'O' as in oblivious?

May 04, 1993

More than a few baseball fans in Baltimore believe that if a plane crashed into the upper deck at Oriole Park, as happened at Memorial Stadium after a Colts game 17 years ago, many spectators wouldn't notice: They'd be too engrossed in the stock tables or in a cellular phone conversation. Yes, the new ballpark has attracted a lot of corporate customers and other ticket-buyers who don't live and breathe baseball. Many die-hards grouse that the full houses Camden Yards attracts nightly aren't half as loud as the Memorial Stadium stadium crowds of yesteryear.

One sincere Orioles fan we know suggests the best measure of the old Baltimore baseball audiences and the new ones is in comparing ovations given Chuck Thompson, the team's Hall-of-Fame broadcaster: the eye-moistening, five-minute thunder he received in a pre-game tribute before Memorial Stadium closed in '91 versus the polite, opera house-like smattering he got this Opening Day.

Some players have wondered whether sound simply dissipates more easily in the new park. By limiting smoking and monitoring beery fans, the Orioles management is encouraging more of a family atmosphere. Moreover, a crowd half composed of season-ticket holders is going to look (and sound) different from the former crowds, which had half as many season ticket holders.

The new fan pool at Orioles games isn't just the result of the fancy, new stadium, or of the yuppification of baseball. It's also a product of undeniable changes in this region, even from a decade ago when cabbie Wild Bill Hagy used to lead the rabble in cheers. Baltimore is not as blue-collar as it was, nor as insulated. The metro area now earns 15 percent more per person than the national average, compared to 5 percent more 20 years ago. The fusing of Baltimore and Washington into a single market this year is further proof of the change.

Still, no one should have to pass Baseball 101 to enter the stadium. In fact, one only needs to listen to the apocalyptic tone of many sports-talk radio callers, or see the junk-bond frenzy kids' trading cards have become, to realize that many now take this game too seriously. So what if Baltimore is now witnessing droves of less-than-fanatical fans flocking to the park in record numbers? Most teams can only dream of such a dilemma.

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