Baseball: looking back fondly, ahead fearfully

January 24, 2002|By Michael Olesker

THE sentimentalists around here brace for the destruction of a wall on 33rd Street in the next few days, but students of cold arithmetic worry about a dark spirit emerging from the rubble that once was Memorial Stadium: the return to an era when Baltimore baseball was a financial trouble spot and not just a sweet pastime.

Last week, in a scene that felt like generations embracing across a ghostly half-century expanse, former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro III opened a time capsule placed in the stadium cornerstone by his father, former Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr.

Tommy the Younger's voice quivered a couple of times as he reached into the box left there in September 1954, of the summer the Orioles returned to big league baseball after a 50-year absence. It was the final ceremony before they tear down the front wall of the old park, an act scheduled for late this week or early next week. But Tommy's voice broke for more than the tumbling of bricks.

He remembered how proud his father was that he'd brought baseball back to his hometown. He called Memorial Stadium "sacramental ground. ... Rich or poor, black or white, this was the equalizer, the real core of the spirit of this community, and how we lived and died by these franchises."

When he opened the time capsule, D'Alesandro pulled out a sheet of paper autographed by every member of the '54 Orioles. "Bob Turley," he said. You could see fastballs dancing behind his eyes. "Don Larsen."

And Dick Kryhoski and Billy Hunter, and Clint Courtney, and the Knothole Gang's Bobo Newsom, too. Then D'Alesandro held up a '54 Orioles score book, which sold for 15 cents back then. Followed, inexplicably, by a bunch of coins scattered in the box, 36 cents in all.

"I wonder what this is all about," D'Alesandro said.

"Probably the cost of a stadium hot dog back then," somebody said.

"I tell you how old I am," D'Alesandro said. "I remember when you could get two hot dogs and an orange drink on Baltimore Street for a nickel."

Well, times change. The modern Orioles score book sells for several bucks, and the stadium hot dogs several bucks more, and the 33rd Street ballpark built for about $6 million has been replaced by Oriole Park and something called PSINet Stadium, which, combined, cost everybody close to $500 million to construct.

Each new stadium was a guarantee that today's ball clubs would never in this lifetime bolt town the way the football Colts did. They're tied here by long-term leases. But what ties Orioles fans' sinking hearts to their vulnerable ballclub?

Over the past few decades, with the Colts gone and the Ravens only lately sinking their roots into local soil, there was never a question of baseball fan support. Attendance topped 2 million, then 3 million, summer after summer.

But a drumbeat could be heard, first faintly then increasingly louder: the sound of Washington thumping for a third chance at major league baseball. Last week, Washington fans heard what sounded to them like an answer to their prayers. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said relocation of existing teams might be possible by 2003 and that Washington was a "prime candidate" to get a team.

To Peter Angelos, owner of the Orioles, this sounded dreadful. Generally, it is estimated that perhaps 20 percent of Orioles crowds are composed of people from the D.C. suburbs. A team to call their own would probably cut heavily into Baltimore attendance, already slipping as the club struggles with a series of drab seasons.

That's not all. The Ravens, a disappointment Sunday, continue to fill their park. And there's new talk about building an indoor site here to attract a pro basketball team. (What would such a facility cost? Don't ask. In Washington, there's talk of shelling out $400 million for a new baseball stadium. In any case, it's a long way from the $6 million for Memorial Stadium 50 years ago.)

In the old days, we used to talk about the limits of the Baltimore sports dollar. The Colts were selling out every game back then, but the Orioles were life-and-death to draw one million spectators. They needed World Series money to break even. And the basketball Bullets drew so inconsistently that they finally drifted down the highway.

Things are different today. Downtown was a nervous place in the Bullets' era, but it's jumping with energy now. On the other hand, just how far would the modern sports dollar go? The Orioles' slipping attendance is only part of a bigger picture.

Sixty percent of baseball's franchises had falling attendance last year. The major TV networks, which spent millions for broadcast rights, took a financial bath and say they have to cut back. And the gap between baseball's haves and have-nots is so great that the sport is talking about eliminating a couple of teams.

Baltimore is considered one of the game's jewels. But can it stay that way if baseball comes to Washington -- or if (perhaps simultaneously) pro basketball were to come back to Baltimore?

As Tommy D'Alesandro glanced around the remains of Memorial Stadium last week, he said, "It's the end of an era of people who lived our lives here." Into each era, a little strain must fall. The Orioles are bracing for it.

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