Memorial bridges NFL gap for fans Stadium has fresh face for football's return

August 04, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kevin Langbaum contributed to this article.

It's got no club seats, sky boxes or baked salmon appetizers. And the view over the bleachers is of rowhouses, not skyscrapers.

And by the fourth quarter the ancient plumbing was thoroughly overwhelmed.

But few of the more than 63,804 fans who turned out for Memorial Stadium's shakedown cruise last night seemed to mind. It was Baltimore NFL football, back where it all began 46 years ago.

"It brings back memories, happy memories," said Ravens owner Art Modell.

He recalled the great games and players he watched over the years as visiting owner of the Cleveland Browns, from Raymond Berry to Jimmy Orr. His favorite: a bruising 1971 game in the mud in which Browns quarterback Bill Nelsen harassed the Colts with passes to Fair Hooker, winning 14-13 and leaving the field badly scarred for the World Series a few weeks later.

The stadium was host for its first NFL game in 1950, after the Colts were admitted to the league along with three other All-American Football Conference franchises. But yesterday's crowd was the biggest yet, thanks to the addition of larger bleachers, surpassing the previous record of 61,479, set Nov. 13, 1983, for a Colts-Steelers game.

Because the bleachers did not have to be retractable -- the stadium is no longer used for baseball games -- they could be built larger and closer to the action. The entire field has been shifted north, bringing the goal line closer to the bleachers and moving the corners of the field away from the old baseball dugouts.

A bank of speakers also were raised, improving the acoustics of the antiquated sound system. Mezzanine seats have been converted into open-air sky boxes, complete with waiter service -- pricey extras that have become common in sports since the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

Scores of televisions have been added in the concourses. And by the time the Sept. 1 regular-season home opener rolls around there will be more televisions on posts for obstructed seats. A high-tech field of half-real, half-artificial turf also has been installed. Miles of new cable were threaded through the aging structure and a power-wash took away some, but not all, of the accumulated grime.

In all, the Maryland Stadium Authority spent $1.5 million in maintenance and capital improvements to the stadium.

"It looks so good it's hard to imagine this is the field we played in. It's going to take the Colts Marching Band to bring it back. It almost looks like a modern stadium," said Stan White, a Colts linebacker from 1972 to 1979.

Some fans, such as Herb Kummer, a Baltimore native now living in Newport Beach, Calif., said they missed the comforts of newer parks, such as a Diamond Vision scoreboard. Nonetheless, he said, "It's like old days here. I used to watch the Colts play."

Baltimorean Jerry Shoemake, disliked one of the new "traditions" added to the stadium: a recorded raven "caw" blasted between songs. "We hate the cawing but it's great to have football back," Shoemake said.

The most noticeable problem was the many washrooms that overflowed by the end of the game.

Sherman B. Kerbel, the Stadium Authority's director of facilities management, said that it was an inevitable consequence of the extraordinary loads placed on the old plumbing system. Memorial Stadium has half the washrooms as Oriole Park.

Overall, he pronounced the stadium's first test drive a success. "It went better than we expected. We still have an old building," Kerbel said. "Every game is going to be an adventure."

To David Modell, Ravens executive vice president, the old place was the perfect transition for the franchise as it awaits a new downtown facility.

"We're playing in a ballpark that has its own great life and history. We hope to add a few chapters," Modell said.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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