Philadelphia drools over Oriole Park

Ken Rosenthal

May 27, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- This city is jealous.

The mayor wants his own Oriole Park at Camden Yards. So does the Phillies owner. So does virtually every fan.

Turn on WIP, the city's all-sports radio station, and you'd swear you were in Baltimore. Talk-show callers rave about the Orioles' new home, at the expense of outdated Veterans Stadium.

We're lucky, folks.

Luckier than we even imagine.

"So many people dislike the Vet, all they needed was a reason to vent their spleen," WIP morning drive-time host Angelo Cataldi said yesterday. "What's happening in Baltimore has given them a reason."

What's happening in Baltimore is a ballpark evoking comparisons to the game's hallowed temples, a ballpark unifying an entire region, a ballpark drawing crowds of 40,000 every night.

What's happening in Philadelphia is a growing movement to replace the 21-year-old Vet with a baseball-only park. The new mayor, Ed Rendell, has even picked out a site, but with the city teetering on bankruptcy, what can he do?

"It's kind of a dream more than anything else," Phillies owner Bill Giles said. "I don't know what the odds are -- 1-in-1,000, something like that. But we're looking at it. And we'll continue looking at it."

Meanwhile, Philadelphians can't help but notice the phenomenon taking place 90 miles south.

After all, they're active participants.

The Orioles intended their new home to provide easier access for fans from Washington and northern Virginia. It turns out they're reaping an unexpected benefit from the north, further dispelling the notion they're a small-market team.

Sorry about that, Eli.

Try another excuse for Cal.

Granted, the Orioles are in first place, the Phillies in fourth. Giles, however, conceded the new park is "hurting our attendance slightly," estimating it will cost the Phils between 20,000 and 50,000 fans this season.

That guess might be low. Giles said he already detects an impact on group sales, and Orioles officials confirmed they are attracting more groups from the Philadelphia area than ever before.

As if that's not enough, Giles pointed to Wilmington, Del. -- a city closer to Philadelphia than Baltimore -- as an area where the Orioles soon might cut into the Phillies' following.

"It's primarily Phillies territory," Giles said, "but I think the Camden Yards situation is probably going to get more of the people on the bubble heading south instead of north.

"How long a stadium is an asset to attendance is anyone's guess," he continued. "It could be forever. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park always had a certain percentage of attendance just because of the stadium.

"I don't know enough about the Camden Yards -- the psychology of it -- to judge what will happen in Baltimore, whether it will be a three- or four-year advantage, or whether it will be a never-ending asset."

Right now, you'd have to guess the latter, which only adds to the argument for a new ballpark in Philadelphia. Not because the Phillies might continue losing attendance to the Orioles, but because of the impact generated by a Camden Yards.

The Vet was considered state-of-the-art when it opened in 1971, but it's now regarded as just another cookie-cutter facility, complete with artificial turf, a football configuration and an enclosed circular design.

It seats 62,586 for baseball -- or 17,500 more than Camden Yards. What's more, after years of neglect, it's crumbling. The pipes burst this winter, flooding the executive offices and forcing the Phillies' staff to the basement.

The city owns the stadium, but Giles said the Phillies have made $15.3 million in repairs the past two years, deducting that sum from their rent. The club wants to manage the facility it shares with the NFL Eagles. It also wants another $38 million in repairs.

Thus, it will take more money to fix the place ($53.3 million) than it did to open it ($45 million). In harsh economic times, the city can't bear that burden, and the state can't commit to the Phils the way Maryland did to the Orioles.

Pennsylvania has another major city (Pittsburgh) and six other professional sports teams. Yet, blackmail is still possible. Two Philadelphia teams -- the 76ers and Flyers -- recently cajoled the city into helping build a new arena by threatening to move to South Jersey.

Specifically, Camden, N.J.

It's the perfect setup.

Camden Yards II.

Crusading talk-show host that he is, Cataldi said he plans to pitch the plan to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Giles admitted with the constant talk in the media, the idea of a new park is "kind of steamrolling."

The Vet is in a perfect South Philadelphia location, accessible from two major highways and a subway line. But Mayor Rendell wants the new park downtown, next to the Amtrak station, for greater economic spinoff to the city.

Across the Schuylkill River, the Philadelphia Art Museum would loom over leftfield, the city's new skyline would loom over right. Giles keeps an aerial photograph of the site in his office, and mockups of other sites as well.

Of course, that's all fantasy.

Camden Yards is reality.

"I went down for the first time Sunday," Cataldi said. "We stopped at a rest stop in Maryland. I tell you, it was inundated with people from Philadelphia. Everyone was going to the ballgame -- and the Phillies were home that day."

We're lucky, folks.

Luckier than we even imagine.

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