Will Ravens' new stadium add woes for the O's?

September 03, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Approaching downtown Baltimore by Russell Street, you see the Ravens ballpark and then nothing else. In its science fiction enormity, the new football stadium blocks out everything: the suddenly-puny Oriole Park at Camden Yards, now reduced to Tinker Toy size, and the city of Baltimore itself, which seems from this angle dwarfed, enshadowed, utterly diminished by this new-born colossus.

Have I mentioned that I hear it's terrific inside? Have I also mentioned that I don't particularly care and, for different reasons, neither does Peter Angelos?

Angelos doesn't care because he doesn't envision a football threat to his Orioles, even in this summer of their discontent. I don't care, because I still can't warm up to this football team, and no matter that they seem ready to win ballgames, that Art Modell and family have been selling themselves like crazy, and that the new ballpark is supposed to make us forget Memorial Stadium, forget the Baltimore Colts, and forget the despicable way the Browns were taken out of Cleveland not much differently than another team was snatched from here to Indianapolis.

So sue me, I'm a hardhead. It still bothers me that we took another city's team, and the only way I've been able to replace a sense of municipal guilt and revulsion is with the sheer contempt we all feel for the National Football League.

The NFL let Irsay steal the Colts from us? Then it refused to give us an expansion team? On those grounds, putting the Ravens on the field feels like a grand act of revenge, a spit in the eye of Paul Tagliabue and all the other creeps who turned their backs on Baltimore.

But, is anger the best way to stir the heart? Without the heart -- without a sense that we connect with the team on the field allegedly representing us -- football's just a gang fight with rules, a venue for tough guys to work out their homicidal instincts with modest constrictions.

The Ravens open their 1998 season on Sunday, at the new ballpark, with a sellout crowd expected. Wonderful. It's another signal to the NFL: You doubted that this was a marvelous football town? Here's what we think of the game around here.

Also, though, there's a small, nagging voice about those big football crowds: Will they affect baseball? Around here, in the days when the Colts were selling out every week, we used to talk about the Baltimore sports dollar. How far would it stretch?

When the Colts owned the town's heart, the Orioles were always life-and-death to draw 1 million people a year -- even in the glory years of pennants and World Series triumphs. But the post-Colt Orioles have become not only a financial marvel, drawing nearly 4 million people a year, but a cultural force, as well. There's a generation that grew up when they were the only game in town.

But, can the Orioles hold onto those fans -- or does the old worry about the Baltimore sports dollar still hold? Especially now, in a time of vastly inflated prices and the loathed personal seat licenses, will a dollar spent on the Ravens ultimately mean a dollar less to spend on the Orioles?

"I don't think that's a concern any more," Peter Angelos was saying this week. "I was a strong supporter of football returning to Baltimore, because I don't think one team has to detract from the other.

"The Colt situation was a long time ago. There was a special place we had in our hearts for the Colts, a special relationship between the players and the fans. It was a different era and time."

Also, a different geography, which may be most important factor of all.

Only in their last summers on 33rd Street did the Orioles win much support from the Washington-area suburbs. Now, says Angelos, 25 percent to 30 percent of the ballpark support comes from there. Those folks have no other baseball team to support, and they're as devoted to the football Redskins as Baltimoreans were to the Colts. The Ravens are barely a blip on their emotional radar.

So Angelos will glance at the 70,000 folks heading to the new football stadium this weekend, and console himself that his own ballpark continues to fill -- despite the sheer collapse of the Orioles.

"This year was not a good one," the Orioles owner says. In his disappointment, he's added understatement to his vocabulary. He's got a $70 million payroll struggling to play .500 baseball, and to show some sense of heart.

It was Angelos who hired the new manager, Ray Miller, and Angelos who decided not to break up the team after the All Star break, when the season already seemed a clinker. Now, he no longer talks of keeping the team together, nor of necessarily resigning some of his high-priced veterans.

Instead, he supports Miller, blames pitching injuries and talks of prospects coming up through the minor league system. And hopes he's correct that the new football team in town won't be one more problem for his baseball team.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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