Losing should loosen O's silly seat policy

October 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis

IS THERE anything worse -- in baseball terms -- than having the local team spend the season mired in irrelevance, leaving its beautiful ballpark half-empty for most games?

Yes, there is: having the team and ballpark's management pretend otherwise.

It may be the only flaw of Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- its aggressive enforcement efforts against the time-honored tradition of fans "poaching," or upgrading their seats.

Anyone who went to the ballpark this season probably observed ushers dutifully blocking fans from moving from their own distant sections into the rows on rows of empty seats closer to the field.

I witnessed it Sept. 23, at the Orioles' final game against Boston, which drew a meager 24,664 fans -- the fewest for a Red Sox game at Camden Yards. One after another, fans moving down to the mostly empty section behind home plate were pounced on by the seat police in their trademark orange bow ties and black vests and caps. (Of course, the patrol was not foolproof -- I enjoyed watching the dance of Tim Wakefield's knuckleball from a box seat that did not match my ticket.)

Incredibly, the vigilance continued even as the game went deep into extra innings. By the 15th inning, there were only a few thousand fans left, but ushers still were shooing away a father who wanted his two sons to see the view from behind the dugout and a young man who wanted to show his girlfriend what a Major League fastball looked like up close.

It was laughable. The protection of premium seats with no takers represents a stubborn refusal to face the reality that a box seat at Camden Yards, once one of the hottest tickets in baseball, no longer has much currency when the home team is in the midst of losing 32 of its final 36 games. Policing the aisles of the ballpark is a little like building a gated community in Cherry Hill or limiting tourism to Siberia: keeping people out of a place to which almost no one wants to go.

I'm sure I find the hyper-vigilance especially offensive because poaching was such a proud part of my upbringing as a baseball fan in Massachusetts. My father, otherwise a stickler for the rules, saw nothing wrong in searching for the best available seats at Fenway Park, where only lousy seats were usually to be had at the box office.

In fact, he viewed it as something of a moral obligation to take advantage of good seats that were going unused. If the seats' rightful owners showed up late, we simply got up and found two others. There was no accusation on their part nor guilt on my father's; it was understood that we were acting under an unwritten fan code.

Not so in Baltimore.

I noticed after my first few games at Camden Yards that poaching is considered a violation of the park's genteel ethic. Here, ushers deferentially towel off seats for box section patrons, fans are more restrained than their Northeastern counterparts and those moving up to seats left empty by no-shows or late-shows are deemed presumptuous social climbers.

That's well and good when the team is packing in a full house, but now that the Orioles have ended another season in disarray, with few prospects for improvement, it may be time for a change in attitude.

Next spring, enterprising fans should be permitted to sit wherever they please. After all, filling up the rows behind home plate -- the ones in the line of television cameras trained on the batter -- would at least give the impression on TV that the park is drawing fans. That may be deceptive, but -- unlike thinking those seats are still worth good money -- at least it's not deluded.

Alec MacGillis is a reporter for The Sun.

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