Looking to future makes it easier to dry eyes today

December 14, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

We didn't know what we were getting the last time. Didn't know Oriole Park at Camden Yards would become one of the city's crown jewels. Didn't know it would transform not just a team, but an entire sport.

Now, we know.

We know the financial impact of a ballpark that has enabled the Orioles to contend in every year of its existence. We know how comfortable and pleasant it can be to attend a '90s sporting event -- and how expensive, too.

The fantastic success, fan-friendly convenience and sheer beauty of Oriole Park make it easy to say goodbye to Memorial Stadium one last time today.

That, and the long lines at the restrooms. And the pillars in the lower deck. And the fact that the place has had more farewells than Frank Sinatra.

Memorial was the House of Magic for baseball, the world's largest outdoor insane asylum for football, a monument to the city's fallen war heroes.

It provided a wealth of memories -- Colts, Orioles, Navy-Notre Dame, City-Poly, even Stallions and Ravens. But no one misses it for baseball, and no one is going to miss it for football, either.

Like a family that outgrows its home, the city is ready to move on.

We know what we're getting next season, know almost exactly what to expect when the Ravens open their own branch of the U.S. Mint at Camden Yards.

The new structure won't change the face of the NFL -- football stadiums are football stadiums -- but does anyone doubt it will be a better place than Memorial to watch a game?

There will be easier access and improved sightlines. Wider concourses and spacious restrooms. A stunning sound system and state-of-the-art scoreboard technology.

Oh yes, there also will be higher ticket and concession prices, luxury boxes and club seats and permanent-seat licenses, all the revenue-enhancing staples without which team owners cannot possibly survive.

Such is the cost of doing sports business in the '90s. Baltimore had to build one stadium to keep its baseball team and promise another to attract a new football team. Baltimore learned its lesson the hard way.

The Ravens would not exist without the new stadium. Some might suggest that the city would be better off without both. But those are the same people who spent 12 seasons whining over the loss of the Colts.

Frankly, the new place can't open soon enough.

It will give Ravens owner Art Modell the resources to build a Super Bowl contender, provided he doesn't waste them. It will give the city the football home it deserves. And it will sever ties to the Colts, once and for all.

The Ravens did the right thing in inviting back the old Colts today. The players will greet the fans at the gates. Chuck Thompson and Vince Bagli will introduce them during the game. The Baltimore Colts' Band will play, one more time.

The closing ceremony will feature one last play by Unitas, Moore and Co. After that, the ball will be handed to Ravens wide receiver Michael Jackson -- and he had better not drop it.

Remember after the Orioles' farewell in 1991, when first baseman Randy Milligan said he was embarrassed to be on the same field with all the great names from the team's past?

Let's hope the Ravens feel the same way today.

If they want to generate the same passion as the Colts, if they want to sell out their stadium without assistance, if they want to earn more Pro Bowl selections, they should try winning some games.

Barring a major surprise, today's ceremony won't pack the same emotional wallop as the Orioles' goodbye. How could it? The city's sporting landscape was different in 1991. And the Orioles' ceremony was unforgettable.

We didn't know what we were getting with that, either -- the appearance of all those former players in uniform: Brooks, then Frank, then all the others, unannounced, one by one.

Fans wept openly on that gray autumn day, seeing their memories flash before their eyes. The city had lost its football team, and there was little hope one would return. Baseball was all we had.

Today carries a different mood, more wistful than emotional. Many fans remain ambivalent about the return of the NFL. The 12 empty seasons helped create that. So did the unseemly nature of the Ravens' arrival.

To this point, the team has merely a cult following, similar to the CFL Stallions', times maybe 10. But look what a new stadium did for the Orioles. A new stadium raises hope. A new stadium creates excitement.

Peter Angelos seized the moment, building a near-championship team after buying the Orioles in 1993. Modell's track record isn't as encouraging, but he won't have any excuses now.

We know what we're getting this time -- the fan amenities, the competitive advantages, the whole 100 yards. Say goodbye to Memorial Stadium, this time for good. The past is but prologue. A city moves on.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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