A Memorial to our lost innocence

May 21, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

No doubt, many fans will get misty-eyed while taking one last stroll today through Memorial Stadium, posing with the Orioles' 1970 World Series trophy and the Colts' 1971 Super Bowl trophy, reminiscing about Brooks and Johnny U.

Nostalgia is always a popular attraction in Baltimore, where the only day better than yesterday is the day before. But Camden Yards is proof that progress is often double-edged, that even the most necessary, worthwhile advances come at a cost.

The two downtown stadiums are state-of-the-art and frequently jammed to capacity. They give the Orioles and Ravens the financial muscle to sign the players they want. Oriole Park, in particular, attracts visitors from all over the world.

Without the two downtown stadiums, the Orioles likely would be in Washington, the Ravens might still be in Cleveland, and Baltimore would be a ghost town, as far as professional sports were concerned.

And yet, you hear it all the time:

People miss Memorial Stadium. Miss going to 33rd Street. Miss the old days.

What is it folks miss exactly? The narrow concourses? The cramped bathrooms? The support poles in the lower deck?

Of course not.

What they miss are the simpler times. Buying NFL season tickets without paying for a permanent seat license. Attending a major-league baseball game on the spur of the moment, and being able to afford it.

In the late 1980s, the Orioles still staged "Three-Buck Night" for college students. These days, a 20-ounce soda at Oriole Park costs $3.50. And baseball remains the most affordable of the four major sports.

A recent Sports Illustrated cover story about the skyrocketing costs of attending sporting events cited the openings of 50 new stadiums and arenas since 1990, each designed for the corporate customer, "with more amenities than the last."

Perhaps none had a greater impact than Oriole Park, which opened in '92.

Oriole Park was the first of the new baseball stadiums to offer a theme-park atmosphere, from Eutaw Street to the club level. There might be no better place in America to watch a game. And yet, the game is of almost secondary importance.

In fact, the smaller dimensions at Oriole Park sparked a wave of copycat construction that helped alter the game beyond recognition, leading to a dramatic surge in offense.

But that, too, might be part of a larger business plan.

Baseball in 2000 is home runs for high rollers. Just like at a Disney park, customers happily pay for the experience. Even better, the venture often is publicly financed.

What more could the owner of a professional sports team want?

Not much, it turned out, and the Oriole Park model was swiftly embraced, not just in baseball (Coors Field, Enron Field, Pac Bell Park, et al), but also by other sports, in stadium after stadium, arena after arena.

More often than not, the new places are as soulless as they are spotless, and leave fans longing for the dingy old facilities they once called home.

Of course, memories can be misleading.

The Orioles' worst full season of attendance at Oriole Park was easily greater than the combined attendance at Memorial in 1969, '70 and '71, when the team went to three straight World Series.

Which begs the question:

If the good old days were so good, where was everyone?

They came for the Colts games, and turned Memorial Stadium into the world's largest outdoor insane asylum. The atmosphere at PSINet Stadium isn't nearly that electric. And yes, a baseball crowd of 20,000 at Memorial could be louder than a crowd of 45,000 at Oriole Park.

So much of it goes back to the prices. One reason that Red Sox and Yankees fans seem to take over Oriole Park is that some season-ticket holders sell their seats to those games for two and three times the face value, trying to recoup a portion of their investment. It's difficult to blame them. But the overall effect is embarrassing.

Not every new park suffers from cell-phone syndrome. The crowds are decidedly more attentive and raucous at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, a place very much like Oriole Park. The difference, of course, is that the Indians give their fans something to cheer about.

The Orioles haven't for three seasons, yet their park is so magnetic, they continue to rank among the major-league leaders in attendance.

Team officials view the enduring fan support as a remarkable show of loyalty. Critics fear that owner Peter Angelos will never change his heavy-handed management style when the sheep keep flocking to his yard.

From a business standpoint, why should he?

The Orioles are rapidly becoming the East Coast version of the Chicago Cubs, a team with fans loyal to the ballpark, no matter how poorly the team plays. Camdenitis isn't the same as Wrigleyitis - Angelos is inflexible philosophically, not economically. But the symptons could be just as debilitating.

So, is Baltimore better off today than it was in the days of Memorial Stadium? The answer is an unqualified yes. Baltimore also is better off than it was when Oriole Park opened in '92, when the profit-driven Eli Jacobs owned the Orioles and the NFL had not yet returned.

So much was gained with the construction of the downtown stadiums - baseball salvation, football deliverance, national esteem.

And yet, the fans who will gather today to bid a final farewell to Memorial Stadium aren't simply awash in nostalgia.

Something was lost, too.

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