Schaefer's vision changed Baltimore sports landscape

April 19, 2011|Peter Schmuck

First impressions die hard, and my first impression of Baltimore — formed on my very first baseball road trip with the then-California Angels in 1979 — required nearly a decade to morph into something very different.

In those days, the Angels stayed at the Village of Cross Keys and the word among the veterans in both the clubhouse and the press box was that there was no reason to leave that complex except to go to Memorial Stadium. Looking back, it's still hard to imagine that about 10 years later, I would eagerly move to the Baltimore area and live happily ever after.

Fortunately, a guy I had never heard of when I was living the beach life in Southern California imagined it for me. That guy was William Donald Schaefer, who imagined a new Baltimore and presided over a civic renaissance that included the opening of Harborplace in 1980, the building of the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor and — more important to me — the construction of a Camden Yards sports complex that remains the prototype for a new era of sports architecture.

His signature slogan, "Do it now!" might not have the same ring in this era of huge public debt, but there is no arguing that his vision remade Baltimore into a popular tourist destination and preserved a parochial sports identity that was on the verge of extinction when the Colts left town and the Orioles went into steep decline soon thereafter.

Which brings us to the moment when I first became aware of the political force that was William Donald Schaefer.

Everyone remembers the night in 1988 when the 1-23 Orioles returned home to a huge crowd at Memorial Stadium on "Fantastic Fans Night," which could have only happened in a place so steeped in its affection for its last big-time professional sports team. The O's had just set a major league record for futility by starting the season with 21 straight losses, but the ballpark was packed when Schaefer announced during pregame ceremonies that a deal had been struck to build a new downtown stadium and guarantee that the team would remain in Baltimore.

There was speculation that owner Edward Bennett Williams might relocate the team to Washington or somewhere in between the two major Mid-Atlantic cities, and there was plenty of residual angst from the ugly departure of the beloved Colts, something Schaefer had tried hard and failed to prevent.

But that night, which made national news largely because no one outside Baltimore could believe that a 1-23 team could garner such fan loyalty, changed the Baltimore sports landscape and would eventually lead to the return of the NFL and the expansion of the Camden Yards sports complex to include a state-of-the-art football stadium.

Schaefer was instrumental in that effort, too, leading a Baltimore contingent to Chicago for the disappointing NFL expansion announcement in 1995, which smoothed the way for Art Modell to uproot the Cleveland Browns and move them to Baltimore a year later.

"He's the reason the Ravens are here,'' Modell said on Monday night. "He laid the foundation first as Baltimore's mayor and as governor of Maryland when he championed the funding of a new stadium. In fact, champion is the right word. Gov. Schaefer was a champion for Baltimore, for Maryland and for the common man."

Schaefer was not a perfect man by any account. He was a political giant who also could be small enough to ridicule the appearance of a female political opponent or make an embarrassing sexist comment to a young staffer during a high-level meeting. He was that rare politician who wasn't afraid to be himself, sometimes to a fault. He was a complex man who could see the big picture without missing the small details. And he understood both Baltimore and the state of Maryland better than anyone.

He was not a big sports fan, but he will be remembered as one of the most important figures in Baltimore sports history.

"Words are very inadequate to be an appropriate tribute to Donald Schaefer," said Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos. "He was somebody who dedicated his entire life for the betterment of Baltimore, the citizens of this city, and the state of the Maryland."

I only met him once, but I'm pretty sure he is the reason I'm here.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jamison Hensley and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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