Orioles prices may shut out future fans

March 30, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the grand old days of Orioles baseball -- when the team didn't win and didn't draw many fans, which meant there were vast acres of available seats -- the guys in my old neighborhood took the cross-town bus to Memorial Stadium and arrived early. There were two reasons for this. We wanted to watch batting practice, and we wanted to break the law.

We did this by purchasing tickets to the right field bleachers, which went for 50 cents. In those days, the bleachers were separated from the more prestigious general admission seats by a wire fence. General admission seats went for 75 cents. This was considered vastly out of our league, this being maybe 1957.

So we'd arrive early and wait until busy ushers had their backs turned, and we'd sneak over the fence and, just like that, we were as good as any citizens with their fancy-shmancy, 75-cent general admission seats that were a little bit closer to the action.

All of which I mention not to bemoan the loss of 50-cent tickets, or to show myself off as a 12-year old with a brilliant criminal mind, but to talk about the future of baseball in Baltimore as Opening Day arrives on Tuesday, and we learn, from The Sun's Jon Morgan, that the Orioles now have the fourth-highest major league ticket prices in all the land.

They're up 19 percent over last year. Only the Yankees, Red Sox and White Sox charge more. Only the St. Louis Cardinals had a bigger increase from a year ago. It now costs an average of $15.66 a ticket at Camden Yards. That's up 106 percent since the last season, 1991, at Memorial Stadium. The average increase for all major league tickets is only 34 percent. This translates to a family of four here spending $119 to see a game and have a modest bite to eat.

The great irony of all this is: It costs all this money for tickets, but who can find tickets? The club's never been more popular, sometimes in spite of itself, and certainly in spite of spiraling costs.

In the era of 50-cent bleacher tickets, the Orioles were always life-and-death to draw 1 million people a year. Now they open the season with more than 28,000 season tickets already sold, and with more than 3 million attendance already guaranteed.

If you ask Orioles executives about the high prices, they have several simple answers: Winning costs money. Players' salaries are stratospherical. The minor league system, having fallen into decay during the years of Edward Bennett Williams and Eli Jacobs, must be rebuilt.

And, loudest of all, they'll simply talk about attendance figures. The end justifies the means, they'll tell you. If people were offended by high prices, they'd express it by staying away from the ballpark. But the ballpark hasn't got enough seats to fulfill all the frenzied requests from fans.

All of which makes sense, but maybe not in the long run.

As kids who couldn't afford more than a 50-cent bleacher ticket, we entered the ballpark to get close to that magic we'd been listening to on the radio. The MVP -- most valuable person -- on any ballclub isn't the star home-run hitter, but the voice on the radio or TV, giving meaning, giving importance, putting emotions around the events on the field. The simple act of playing ball must be important; otherwise, why would they be broadcasting it?

So we'd take the long walk from my old neighborhood to the Gwynn Oak Junction, ride the bus down Liberty Heights Avenue and transfer across the street from the old Baltimore Junior College, and take another bus past Park Circle, down along Druid Hill Park and across the 41st Street bridge, swing past Johns Hopkins University and up 33rd Street to Babe Ruth Plaza.

It was a shlep, and you had to be dedicated to do it. The dedication had been talked into us by those voices on the radio, putting words around the same kind of home runs that we'd been hitting in choose-up games in the street, which we imagined doing one day in real ballparks.

But, even if you felt the dedication, you had to be able to afford it. It was still possible back then, and out of that possibility came one generation after another that grew up with the game in our bones.

I don't know about the kids today. I don't know if they hop on a bus (or if their parents think it's safe enough to let them) or, if they have that impulse, that there's anything available to them once they reach the ballpark.

The club still has bleacher tickets -- but they're $7 apiece. They have standing-room-only tickets -- but they're $5 apiece, if there are any left. The club has marketed itself so well that Orioles fever, once merely a slogan, has now become a reality. But it's a buying fever, not necessarily one that translates itself into electricity at the park.

Ever wonder why it's so quiet at Camden Yards? Not enough high-pitched kids' voices. The Orioles might hold onto the grown-ups now, but they need a farm system of fans -- young ones, who can afford a game -- as much as they need youngsters in their minor leagues. And maybe the young ones are being priced out of their allegiance.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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