DEATH OF A STADIUM A SENTIMENTALIST MAKES A PITCH FOR SAVING HISTORIC BALLPARKS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I was 5 years old when they tore down Ebbets Field, home of the departed Brooklyn Dodgers. I have a vague memory of being there when I was 4. I wish it were more vivid.

I also have a vague memory of the stadium disappearing piece by piece, the wrecking ball smashing a place where 20th century American history, not just baseball, unfolded. I am grateful that memory is cloudy.

Next year, some people in Chicago will revel in their new stadium, their new Comiskey Park, now under construction. These days, most Chicago White Sox fans are united in their support of days to come in the new stadium. They are nostalgic about leaving Comiskey Park behind, but talk about it like a relative who can't hear them anymore.

"I think it's time for a new stadium," said Skip Landwehr, who lives in a suburb called Orland Park. "I think the whole city is really excited about it."

And then there is Ed Jones, from Oswego, Ill., about 50 miles from Chicago. "I have no feelings one way or the other. I'm looking forward to the new stadium."

I have some feelings. They range from sadness to anger. I'm sad that a stadium built in 1910 will soon be torn from the ground. I'm angry that when I went to Chicago last month to say goodbye to Comiskey Park, instead of finding people upset about the destruction, I found fans either numb or giddy about the prospects of watching baseball in antiseptic comfort.

The new stadium is being built right across the street. As I rode into Chicago last month on Amtrak's Capitol Limited, it was an unnerving sight, this new monstrosity dwarfing the charming baseball field on the city's south side.

At least Baltimore had the decency not to build its new field in view of Memorial Stadium. However, baseball fans here should pay attention to the activities that are occurring this year in the Windy City, for I have seen Baltimore baseball 1991, and it is Chicago 1990.

For Comiskey Park, insult has certainly been tacked onto the injury of facing demolition. First of all, it was deemed crumbling and useless by the White Sox owners, who threatened to leave town unless a new stadium was built. So, of course, a new stadium is being built, at a cost of $175 million financed by state bonds.

Then, after arranging the death of this historic landmark, they now preside over its funeral arrangements. White Sox owners have taken full advantage of the nostalgia of the park, playing the last year to the hilt as a promotional device. Everywhere souvenirs are for sale commemorating the last year of the stadium. The cover of the 1990 game program has a painting of Comiskey Park with the words "As the sun sets on the Baseball Palace of the World."

Attendance is up this year, from a little more than 1 million fans last year to more than 1.8 million this season, partly because of the successful season of the Sox, but also because many have come, and come far, to say goodbye. If you tear it down, they will come.

Like Ralph Barrow, a Greensboro, N.C., car dealer who came to say farewell with his 16-year-old son, John.

"This is a great ballpark," he said. "There's so much history here."

Some people scoff at that. Myself, I am a sentimentalist and I am one of those who elevate baseball beyond its status as a game. Walking in the outfield hours before a Saturday night game, I felt goose bumps as I realized that Shoeless Joe Jackson had played in the very outfield I was walking around. If that's corn, then can me.

George Carlson has been coming to Comiskey Park for 48 years. He's been taking pictures for a variety of Chicago newspapers for much of that time. He remembers coming here as a kid with a friend of his, who used to bring a jar, instead of a glove, to games.

"Ted Williams didn't think much of the fans here, and when we'd get on him, he used to turn around and spit on us," George said. "My friend used to bring this jar to try to catch Ted Williams' spit."

L So how do you feel about tearing Comiskey Park down, George?

"I think progress has to be made," he said. "This place has seen its years and seen its ballplayers."

That's one thing you can say about the new park -- Ted Williams never spit there.

Joe Pinotti celebrated his 80th birthday in the White Sox press box, receiving a team jersey with the number 80 and his name on the back. Joe has been working in the nooks and crannies of Comiskey Park for 50 years, primarily in charge of making sure everything is in its place in the press box.

He's seen history unfold here. "I saw Babe Ruth play here, DiMaggio, all the greats," he said. "I've been watching baseball here since I was a 10-year-old boy."

So aren't you hurt, Joe? Don't you feel like part of you is being torn down, Joe?

"In one respect, I'll miss it, but now with the new ballpark I have something to look forward to, something new," he said.

Aw, Joe, say it ain't so. Isn't anyone going to go kicking and screaming into the night about this tragedy? The wrath of Chicago was felt nationwide when the Cubs wanted to put lights in Wrigley Field. Can't we just muster up a little righteous indignation here?

The last time a baseball park was torn down was about 20 years ago, when Connie Mack Stadium came down in Philadelphia. I had thought we learned something in that time. Back then, there were very little efforts toward historic preservation, and no one had yet put the words baseball and memorabilia together.

Since then, though, we've gained a different perspective on baseball, or at least I thought we had. We treat the old parks like Wrigley and Fenway Park like cathedrals. I just never thought another baseball park would ever be torn down again, especially one 80 years old. Do anything to preserve it, I would have thought, but don't abandon it.

But it's 1990 and Comiskey Park may be worth more torn down than it is standing. If you were a White Sox fan, would you pay $20 for a Comiskey Park brick? $200 for a seat? How much would you pay for home plate? Two months ago, two guys were arrested for trying to steal it.

The White Sox management owns Comiskey Park. As of this writing no plans have been announced as to how it will dismantle the "Baseball Palace of the World." You can be sure, though, it will be a lucrative dismembering.

Now, let's head back east about 900 miles and turn the clock ahead to the next baseball season.

Next year will be the last year the Orioles play in Memorial Stadium. Just like in Chicago, you can count on a number of baseball fans coming to the city to see baseball in the stadium for the last time. In case the country doesn't realize that this will be the last season for the Orioles at Memorial Stadium, you can be sure Orioles management will alert it to the fact.

The team has not yet determined the scope of that promotion, a spokesman said. The stadium is not being torn down as of yet; it may serve as the temporary home of a National Football League franchise until a new stadium is built. So the structure itself will remain for a time. But when baseball leaves, so will the stadium's breath.

And when the out-of-town reporters come to do their obituaries about the death of baseball at Memorial Stadium -- a wonderful place for baseball, most people agree -- please, someone, don't lie down like they did in Chicago. Stand up and scream that leaving this place stinks. Say that the decision will still stink after everyone (that is, everyone who can get a ticket) is comfortable in the new, yet-unnamed stadium, the new one that is being built to look like the old ones we've been tearing down over the years.

Memorial Stadium, as it exists today, opened in 1954. It will not even reach 40 years in age before it is abandoned. DiMaggio never even played a major league game here. And though a youngster by Comiskey Park standards, it has been a good home for the Orioles. It's been the home for three world championships and six pennants.

So if you have a 4-year-old son, make sure you take him to Memorial Stadium next year. Give him that memory, the one that he'll wish many years from now was more vivid.

And then keep him away if the wrecking ball comes.

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