Ballpark may be losing its luster with politicos

Camden Yards: Once a swank fund-raiser spot, it faces new obstacles to draw Washingtonians.

June 25, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Camden Yards may be losing some of the white wine-and-cell phone political crowd that prompted so much sneering by longtime Orioles fans when the ballpark opened a decade ago.

The traffic snarls en route to the ballpark, the team's four-straight losing seasons, the retirement of Orioles superstar Cal Ripken Jr. and the potential for Washington's own major-league team as early as next spring have prompted many political money men to think twice about holding fund-raising events at Camden Yards.

"There's just no big attraction there anymore," said Republican fund-raiser Matt Keelen, who used to put five events a season in the stadium, but will assemble only one or two this summer. "We're not getting a lot of interest."

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption accompanying an article about Camden Yards on Page 1A yesterday incorrectly identified the woman with Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger as his wife. The woman was U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. The Sun regrets the error.

Washington lobbyists and their congressional quarry have long been a familiar sight in the better field seats at the stadium. Less noticeable are the political fund-raising events in the private skyboxes that often have been a staple of a night at the ballpark.

Fund-raising professionals describe events in which the candidates themselves, after finishing late votes on Capitol Hill, never even make it to the game, leaving lobbyists fuming because they'd raced out of work early to grab some precious private time with the guest of honor.

A few complaints - traffic, late votes - are not new, but when combined with the team's lackluster performance in recent years the trek to the ballpark has become less tolerable to some Washington insiders.

Kevin Schwalb, a lobbyist for the National Association of Home Builders, says invitations to Camden Yards fund-raisers have fallen off this year - a switch from the fund-raising heyday a few years ago, when, he says, he received one or two invitations to every home game.

Lobbyists are eager for a Washington team because it simplifies their mission - to get as much face time with as many well-placed lawmakers as possible.

The ballpark opened to glowing reviews about its architectural beauty and its echoes of a bygone era of baseball. That made a ticket to a Camden Yards skybox a Washington status symbol. But now, some say, that novelty has worn off.

"If you go up to Camden Yards, you've committed your whole night to one member of Congress," says fund-raiser Tom Hammond, explaining why lobbyists sometimes balk at a night in Baltimore. "If you stay in D.C., you can hit five to ten events in a night if you plan it right."

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos shudders when he describes a future without the Washington crowd, which the team claims makes up roughly 25 percent of the Orioles ticket sales.

"Obviously if a new stadium is right down the street that'd be a place they'd go," Angelos says of a rival Washington team. "My position is that the Orioles ballpark is perfectly located - it easily serves both metropolitan areas as well as the lobbyists, the political people, the corporate executives."

The fund-raising activity has not dropped off altogether - particularly not if the struggling Orioles are playing a celebrity team. When the New York Yankees begin a three-game series at Camden Yards this week, they'll play to at least one fund-raiser a night - a $1,000-a-ticket event for New York Republican Rep. Vito J. Fossella tonight, a fund-raiser to boost fellow New York Republican Rep. Tom M. Reynolds tomorrow drawing as much as $2,500 a ticket and a $1,000-a-person event Thursday for Ohio Republican Rep. Michael G. Oxley.

"Camden Yards is a great place to watch a Yankee game," Reynolds says of the event, not even mentioning the Orioles. Still, Reynolds says, getting there is not easy: "There've been a couple of times I had votes and couldn't make it at all."

Sometimes it's not so important to actually see the team play. Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat running for a Baltimore County congressional seat, held a fund-raiser Sunday in the stadium's signature B&O Warehouse. It evoked baseball, offering views of the park; but all the guests saw was an empty field. The Orioles were playing in San Francisco that afternoon.

Orioles attendance is dropping: crowds are down by about 3,000 a game this year compared with this point last year, according to the team. The Orioles are 11 games out of first place - a lot even for a good team to make up. Adding to the woes, with Ripken gone, and with pitcher Mike Mussina's free agent signing by the Yankees after the 2000 season, the Orioles have lost star power.

Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka says the team does not keep track of all the political fund-raisers held at the stadium. He did say the team has started encouraging nonprofit organizations to hold fund-raising events there as a way of boosting flagging ticket sales.

When a campaign throws a fund-raiser in a skybox, it pays the owner of the space a per-person charge, usually about $100. The rest of the price goes to the candidate or the political party sponsoring the event.

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