National spotlight shines on Orioles and Baltimore Baseball team a major part of city's charm, self-image

October 04, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ed Lee contributed to this article.

To see how closely linked the Orioles are to Baltimore's self-image, walk three blocks west from Camden Yards to a rowhouse owned by Bill and Sharon Reuter.

The couple has lived there for 11 years; they're so concerned about the city's reputation that when a contractor said he'd have park a Dumpster outside their house during the playoffs, the Reuters balked.

"With all the national media here, we just didn't feel that a Dumpster would put Baltimore and the neighborhood in the best light," says Bill Reuter, 42, who has postponed construction of a third-floor loft until after the postseason.

It's not just the Orioles and Mariners that will take to the field this afternoon; it's the city itself -- playing before a national television audience that usually sees it as the backdrop for the NBC show "Homicide." Today, that audience will see a shiny skyline over Camden Yards -- Baltimore's simplified image of urban renewal that will battle the nation's simplified image of a city under siege.

Reuter enjoys watching "Homicide,"just as he enjoys traveling throughout the nation and saying he lives next to Camden Yards. He boasts that his neighborhood is safe and his neighbors are friendly.

"I'm optimistic" about the city, says Reuter, who plans to spend today working at a neighborhood bake sale. "Much more [optimistic] than most people."

In other cities, baseball in October often means all-out preparations for sold-out ball parks. But such crowds are pretty standard stuff here, rendering some of the preparations downright subtle.

Yes, vendors will be hawking new playoff T-shirts, extra police are on duty, 300 new Orioles banners are flying, cabbies are gearing up for big spenders and extra shipments of food and beer are headed for restaurants. Hotels are reporting brisk business, although the Hyatt said it was heavily booked before the playoffs.

Baltimore Gas & Electric and the University of Maryland Medical Center will increase their staff at the ballpark. Light rail and buses are running normal game-day schedule today; if the Orioles and Ravens play tomorrow, there will be shifts in service.

$8 million

All told, city planners estimate each post-season baseball game will pump up to $8 million into the local economy. But much of the impact on the city and its residents cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

"The Orioles are something objectively positive about Baltimore," says Bill Henry, chief of staff for City Council President Lawrence Bell III. Henry is well aware of other cities' slights at Baltimore. "It's a chance to say we're No. 1 about something besides chalk outlines or teen pregnancy."

The connection between the Orioles and Baltimore's collective psyche extends beyond city limits, of course, and it's not limited to image building. Often the connection is more primal.

Explains James McGee, head of psychology at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and the former team psychologist for the Orioles: "Back in the good old days, one tribe would attack another tribe, beat them up and have them for dinner. From this, competitive sports were born. The basic concept is the same. A community has a bunch of heroic figures represent them against another community. If they win, the community feels good about themselves; if they lose, the community" is depressed.

The Orioles looked invincible in beating the Seattle Mariners twice this week, so this is October as it's supposed to be in a baseball town like Baltimore.

Talk of the town

Inside grocery stores, strangers chat in checkout lines -- drawn together by orange and black caps. Patients laugh with their doctors, their tensions eased by an O's picture on the wall. And bosses are calling their workers into break-rooms to check out the replay of Brady's home run.

Fair weather fans are sprouting everywhere, no doubt wondering if Rafael Palmeiro is a first baseman, bat boy or bottle of cologne. Too many of these fans -- say longtime loyalists -- have found their way inside Camden Yards.

In East Baltimore, Maurice Daniel just wants revenge for last year's game in New York, when 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached into the field, grabbed a fly ball and stole the Orioles season.

"I just cut the TV off," recalled Daniel, 34. "Sometimes I find myself getting too deep into the game and I have to walk away. When someone blows a save, I have to take it to work with me the next day."

So far this week, work has been blissful for Daniel. He tunes in by radio while working home improvement jobs. And his behavior seems below the the danger zone, says McGee, the psychologist.

"There's a certain, small percentage of real head cases who go off the deep end," McGee says. "I think some fans get more passionately aroused than the players. Of course, it's easy not to be devastated by defeat if you've got a $15 million contract. That soothes the wound. But if you're making six bucks an hour and you're taking your girlfriend to the game and it's costing you two days' wages, the loss can hurt more."


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