Park it: $200 million should go to outdoor home of birds, not Birds


I'm tempted to say the only Baltimore oriole that interests me is the one that flies daily from its hidden nest in the trees behind my Riviera Beach home on the shore of Stoney Creek to peck at peaches on a tree on the west side of the house.

I'm tempted to say this, but then I think of some Homo sapiens of the same name; fellow avid outdoorsmen like Brooks Robinson, one of my personal examples of first-class integrity and thoughtfulness, or Jim Busby, who played for the O's when I first arrived in the mid-'50s -- a fellow who often managed to get a little fishing in before practice at the stadium -- and was as close to the average Joe (other than on the field) as any pro athlete could be.

But these and a few other exceptions do not within me douse an antagonism for the contemporary baseball team named after the bird that enjoys my peaches. Nor am I alone in my resentment that we hereabouts are having the new home of the baseball Orioles jammed down our throats.

My feathered orioles of Stoney Creek -- I assume there are two, though I have yet to see the less colorful female -- built their own hanging pouch home of plant fibers and string in one of the shoreside trees left to help impede erosion. But as a Maryland resident and one employed in Baltimore, I am obliged to help fund a $200 million complex, which the Orioles of baseball will next year call their home.

In these tough budgetary times, is something amiss in our priorities?

I am not anti-baseball. As a Great Depression kid on a New England farm, following the Yankees and Red Sox by radio (telegraphed reports while teams were on the road) and newspapers were the highlights of summer days.

We thrilled when Johnny Vander Meer pitched his two consecutive no-hitters, when Joltin' Joe went on his hitting streak, and argued long into the night whether Lefty Gomez or Lefty Grove would be the winner when the Yankees and Sox met on a Sunday. But big money -- from player salaries and residuals (and charging kids for autographs) to owner profits -- TV's meddling, and the obvious greed of those who operate concessions offering from parking to peanuts and popcorn has turned me off.

I don't believe in baseball -- or any other sport -- at any price. Not when the Chesapeake Bay's decline continues in great part because of lack of funds, when government dips into Open Spaces funds for $12 million to help balance a teetering general budget, or when state park operations are drastically curtailed and volunteers recruited to help keep them open.

Think how $200 million could help the troubled bay, which in return would spread financial rewards much farther than the impressive facility at Camden Yards. Open Spaces is just a drop in the financial bucket -- but it represents money from a surtax property owners pay to benefit wilderness, fish and wildlife, and people who enjoy them throughout the state. As ballpark construction continues, Open Space is being plundered.

Consider our state parks, used by 7 million people annually across the state, much more than double what the O's will draw this year. Not long ago, state parks were kept open year-round; no more. Many close early in the fall, reopen late in the spring. Services and programs are curtailed, and some kept operating through lean months only because of volunteer help.

Would a curveball pitcher or slugger with the bat making millions a year (the Oriole average, I'm told, is $800,000) volunteer time to keep the ballpark open? Excuse me, if you know the answer it isn't a question.

Baseball is big business. In the midst of ballpark construction, there's talk of selling the team for way more than $100 million -- and at a profit of more millions than I can count. And there are those who tell us that we have to build them a home, or they could leave. They have the stranglehold; we play and finance their game for their profit.

Hey, the Department of Natural Resources can never come to us and say they will move Assateague State Park unless we ante up. Park users pay one-third of state park operating costs, the remainder is budgeted.

People from all walks of life, the rich, poor, young and old, use them from Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County south to Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary's County; Assateague in Worcester west to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett. They don't have luxurious sky boxes, and they don't have to pay $5.50 for a hot dog and beer.

Take that $200 million, invest it wisely and it could finance the entire state park operation year after year. Parks annual budget ranges from $18 million to $22 million for 32 facilities, which bring many millions in business to large and small operations throughout Maryland.

Do we have our priorities mixed up? You bet we do, and maybe that Baltimore oriole in my yard has no complaint that ornithologists now refer to its species as the northern oriole rather than the Baltimore oriole. It spares it some embarrassment.

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