Ballpark put city back in big leagues

JOHN EISENBERG

September 27, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Remember the first game at the new ballpark? The afternoon was sunny, chilly and startling. Rick Sutcliffe threw a shutout. Baseball in this pristine setting was no less than shocking after 38 years at eccentric Memorial Stadium. We all wandered around in a daze, fingering the wrought iron and admiring the detailed brickwork and giving thanks that they kept the crazy warehouse that gave the place its uniqueness.

What began that day against the Indians ends tomorrow night against the Red Sox. The first season at Camden Yards. Eighty-one games. Fifty-nine straight sellouts. Forty-one Oriole wins -- not enough to win a division -- with two games left. No home runs off the warehouse. And one epiphany: the resurrection of Baltimore as a major-league sports town.

Is that stretching a point? I don't think so. When the Colts left in 1983 and the Orioles fell apart soon after, Baltimore was a sports town with no there there. To everyone else, it was a place that teams left. Sure, the Orioles were attracting more and more fans, but that was happening all over baseball. It was nothing special.

Then, at long last, there was this new ballpark downtown. Maybe we should have seen what was coming. The reviews were in long before Sutcliffe's first pitch. The New York Times' architecture critic wrote that the ballpark would "erase 50 years of bad baseball architecture." The grass, the open air, the old-fashioned touches -- without even seeing it, you could tell it was going to be done right.

But just how much the place would come to mean was difficult to foresee. It took until the ticket lines began stretching hundreds of yards from the windows. . .

. . .and thousands of Phillies fans forsook their team to come here for a fix. . .

. . .and writers from around the country made their first trips in and sent home dispatches that shone. . .

"You want to see somewhere where they really did it right, come to Baltimore." That was in the San Francisco Examiner.

"Nowhere is baseball better than Baltimore, Maryland, USA." That was in the Boston Globe.

Sure, there were cons alongside the pros. We knew the ballpark was nothing other than the byproduct of a legal blackmailing, not built out of some civic altruism. It was built because the Orioles wanted to triple their profits, and cities lose teams now if they don't pay their ransom. Look at San Francisco.

Sure, there were seats that faced the wrong way and cost too much. Sure, because of the demand for tickets, there was a lack of that "come on out" spontaneity that is the essence of baseball. Sure, there were more fans from out of town. Annoying fans who didn't watch the games.

Sure, you couldn't lose yourself in it completely if you were clued in enough to know the front office was scheming to find more ways to hold you up.

But the naysayers block the bigger picture. Suddenly Baltimore was a place to see something very special. Chicago had the new Comiskey, but no one was falling over it. Toronto had the magical SkyDome, but also an enormous debt and a weird place for baseball. Baltimore had a real ballpark. Cheaper. Simpler. Better.

A place where fans could watch the sunset bounce off downtown windows and feel like they were at the center of the universe, even if they weren't. It happened in Baltimore in 1992. You can look it up.

I remember watching highlights on ESPN late one night in June, and the announcer rolling the tape with the introduction, "OK, let's go to 'the Yards,' " the slang implying that everyone knew about the place. That everyone knew what was going down here.

The NFL certainly knew. We were in good shape for an expansion team until the process was postponed, and the baseball monster contributed mightily to the idea that, sure, we were ready. Of course. Just look at the ballpark. The crowds. Sure, we were major league.

Maybe we knew all along, but now everyone did. A national balloting of more than 6,000 Prodigy subscribers recently voted Baltimore as the No. 1 city for NFL expansion. It was just computer geeks, but it tells a story about perceptions. And it would not have happened without the new ballpark. Guaranteed.

Of course, on top of all the notice came the Orioles' big season, a bolt from nowhere. Yes, it has ended poorly, but before that was a satisfying summer of cool nights, Brady and Devo, scoreboard watching; baseball as bright as a pearl.

It will start up again next year, with shoulders just as broad. Tickets will be just as scarce. Maybe the Orioles will contend again if the team spends some money. But never again will there be a year like this first one. A year when "Colts Leave" finally was topped, and we all stood there and said, hey, isn't that just beautiful?

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