Tragedy of season is alienation of O's faithful

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 27, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

We now have the perfect symbol for this opening season of Oriole Park at Camden Yards: hundreds of people, many with no previous history of derangement, walking a mile to the stadium in a South Baltimore downpour after their train ran out of gas last week.

It is remarkable, in our time, the lengths to which people will go to see a baseball game. One expects this sort of passion from the deeply religious, perhaps, or pilgrims searching out a sale at Nordstrom's. But not this. Veteran ticket buyers here expect to get soaked. But by Orioles' management, not by nature.

On Tuesday, with rain falling throughout an evening designed for the howling of wolves, a Maryland Rail Commuter train heading north for the ballpark ran out of diesel fuel a mile from its destination.

More than 200 people, sitting in the dry, air-conditioned, civilized comfort of a train, thereupon looked at their watches and collectively lost touch with the shoreline of reality. It was shortly after 7 in the evening. Game time was 7:35. They bolted.

In the rain, their brains may have mildewed. Defying every lurking pneumococcus and every warning ever issued by their mothers, they walked along Ridgely Street in South Baltimore, climbing over slippery tracks in the darkness, merely to watch the Orioles play Toronto.

Some of this can be explained by the train's point of embarkation, which was Washington, where people have lusted for baseball since the Senators fled west during the Nixon administration and have come to embrace the Orioles out of nothing else to do on a summer evening.

But how do you explain this? Not one person said: If it's raining here, it's also raining at the ballpark, so why are we out here getting wet?

For that matter, how do you explain this: When the Orioles close out their home season tomorrow, they will have packed more than 3.5 million people into their new ballpark, with people coming by train, by car and by bus, by foot and maybe even by carrier pigeon.

They've done this despite a team that ran out of heart when it counted, despite management that shows disdain for the town, despite thousands of bad seats where portions of games are merely rumor, and despite valid complaints about transportation and parking.

The other night, for example, the game was delayed two hours and 40 minutes by the rain. To catch the last trains home, passengers -- including those drenched souls who'd slogged along Ridgely Street -- had to leave early.

For those catching the 10:30 p.m. express to Union Station, it meant leaving in the middle of the first inning. Those leaving at midnight, feeling relatively blessed, got to see four innings.

And yet, all through this maiden season at Camden Yards, they have kept coming. The ballclub played well, which helped, but there was something else going on that had nothing to do with baseball.

An aura was created about the park itself, this notion that it captured the best of baseball's innocent past with the very soul of hopeful urban zestiness. Nobody mentioned all those bad seats until it was too late. Nobody mentioned the prices for a while. It was considered bad manners.

Partly, people went to games because they heard everybody else was trying to go to games. A kind of fever took over the land, a season in which every night seemed the first night of some hot Broadway show.

Management's response? As the ballclub entered the exciting home stretch, they announced ticket prices would go up next year. Not all tickets, of course. Those seats where vision was obstructed -- in left field, for example, tickets are $13 and are laughingly called "lower box" seats -- the club said they'd knock an entire dollar off the price. If they had a heart, they'd either reposition the seats to improve sightlines or hand out transistor radios.

The front-office attitude is known as arrogance. We recognize it around here, because we've seen it for so long. You threaten to leave town, you get a new ballpark built; you raise prices, you shrug off complaints. It's the let-'em-eat-cake philosophy of management.

The problem is this: Eventually, the fever will break. Normalcy will return. There's a yearning for tickets, but not much passion inside the park. There's a self-consciousness in the crowds, a lack of fire. You keep waiting for Wild Bill Hagy to stand on a dugout and start something thrilling, but then you think: Nah, down here, they'd escort him out of the place.

Partly, it's all those Washington people. It's not that we don't welcome them, it's just that they're so stiff. Some of them read the Wall Street Journal between pitches, and talk on portable telephones. Many of them are here on expense account deals.

When the novelty of the new stadium goes away, so will a lot of these people. Meantime, the Orioles have alienated a lot of the old faithful, whom they now seem to shrug off.

When you have fans walking a mile in the rain along train tracks, it's easy to get cocky. But it catches up. One night the weather will be fine, but seats will begin to be empty.

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