Park crowds out the real fans

Ken Rosenthal

April 20, 1993|By Ken Rosenthal

Empty seats!

Thousands of 'em, blue and green and yellow and gray. Fans can stretch their legs at Memorial Stadium during a Baysox game. Heck, fans can sit just about anywhere they want, even on a night when the Orioles are off and the weather is perfect.

Regular people!

Hundreds of 'em, dragging children, smoking cigars, drinking beer, keeping score. The crowd was only 1,277 last night, but the atmosphere was pure Baltimore. The way it always was at Memorial Stadium. The way it never is at Camden Yards.

Who doesn't miss the old park?

The new one is festive and grand, but it lacks the ambience of the House of Magic. In time, Camden Yards will develop its own history. But will it ever match Memorial Stadium for character?

If only for one season, the return of baseball to 33rd Street poses that haunting question.

At Memorial Stadium, it was baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. At Camden Yards, it's baseball, caviar and limousines.

Real fans don't eat quiche, or whatever it is they're ingesting on the club level. Real fans come to the park with their children, not their clients. Real fans watch the games, not each other.

Everyone knows Camden Yards is a park for the ages. Everyone knows it kept the Orioles in Baltimore. And everyone knows it's an economic bonanza not just for the team, but also the city and state.

Private clubs, luxury suites, higher prices -- they're all necessary evils in baseball's big-money era. But there's a cost to all this, and it goes far beyond the $35 T-shirts sold in the Orioles Baseball Store.

It's like Yogi once said about a popular restaurant, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Oh, people go to Camden Yards, 45,000 of them a night. But the attraction isn't baseball. It's "the event."

Gag me with a silver spoon.

At Memorial Stadium, it was, "Ain't the beer cold."

At Camden Yards, it's, "Ain't the chardonnay chilled."

Hey, it's a free country. You can't keep the corporate types and out-of-town admirers from attending the games. But it would be nice, just once in a while, if Camden Yards would jump the way the old place once did.

For all its consecutive sellouts, the most electric moment at the new park came when it was half-full. Remember the September game against Toronto that started almost three hours late because of a rain delay? The real fans stayed. And rocked the joint.

Not to get carried away, but ever see a fight at Camden Yards? A knockdown, drag-out, entire-section-tumbling- down-the-steps melee? The kind that, for one ridiculous moment, rivets the entire crowd?

No chance.

At Memorial Stadium, the upper deck was always good for a Friday night rumble. At Camden Yards, you're lucky to see a shouting match. The fans are too busy congratulating each other for getting tickets.

The park needs less Bill Clinton and more Bill Hagy. Want to know why the president got booed so lustily on Opening Day? Because all the CEOs in attendance were disgusted by the notion of paying higher taxes under his economic plan.

Thank heavens for Boog's barbecue and Tom Matte's ribs.

Otherwise, the place would smell like a boardroom.

Memorial Stadium had no such problem. It had personality. It had atmosphere. It had heart.

Now?

Well, it's sort of like paying an elderly friend a visit. You stop, you smile, you reminisce. In "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner told Shoeless Joe Jackson he wasn't in heaven, just Iowa. Well, this isn't Disneyland. It's just a ballpark.

That, of course, was the original idea behind Camden Yards. It'll work, once the novelty wears off and the team enters a down cycle. But for now, Memorial Stadium stands as a reminder of all the new place should be.

Times change, ballparks change. According to one marketing survey, it costs more than $100 for a family of four to attend a game at Camden Yards, factoring in tickets, food, souvenirs and parking.

Yes, many fans get left out.

But on Saturday afternoon, moments after the Orioles' Brad Pennington escaped his first major-league jam, a fan stood in front of the press box and yelled, "Trade Olson!"

The fan was a kook, but a passionate kook.

Camden Yards needs more like him.

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