Club level for power brokers, not power hitters

BASEBALL JOURNAL

May 19, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

A suite attendant in white shirt and green bow tie rolls the dessert cart toward the dark wooden door and in moments serves English lemon cake, cheesecake, Grand Marnier in dainty chocolate cups. Nearby, a line forms at the espresso stand as the shoeshine man awaits more customers, more wingtips and tassled loafers.

Life is as it should be this evening on the club level of Camden Yards. But wait -- isn't there a ballgame going on around here somewhere?

Perhaps. Check the alcoves between the cherry-finish suite doors: Through the glass you can see a swath of green and a few men in athletic garb against a backdrop of packed grandstands. Viewed from the tiled concourse, the scene beyond the glass doors is silent. Could be a ballgame. Hard to say.

Everywhere you look are television sets, all tuned to the Orioles' game. Some people are watching, some not. A few sit drinking at the main bar, their backs to the action on the television screen. Others are queued up for Boog's Pit Beef sandwiches sliced to order by a man in white apron and chef's hat. Some have dined in the Diamond Restaurant on fennel roasted pork loin with grilled sweet pepper agri dolce and a side order of dauphinoise potatoes.

The glass doors to Section 244 swing open as a few people step into the concourse from the outdoor seats, admitting a cool evening breeze and the murmur of a crowd.

Yes, somewhere out there is the crack of the bat, the cheering fans, sounds seldom heard on the club level. It's the sort of place former Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams had in mind when he insisted on a new ballpark, a place where corporations ply business associates with crab dip and Chivas in private field-view suites leased for $55,000 to $95,000 a season.

Instead of a fan assistance center here, there is a concierge desk. But then, they don't have fans so much as guests, not vendors working the crowd but order-takers hustling hot dogs, fries and popcorn to the $25 seats.

"It doesn't even look like a ballpark," says Liz Bartley, who works on the concierge desk and as a suite attendant. "I feel like I'm in a hotel."

Sandwiched between the upper and lower decks, the concourse that runs between the foul poles is a restaurant/lounge for up to 4,871 people who hold tickets to the $25 club seats or are guests at one of the 75 private suites. Those who pay $15 for the 1,368 left-field club seats are not admitted to the main concourse.

To stroll the air-conditioned walkway past the suite entrances is to tour Baltimore's corporate ozone: Riggs Bank, BFI Waste Systems, Chase Manhattan Bank, NationsBank, Bell Atlantic, The Baltimore Sun, Coca-Cola, Legg Mason, USF&G, among others.

Inside these closed doors the peanuts delivered by a suite LTC attendant cost $4.75 per 7-ounce bag, potato chips and dip are $10, and crab and artichoke dip for six people is $45. At least the beer's a bargain, actually cheaper than the grandstand price at $16.25 for a six-pack of Budweiser.

Suite attendant Kirk Haywood, who has been working on the club level since Camden Yards opened in 1992, says it's not unusual to see companies drop $1,000 or more during a night at the park.

All in the course of doing business, all 50 percent tax-deductible entertainment expenses.

"We use it mostly with customers," says Chase Manhattan Bank president and chief executive officer Lywal Salles. "They feel very honored. On our side, it's a very good opportunity, when you can really get to know your customer better."

He's standing with a Coke in his hand in the Chase suite overlooking the third base line, a room smelling of crab dip. Five people are inside talking business, a few others are on the other side of the sliding glass doors, sitting in black vinyl swivel chairs watching the Orioles defeat the Toronto Blue Jays.

Salles says suite guests are usually divided 50-50 between schmoozers and spectators. Either way, he says, it's good for business.

John Talone, a suburban Philadelphia insurance broker, says he regularly travels to Baltimore during the week to entertain

customers in his season club seats. The seats are in the stands at club level, not in a suite, but nevertheless the club experience tends to lubricate the gears of business.

"Up in Philly, this is a big, big deal," says Talone, of Norristown, Pa. "You bring people down here, they don't care how much their insurance costs."

Tonight, he's host to his brother-in-law, Leonard Banack Jr., and Banack's father and brother. They sit in a carpeted lounge in upholstered chairs drinking, talking, occasionally glancing up at the television screen. They've been sitting there about two innings.

4 But isn't there a ballgame going on around here?

"Just taking a little break" from the action, says Talone.

It seems to be a club level custom. Sit in your outdoor seats for a while, come in for a while to socialize, maybe go back outside. Maybe not.

"You enjoy the game, but you also enjoy the people," says Thom Baum, a club level regular who says he usually spends about half the game in his seats, half at the bar. He says this place beats the best nightclub in town.

Even as the Orioles are nailing down their three-game sweep of )) the Blue Jays, a feat not accomplished in 12 years, people are sitting at the main bar paying scant attention to the televisions. The roar of 40,000-plus in the park is audible only on the TV broadcast. The balance of power appears to be shifting in the American League East, but the club level is generating all the electricity of a bus depot.

And as the Orioles take their last shot at Blue Jays pitching, about to purge the ghosts of so many previous Toronto victories, a man at the bar asks a question that could well serve as a club level motto:

"What inning is it?"

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