Visitors, beware: Monster lurks here

JOHN EISENBERG

July 12, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

To all divisions of the All-Star army, players, fans, media and the proverbial et al., a gentle warning: You have entered the city of the baseball monster.

A place where baseball, supposedly so sick, is so big-shouldered, upbeat and strong in the tooth that, well, what else can you call it but a monster?

This is the city where no one sits around lamenting the lack of a commissioner or the unseemly specter of wild-card playoffs. The only lament is the lack of tickets.

Dwindling national TV ratings? Image problems? The fiscal woes of small-market teams? Just check all that stuff at the door. Don't even bother bringing it around. It just doesn't play here.

Baseball is anything but sick in Bawlmer, hon. It is the biggest, brightest, hottest show in town. It is The Cause of Causes. Topic A. In December as well as July.

In no major-league city is the home team bigger news. Nowhere is the attachment more intense, myopic, loyal.

When Cal Ripken drops from third to fifth in the batting order, it is front-page news, debated over office water coolers from one end of town to the other.

When summertime haze gives way to sweaty darkness at the end of another 100-degree day, you can sit on a rowhouse stoop or a backyard chair and hear radios talking the talk up and down your street, everyone sharing the score and the pitching changes while the kids chase fireflies.

When the ballpark box office opens for a few days on an early December weekend as cold as Iceland, the line backs up for a solid quarter-mile.

The baseball monster. You come in from out of town for the All-Star Game tomorrow night and you say, yeah, sure, it's all because of the new ballpark, right? And the answer is, well, sort of.

The ballpark has certainly given it a sharp focus, a glorious, radiating reason to exist. How could baseball not be a monster in such a setting?

But understand this: The monster was alive long before the first pitch at Camden Yards. Or maybe you didn't know the Orioles drew 1.66 million fans to Memorial Stadium in 1988, when they began the year with 21 losses in a row. Or that they averaged 2.5 million from 1989 to '91 while contending only once.

It's a crazy thing. For years, when the Orioles were one of the game's model franchises, they ran a weak second at home, to the Colts. This was a football town. From 1969 to '71 the Orioles won three American League pennants and drew fewer fans than they will draw in 1993 alone.

The revolution started in the late '70s. Bob Irsay ran the Colts into the ground. The Orioles developed an appealing new core of players led by Eddie Murray and Ripken. Edward Bennett Williams bought the club and brought in a bunch of lawyers to sell the beejeebies out of it.

Then the Colts left one snowy March midnight in 1984 and, suddenly, Baltimore was the only major-league city without an NFL, NBA or NHL team. The Orioles were it, and from the shock and depression of the Colts' departure there arose a palpable determination to take care of what we had.

Williams preyed on that insecurity, refusing to sign a long-term lease until the state promised to build him a new ballpark. It was blackmail, pure and simple, but the result was a ballpark in

which 98 of the first 120 games have sold out. A ballpark that is, simply, the best thing to happen to baseball in years.

Ours is not a perfect baseball world, of course. The run on tickets has stifled the spontaneity that is a hallmark of the game. You can't make up your mind at 6 o'clock to get in your car and take in a game. The crowd and the cheering is more corporate and generic, less real than the rowdy, slightly hoarse neighborhood crowds that filled Memorial, a neighborhood park in a neighborhood city.

The front office is hellbent on profit, as appealing as artificial turf. A rise in ticket prices was announced during a pennant race last year. And the franchise will be auctioned off in bankruptcy court in a few weeks, the result of owner Eli Jacobs' financial collapse. Fans are thrilled. Maybe a new owner will turn more of the colossal Camden Yards profits into free agents.

But that's the monster in sum right there: Everything always comes back around to the game. There is no opening wide enough for off-field problems to squeeze through and start meddling. It's almost a childlike atmosphere, naive, semi-sweet, a stunner in the wiseacre '90s.

The joke is that the Orioles could start a game at 3 a.m., and a full house probably would show up. Even if we get the NFL expansion team we're angling for, the monster will suffer little. In the '90s, this is Baseball City, U.S.A. A monster that doesn't bite. Enjoy.

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