In Houston, dignity has a high price

September 15, 1996|By John Eisenberg

HOUSTON -- These are the best of times for sports wonks in Baltimore.

And the worst of times for their brethren in this humid Texas metropolis.

Baltimore fans can plop down on the couch today and flick back and forth between the Orioles and Ravens: a baseball team in a pennant race and a new football franchise.

Houston's fans have a similar choice -- Oilers or Astros -- but their choice is marked by unending bitterness, not joy.

It is a cautionary tale of two cities that illuminates how the haves and have-nots are determined in sports in the '90s.

It also illustrates the maxim about time waiting for no one.

The Astrodome stands will be half full at best today when the Ravens play the Oilers, for the simple reason that the Oilers are outta here after 36 years. Oilers owner Bud Adams is moving his team to Nashville, Tenn., by 1998, lured by the same kind of fancy, sky-boxed stadium that lured Art Modell to Baltimore.

At the same time, Astros owner Drayton McLane is trying to extort a new, downtown stadium out of the local county government, using a threatened move to Northern Virginia as leverage.

McLane and the county announced a deal yesterday, but voters must approve a referendum and the state legislature must approve a funding mechanism before the deal is finalized, so the future is hardly assured.

It remains very possible that the people of Houston will wake up in a few years without a football or baseball team to cheer for.

The root of the city's problem is the Astrodome, a stunning reality for those of us with memories that extend beyond last week.

The dome is only the most influential stadium built in this country in the second half of the 20th century.

It was an astonishment as the first indoor stadium when it opened in 1965, nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World," but it also was the first stadium of any kind to bow deeply to the fans' comfort and convenience.

It introduced the concepts of easy parking, wide seats, fun scoreboards, luxury boxes and artificial turf.

Almost every major American city responded in the next decade, either opening or planning a new stadium incorporating many of the Astrodome's assets.

Baltimore chose not to join that revolution, and lost the Colts to a new dome in Indianapolis in 1984.

Just eight years ago, Baltimore had no professional football team and a baseball team that had opened the season with 21 straight defeats.

Those were the worst of times in Baltimore.

But then, just days after the end of the 21-game losing streak, there was news of a new ballpark planned for Camden Yards, which put an end to the speculation that Edward Bennett Williams might move the Orioles to Washington.

Thus began Baltimore's sporting renewal, which incorporated the Orioles' return to relative health, and, now, the return of pro football.

With a new baseball park and now a new football stadium on the way, Baltimore has become a showpiece of the big-money '90s.

Meanwhile, Houston is stuck with the showpiece of the '60s, the once-glorious stadium that started the revolution and now is threatening to chase two teams out of town.

The situation is not quite as simple as that, of course. The city gave Adams, the Oilers' owner, the Astrodome upgrades that he wanted when he threatened to move the team in the '80s, but then, when he came back for more a decade later, he was told to take a hike.

The people and the politicians had had enough.

This was the only major city in the country with a mayor who refused to let a blackmailing owner intimidate him.

"We're struggling for money for a lot of things," Houston mayor Bob Lanier said. "I think we ought to have a sense of priorities."

In other words, Houston refused to sell its soul to give the people football.

Unlike Baltimore.

After years of being abused and used as leverage, Baltimore tired of taking the high road and wound up with Cleveland's team.

Houston still has its soul and its dignity, but it also has a future of silent Sundays.

Like most things in this world, the trade-offs are tough.

The lessons from this tale of two cities are clear.

In sports in the '90s, you have to play dirty if you want to play at all.

You can't rest for long on the achievement of building a showpiece.

Today's showpiece is tomorrow's burden waiting to happen.

And it no longer matters whether you win or lose or even how you play the game.

All that matters is how many luxury boxes you can fill.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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