New ballpark needs an infusion of excitement

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 30, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Jerry Bark and Charlie Webster won't say this, but somebody should: It's a little dead at the new baseball park.

"Dead?" I hear Orioles officials cry in disbelief and derision.

Deader than they understand, since those who make their careers trembling in the shadow of Eli Jacobs are required to measure human enthusiasm by the numbers after dollar signs, and not by actual electricity in the grandstands.

In the Orioles' maiden season at Camden Yards, it is true that the people have come: sellout after sellout, sweeping inexorably toward 3-million-plus attendance. But, how much life and lung power they bring is another story. The story so far: Not much.

Jerry Bark and Charlie Webster don't want to talk about this, but only because they're too diplomatic to make comparisons.

The atmosphere at Camden Yards is different from the old place on 33rd Street: Look for no Dundalk cabdrivers becoming folk heroes here. This is the province of the business deal, as conducted in somebody's sky box. It's somebody in a suit with a portable telephone conducting business pitches during baseball pitches, and box seats filled by corporation types getting a tax break out of a season ticket.

It's Washingtonians out for an evening's diversion, instead of Baltimoreans out for an evening's religion.

And, not to be minimized, it's thousands of people in seats pointed toward the outfield instead of home plate, who frankly can't see much of the action and thus don't get emotionally involved in the games.

Result: It's a little dead at the new baseball park.

Jerry Bark and Charlie Webster wish to change some of this atmosphere, without actually criticizing the thing they wish to change. And they wish to do this with a toy.

A little background: Last spring, Webster was reading Entrepreneur Magazine, where he discovered Paul Braddy. You don't know Braddy, but you know his product. He's the guy who invented the foam tomahawks they sell at Atlanta Braves' games, which fans use to "chop" opposing teams. Jane Fonda and Ted Turner and Jimmy Carter you know: They were waving them on television last year.

The magazine piece on Braddy mentioned a somewhat illuminating figure: Last summer, he sold more than 200,000 of these tomahawks at $6 apiece.

While this was happening, coincidentally or not, there were other developments: The Braves, for years playing before mostly empty seats, suddenly began to draw large crowds. Enthusiasm rippled through the ballpark.

The tomahawks became a symbol of the Braves' rejuvenation and, not coincidentally, became the hottest-selling product in the 23-year history of Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

Charlie Webster, naturally, fell in love with all of this information he was reading and called old pal Jerry Bark. The two men have backgrounds in sports as well as business. Webster and Brooks Robinson have marketed Palm Guard, a protective glove worn by some professional baseball players inside their mitts.

Bark's a guy who just missed having his own major league career.

After a sparkling prep career at City College, he pitched at the University of Maryland. In his first outing, against nationally No. 9 ranked Maine, Bark struck out 14 batters -- in the first 4 2/3 innings.

A week later, he pitched a no-hitter but lost in the 11th inning. The New York Mets drafted him, and Bark led the Mets' farm system in wins for two straight years, before dropping out of baseball. His first son had just been born, and he wanted to settle down.

Ironically, the son, Brian, is now pitching for the Atlanta Braves AAA team.

Anyway, last spring, Webster and Bark looked for ways to translate the tomahawk idea to Baltimore. They invented Rally Bats, polyurethane shaped baseball bats with the Orioles insignia on them, and then began a frantic, convoluted effort to sell them at the ballpark.

First, the Orioles had to approve. Then, Major League Baseball. Then, ARA Enterprises. Then, Major League Baseball Properties. Then they had to license the things.

Finally, last week, they began selling at $6 a pop at the ball- park.

(In fact, the morning after they went on sale, you could spot one of them on the front page of this newspaper's sports section. Brady Anderson is leaning against the seats after a Texas Rangers home run, and a Rally Bat is falling out of the first row.)

"What we're trying to do," Bark says, "is generate some new enthusiasm out there. Bring the enthusiasm to the field. You know, so much of this game is mental anyway, and this takes it to a new level."

"And," says Webster, "it's the only souvenir product sold directly in the stands. We looked at Atlanta. It makes people feel a part of the game, instead of just sitting there."

About a hundred bats a night will be given to poor kids brought in as guests of some Oriole players. And a portion of sales will go to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Oncology unit.

Not to mention, maybe they'll bring some electricity to the new ballpark. The Orioles don't want to admit it, but it's a little too quiet out there.

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