Stadium's aura is perfect for Baltimore's new era

August 09, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Our comparison is Memorial Stadium. Good old Memorial -- obstructed views, narrow concourses, crowded bathrooms. Walking into the Ravens' new stadium last night was like walking into the Orioles' new stadium six years ago. Like going from black-and-white to color.

The concourses, the sound system, the scoreboards -- it's a brave new world, a mind-blowing upgrade, a just reward for this jilted city. The stadium is better than Memorial, better than Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, better than almost all of them.

For Baltimore, that should be enough.

The scoreboards alone distinguish the stadium -- they're the 21st century touches, the stars of the show, the belles of the ball. But another national hit? Let's not get carried away. If you're expecting Camden II to make the same impact as Camden I, expecting it to become the envy of the NFL, you're probably asking too much.

This isn't the best football stadium ever built -- Arrowhead Stadium (1972) and Giants Stadium (1976) are still the standards. The newer facilities, with smaller capacities but luxury boxes that push the upper decks halfway to Mars, offer a different type of intimacy, less of a claustrophobic effect.

Heck, this might not even be the most exciting football stadium to open this season -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new facility will feature a 103-foot pirate ship in one end zone, complete with cannons shooting soft footballs and confetti and a 9-by-7-foot skull with glowing red eyes and a mouth that blows smoke.

The ship will be part of a $3 million pirate replica village that could prove to be the Eutaw Street of the NFL. Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer -- the guy who once refused to contribute $50,000 toward a Baltimore expansion marketing campaign -- put up the money himself.

The Ravens' stadium, built by a state on a tight budget and a team unwilling to pay even $250,000 for a signature raven, is a relatively modest achievement, at least when compared with its baseball neighbor. It won't spark a revolution in NFL stadium construction, if indeed such a creative boom is possible in football.

The baseball stadium at Camden Yards is a true original, the jewel of its sport, the pride of its community. The football stadium couldn't possibly replicate its magic, partly because it's a football stadium, partly because budget cuts prevented it from going over the top. Who cares? If the place doesn't become a tourist attraction, at least the emphasis will be on the game.

Great as baseball is at Camden Yards, fans often revel in the ballpark as much as they cheer for the home team. The Orioles don't complain -- the park attracts a wider audience, supports record payrolls, makes the team immensely valuable. But something gets lost in the experience. The game is almost an afterthought. Even in the postseason, there's little electricity in the park.

Stadium atmosphere might be a concern for the Ravens, too -- the open corners, while an architectural hit, might not hold in crowd noise, and could make the stadium less intimidating. This is an emotional sport. NFL teams relish home-field advantage. A deafening crowd can lift a team, and even disrupt its opponent's offense.

Will it happen here? Well, the sound system alone can whip the crowd into a frenzy (Springsteen, Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones -- please!) Last night was only a preseason game, but the fans sounded loud enough, and they'll only be louder for the Sept. 6 regular-season opener against Pittsburgh.

It will take time for new memories to form, for the stadium to emerge as the rightful heir to the world's largest outdoor insane asylum. Remember when Oriole Park opened, and Cal Ripken said it felt as if he had played there before? Football stadiums don't possess that type of character. But an AFC title game or two would give this stadium its own special niche.

For the average fan, it's not about the flashiest architecture, the fanciest luxury boxes, or even the yummiest concessions. It's about football -- performing the Sunday rituals, screaming at the top of your lungs, living and dying with every down. The Ravens' new stadium is a terrific place to do those things. And in the end, that's all that matters.

If this stadium generates another national stir, fine; if not, that's OK, too. We weren't asking lightning to strike twice. We weren't asking to change the NFL forever. All we wanted was the stadium. All we wanted was the team.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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