, sitting pretty.

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