For a dress rehearsal, it was a pretty good show: the traffic flowed easier than expected, the crowd was less rowdy than feared and the Ravens even won.
A total of 65,938 fans christened the new stadium at Camden Yards in what the team billed as a pre-opener opener. The real thing will take place Sept. 6, when the Steelers come to town for the first regular season game.
But last night's game was the first glimpse of the much-anticipated stadium under game-like conditions. Other than overcrowding problems with light rail, there were few complaints. Some felt the food lacked pizazz and others found the crowd too quiet and the music too loud. But most seemed glad to finally be watching football in the $220 million, brick-and-glass downtown stadium. The Ravens beat the Chicago Bears 19-14, to boot.
"This is just a great atmosphere to party," said Mike Stidham, 30, of Timonium.
Stidham, wearing an autographed Peter Boulware jersey, began the game at a "tailgater" in the parking lot, next to a red Jeep flying a Ravens flag. "We're all just having so much fun now that football is back in Baltimore," Stidham said.
The building itself performed with barely a glitch, said Maryland Stadium Authority project manager Alice Hoffman, who spent an anxious night listening to radio chatter and watching for trouble.
As of the start of the fourth quarter, the biggest problems had been a set of lights that failed to illuminate outside the southeast corner and a smoky grill in a kitchen that attracted the attention of on-site fire personnel.
"We are doing great," Hoffman said.
Even the much feared traffic jams failed to materialize as fans overwhelmed light rail instead.
"I think the fans listened. They took mass transit. They car-pooled. And they parked north of Pratt Street," said David Wallace, chairman of the stadium transportation task force and a partner with the Baltimore engineering firm of Rummel, Klepper & Kahl.
Baltimore police Sgt. Michael P. Dunn, a 25-year-veteran with plenty of experience at Memorial Stadium's famously raucous Colts games, said the Camden crowd was much calmer. He attributed it, in part, to the cost of attending the game.
"People have paid a lot of money to come here," Dunn said.
One fan, Steve Shoup of Dundalk, said he hoped the fans' intensity would pick up as the regular season begins. "When the fans get into it it's going to be great. I don't think a lot of people understood what football is -- it's been a long time," Shoup said.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, clearly hoping that the stadium's reception will blunt lingering resentment over its public funding, as was the case with Oriole Park in 1992, said he was excited.
"This was a historical moment," Glendening said.
Watching the game from the sideline, Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas pronounced the new digs "gorgeous."
"Everything is first class," Unitas said.
"They've come a long way from oil-soaked fields," he said, referring to his early semipro days on grassless fields in Pittsburgh.
'I love it up here'
From his seat, Lutherville resident Neil Mengel squinted as he looked down onto the field. The Ravens looked small and unidentifiable without the binoculars he had brought.
His family's seats are 26 rows up in the upper deck of the end zone and his was the last one in the southeast corner. Yet to Mengel, the seats were marvelous.
"I love it up here," said Mengel, 39, who sat in the lower level last year at Memorial Stadium. "I actually like it better up here because you get a great view of the entire field. For the price you pay for these seats, you can't beat it."
Mengel's tickets are among the cheapest in the stadium -- $250 for a permanent seat license and $20 per game ticket.
Not only does Mengel, a real estate appraiser, get an unobstructed view of the field, but he likes the view of downtown.
"Everywhere you look it's a nice view. Initially we had plans to maybe purchase up and get some lower section seats later on, but now that I've seen them, I think I want to stay here," Mengel said.
Sound from nearby speakers was crystal clear. Scoreboards were easy to read and pictures easy to follow, even from the opposite side of the stadium.
The main complaint from fans in the upper deck involved 5-foot railings at the top of the staircases that obstructed the view of several fans in the first five rows.
"They need to just dump these railings," said Jerry Martin, 53 of Baltimore. "All they need to do is cut it off a couple of inches."
Eaters and drinkers were amazingly tolerant. The lines at concession stands were slow moving, but the fans standing in them didn't seem to mind.
Robert Yospa, 40, of Owings Mills and Dave Singer, 39, of Reisterstown stared at two burgers and two sodas, which cost them close to $20. Yospa had sent back his burger because it was too rare. When he got it back, it was extremely well done. None the less, he seemed pleased.
"I would like to see quality, but," he shrugged.
His buddy Singer ended his thought for him.