No-frills thrills can't sell Baysox

JOHN EISENBERG

August 20, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

I went to a Baysox game the other night. It qualified as a startling experience.

Not because I left home for Memorial Stadium 15 minutes before the first pitch, sat at a couple of long lights -- and still saw the first pitch.

Not because I got my whole family in the door for $10 and sat within earshot of home plate.

Not because the organist actually played "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" in between the second and third innings. (The short version, of course. And I wonder how many of the players knew that?)

No, my night at the Baysox was startling because I watched the game. As opposed to experiencing it.

Yes, amazingly enough after all these years, there it was:

Baseball, the game.

That's as opposed to baseball, the popular entertainment vehicle.

Brace yourself. There was no massive TV scoreboard at the Baysox game. No hype. No numbing flood of statistics. No

big-money characters to cheer or boo.

I didn't know the teams' records. I didn't know batters' averages against left-handed relievers with the bases loaded, two out and a Democrat in the White House. I didn't even know the players' names.

I had nothing to do except watch the game. A left fielder trying to hit a cutoff man. A batter trying to get a bunt down. A pitcher fighting to control his curveball. Two teams trying to win.

Just a ballgame, no strings attached. How about that?

Nowhere in sight was the bright, noisy, pre-packaged hullabaloo of Camden Yards. Yes, the Baysox have had their share of Max Patkins and Morgannas this year, but at the core their games are everything a night at Camden Yards isn't: spontaneous, spare, elemental.

And extremely uncrowded.

Which brings us back around to the essential question here: What do we really want from our baseball? The traditional experience? Or the hullabaloo?

I enjoyed my night at the Baysox. You've probably heard that from a lot of people. The Baysox game was fun, they say. The price was right. The pace was right.

Sure. In just about every fan, even the loyalist Camden Yarder, there is a slice that yearns for old-fashioned, simpler, cheaper ball. It's why the minors are flourishing again. The gaudier the majors get, the more fans relish a release.

But just how prevalent is that attitude? Consider the experiment of this summer. The Orioles all but sold our their season months ago. A number of loyal, long-standing fans were shut out of Camden Yards. They couldn't get in the gate. In theory, they're the folks who would love the Baysox experience. But the Baysox are averaging just 4,150 fans a game.

No, that's not bad for a makeshift minor-league season in a major-league market. And, of course, Double-A ball is far inferior to the majors. But if it's so true that so many fans are turned off by the glitz of the bigs, and yearn for the old days, why aren't the Baysox drawing bigger numbers in a city where so many fans can't get their live baseball fix?

How about this possibility: The traditional baseball experience is something relished in theory more than in practice.

Sure, the traditional experience is romantic, emotional, a summoning of the past. They make movies about it. We go. We cry. But, let's face it, as a season-long proposition, it's a little slow.

You can only be a baseball aesthete for so long. Like about a day.

This isn't Brooklyn in 1947. Times, and fans, have changed. People are accustomed to being entertained every second. Don't like what's on TV? Hit the remote. Then hit it again if you have to. Then again and again and again.

Why aren't the baseball traditionalists flooding the Baysox gate? Because they're no different from anyone else. They want to be where everyone else wants to be. The place, the ballpark, that is hot and happening.

The Baysox drew their biggest crowds this summer when Mike Mussina pitched a couple of times. When fans, traditionalists and otherwise, could go to Memorial Stadium and catch a whiff of the Camden Yards hype.

Sure, checking out a game stripped to its essentials is a lark. And, yes, the Baysox do illuminate the drawbacks of Camden Yards. The prices. The lack of spontaneity. The flood of stats and hype.

But Camden Yards is alive and electric and the place to be. I'll be there Monday night, in fact. Bleachers. Bought the tickets on a frigid Saturday last December. No, it wasn't spontaneous. No, it was anything but traditional. But I'm pretty sure I'll do it again next December.

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