Baseball games are interfering with the ballpark entertainment

THE FLIP SIDE

June 30, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

On a recent sweltering night at Camden Yards, Section 226, Row CC, Seat 9 was a great place to hear rock music, sip chardonnay, watch a furry mascot cavort mindlessly and be entertained by endless videos on the Sony Jumbotron screen.

For the record, there was also a baseball game going on, Orioles vs. Yankees -- not that you'd know it by some in the crowd, who seemed ticked off when Rafael Palmeiro stepped to the plate in the second inning and the sound system cut away from "Stray Cat Strut."

"Aw, man, let's rock 'n' roll!" screeched the young Metallica disciple behind us, taking another gulp of his Budweiser as twin rivers of foam flowed attractively down his chin.

Fortunately, the guy in the Polo shirt a few seats away did not seem nearly as exercised.

This was because he was yakking away on a cellular phone, treating at least three rows to his riveting conversation with pTC someone named Renee, who was either hard of hearing or terminally dim-witted, with most eavesdroppers leaning toward Door No. 2. ("Renee! Are you listening to me?! That's not my problem! That's Jerry's problem. Jerry ordered the stuff!")

This, unfortunately, is major league baseball in the '90s, where the game itself often seems secondary to the non-stop swirl of deafening music, hyperactive mascots, highlight videos, blooper clips, scoreboard quizzes and marketing contests ("Attention, fans: now it's time to announce our 98 Rock Yardbird of the Game . . ."). Not to mention the schmoozing, posing and deal-making going on in the stands.

Thankfully, we have not yet reached the point where an Elvis impersonator is trotted out between batters to occupy the fans' attention, although that may be just a matter of time.

Speaking of attention spans, there seems to be something absolutely Pavlovian about that taped bugle call now played at so many ballparks: "Ta-da-da-da-da-daaaa!" and the fans' knee-jerk response of "CHARGE!"

In the old days -- and we're going all the way back to the late '70s of "Starsky and Hutch" here -- fans could actually figure out how and when to cheer all by themselves.

Now when the home team rallies, a computer-generated image of two hands clapping is likely to appear on the video screen, for those too addled to clap without prompting.

In all fairness, it must be noted that the Orioles, compared with many teams, seem fairly restrained as far as audio and video histrionics are concerned. The Yankees run subway races on their big screen, for God's sake!

Nevertheless, a game at Camden Yards can still put one in mind of a Billy Joel concert, the midway at the state fair and a particularly annoying version of "It's Academic!" all rolled into one. (At a recent game, three fans near me nearly spit out their hot dogs in their haste to scream "Gates Brown!" which was the answer to the fifth-inning Jeopbirdie quiz on the scoreboard. Yes, Jeopbirdie. I'm sorry to have to share that with you.)

"There's . . . too much going on," says Ken Reel, 45, a longtime Orioles fan from Bel Air. "And it goes on all the time, between innings, between batters, you name it."

"Whatever happened to going to a baseball game for the baseball?" adds Neil Mahoney, 37, of Laurel.

Of course, the Orioles feel they are giving us baseball, first and foremost. Still, Charles S. Steinberg, the club's highly capable director of public relations, sounds like the new Ziegfeld when he talks of wanting to "create a total entertainment experience" and "maximize the secondary role of entertainment" at Camden Yards, with the game itself remaining the focus.

As gently as possible, Steinberg also suggests that people like Reel and Mahoney and, um, this writer are cranky, middle-age guys who might as well bring a rocker and a shawl to the ballpark, since it's clear most fans under 25 want to PAR-TAY!

"We hear from many more fans who say 'Turn up the music' than who want it turned down," Steinberg says. Ominously, he adds: "The ratio is about 3-to-1."

Once, Steinberg says, the club actually tried going without music between innings, but the sound of silence was unnerving for too many in the which-way-to-the-mosh-pit? crowd.

All right, forget the music. What about all the other endless assaults on the senses? The scoreboard never stops flashing messages: Happy Birthday greetings, Happy Anniversary greetings, everything but Arbor Day greetings.

It seems like every other game, the Jumbotron is showing some poor sap down on bended knee, asking his girlfriend to marry him while 30 drunks and the beer vendor look on approvingly.

(Just once I'd like to see one of these guys turned down in front of 47,000-plus people, so long as the guy doesn't then turn around and airmail himself off the upper deck.)

The PA announcements never stop, either: You've got your Reebok Lucky Seat Winners, your MCI Positive Image Moment -- heck, even the seventh-inning stretch has gone corporate. The other night it was brought to us "by your Baltimore area Cadillac dealers."

Sometimes, the whole thing can be too much. The other night at the ballpark, after the Orioles returned from a road trip, Thin Lizzie's "The Boys Are Back in Town" blared over the sound system as the team took the field and PA announcer Rex Barney began his pre-game introductions.

The din was incredible; imagine the Concorde at liftoff. Clearly, this was done to pump up the crowd. But the mind recoils at what could happen a few years down the road.

Will Barney soon be making the intros in the manner of ring announcer Michael Buffer: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, let's get ready to rrrr-uummmmble! Leading off for the Orioles, No. 9, BRAY-DEE AND-er-SON!?"

Let me just say this: If Don King walks up to the plate with his arm around Brady, I'm outta there.

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