Baseball memories getting harder for fans to afford

March 31, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Wandering through an antiques store over the weekend, come upon a stack of musty old magazines and find Sport from March 1954. Here is my youth, now stored among the ancient relics of another civilization. Sport was the bible of my boyhood, and March 1954 was its Genesis - for that April was the very commencement of modern Orioles baseball.

"Will Baltimore Be Another Milwaukee?" the magazine's headline asks. A year earlier, the now-forgotten Boston Braves ("Spahn and Sain and pray for rain") had fled to Milwaukee and discovered instant success on the field (third place, and the discovery of some kid by the name of Henry Aaron) and off the field (1,826,397 fans). Could Baltimore repeat such heady success?

A large Sport photograph, looking in from center field, shows Memorial Stadium in its incubation. Today, the old girl faces the wrecking ball but, that spring, pieces of it were still being hammered together. There's no press box behind home plate, and the upper deck is still being constructed. If Wild Bill Hagy and his gang had gone looking for Section 34, they'd have found nothing but loose planks of wood.

In another Sport photo, Baltimore fans jubilant over the St. Louis Browns moving here hold up front pages of The Sun: "CITY GETS THE BROWNS," the headline reads. Who knew that, four decades later, the same headline would be repeated - for football?

Time marches on. Today, the Orioles open play for the 45th time. That maiden '54 team didn't equal the Braves' success on the field or off. They won 54 and lost 100. They finished a dismal seventh, precisely 57 games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. Instead of discovering the next Hank Aaron, dem O's discovered Don Larsen, who won three games and lost 21. They drew 1,060,910 fans - not much for a brand-new team - and reached a million in attendance only eight times in their first 20 seasons. Today, they draw a million people before school lets out.

The good news is: The '98 ballclub expects to draw 3.7 million fans this year. The bad news is: The '98 ballclub expects to draw 3.7 million fans this year. The corporations have grabbed huge chunks of season tickets, but it leaves a lot of the old stand-by fans who have always been the sport's backbone - [See Olesker, 6b] the kids, the working-class stiffs - out in the cold, or out of their league financially.

In those long-ago summers, the guys from my old neighborhood knew we could catch the bus at Gwynn Oak Junction and ride it across town for a nickel, and buy bleacher tickets for 50 cents. All over Baltimore, kids from other neighborhoods were doing the exact same thing, and the sport created and nurtured generations whose allegiance might last a lifetime.

That can't happen anymore. The prices are beyond kids' means, and the seats aren't available even if they scrounge up the money. The kids' connection to the game is strictly electronic, which tends to short-circuit over the years.

That Sport from March of '54 lists the selling price when the St. Louis Browns were sold to Baltimore: $2,475,000. For an entire franchise! Today, $2,475,000 buys you a Scott Kamieniecki, who has never won more than 10 games in a single season.

Or it buys you a third of a season from a Rafael Palmeiro. He is a magnificent hitter and beloved citizen but, in his season of negotiation, announces that he wishes a five-year deal approaching maybe $10 million per season, or he will take his services elsewhere.

Such news is not exactly stunning in the modern era, but it makes us marvel anew over loyalties. Only a few seasons ago, when major leaguers went on strike, only Peter Angelos stood up for them, resisting tremendous pressure from the owners of all other ballclubs. For a moment, Angelos was a hero to the athletes. Now, faced with the difference of a few bucks, the millionaire athletes - and Palmeiro's only one in a crowd - have memories that last maybe 15 minutes.

And so the inflation escalates. The Orioles open play with the major leagues' most expensive payroll - more than $70 million, about $2.7 million per player - more than it cost to bring the entire club here 44 springs ago, when Sport asked, "Will Baltimore Be Another Milwaukee?"

Actually, this city's been better. Milwaukee's Braves flourished for a while but then moved to Atlanta. Milwaukee got a new team, but it's struggling, and will open this year - in the National League. In their maiden season, the Orioles' seventh place finish landed them between the Senators of Washington and the Athletics of Philadelphia. The A's moved to Kansas City, and then to Oakland. The Senators moved to Minnesota, where they threaten to move again.

All of this, of course, is tied to money. That old Sport sold for 25 cents. Even a kid could scrounge up a quarter. At the antiques store where I found it the other day, it sold for $7.50. But, what the heck, it bought a few memories of a time when sports were still affordable to kids and other human beings.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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