As the Orioles' home opener approaches, the Big Question looms.
Forget about the team's starting pitchers. Debate first baseman Glenn Davis on your own time.
With just seven weeks left before the Birds' first game at the new Camden Yards stadium, the question that dwarfs all others is this: Can you get there from here?
The answer: Yes, but you need a game plan.
Baseball fans don't realize it, but over 38 years of traveling by bus and car uptown to Memorial Stadium, they honed specialized migratory skills.
Bird-backers learned to navigate the back streets, find the hidden parking spaces and elude the post-game flocks.
On April 6, all that changes. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, while arguably the best stadium that $105.4 million of lottery money can buy, presents a whole new commuting challenge. Memorial Stadium veterans suddenly will be rookies.
To avert gridlock, or at least mitigate it, transportation officials have worked with the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Orioles and business and community groups to craft a "Kitchen Sink" solution that combines every kind of transit short of passage on the Queen Elizabeth II.
"The approach is we'll throw every trick in the bag at people for the first month or two and we'll see what makes it and what doesn't," said Mass Transit Administrator Ronald J. Hartman. "People really don't know what will happen, and we may have to cut back if some don't work. But you can't say we won't try everything."
Those tricks range from a network of Park-and-Ride express bus stops in the suburbs to standardized flags and sandwich signs in front of parking garages that alert motorists to available spaces.
Some improvements are high-tech. Variable message signs along Interstate 95 will tell motorists conditions around the stadium, as will short-range traffic radio stations that transmit at 530 on the AM dial.
One week from tomorrow, the stadium authority will kick off a campaign to encourage fans to pick the best route to the ballpark. Developed by the Baltimore firm of Trahan, Burden & Charles Public Relations, the $400,000 campaign will be modeled, in part, after a successful effort to steer commuters away from the Jones Falls Expressway during reconstruction four years ago.
The campaign's central message: plan ahead or perish.
Don't expect to breeze in on Interstate 95 and park next door. The Orioles are likely to attract close to 3 million fans this season. If every one of them takes the highway, the traffic jam will be the stuff of legends.
What's your best bet? Before deciding, consider the following checklist:
* Take mass transit.
Planners claim the stadium will be better served by mass transit than any ballpark in the nation.
The Metro from Owings Mills has 8,000 free parking spaces along the line. A single train can carry as many as 1,000 fans the full distance in less than 30 minutes. Downtown stops at Charles Center and Lexington Market are a 10- to 15-minute walk from Camden Yards and shuttle buses will be available on game days.
The Central Light Rail Line from Timonium to Camden Yards will be open for game-day service only until the 13-mile system opens full-time in May.
The light-rail station at Camden Yards is closer to the right field foul pole than home plate is. The cost will be the same as a bus, but the big drawback is parking along the light- rail route. The best bet is the Timonium stop where Mass Transit Administration officials are negotiating for added space at the fairgrounds.
MTA bus service on game days will be augmented with 13 Park and Ride lots, including four "Super" Park and Rides. Riders will be transported directly to the stadium, where they will board the same bus after the game to return to the lot. The Super lots will feature continuous bus service so that fans can arrive a little earlier or stay a little later. Special shuttle buses also will run north-south on Paca and Eutaw streets and east-west on Pratt and Lombard streets downtown on game days.
More than 20 regular bus lines come within four blocks of the ballpark. Service on six downtown lines -- 15, 23, 20, 2, 5 and 36 -- will be steered closer to the stadium for fans' convenience.
The new stadium also will be served from the south by the Maryland Rail Commuter system, with a station along the light-rail stop at Camden Yards.
Most trips will cost $5 each way and MARC will provide shuttle buses from Penn Station.
MARC could be an ideal way to travel to the games for Washingtonians who can pick up a train directly to Camden Yards from the Brunswick line stops, Rockville and Silver Spring, for instance, or from Union Station downtown on the Camden line.
But getting fans to leave their cars behind may require some salesmanship. An estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of Memorial Stadium fans arrived for Orioles' games by car.
Officials hope at least 15 percent to 30 percent of the people headed to Camden Yards will choose mass transit.
* Plan your route.
Those fans determined to travel by automobile should spend time at the chalkboard. Interstate 95 may be your usual path downtown, but you'd better try an alternate route.
On Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, when northeast corridor traffic is on the move, things could get ugly.
On the west side of town, U.S. 40 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard are a good bet. The JFX to Maryland Avenue or St. Paul Street exits makes sense for travelers from the north. Eastern Avenue or Pulaski Highway are attractive options from the east.
Transportation planners expect people to be creative about this. Try a dry run before Opening Day.
Keep in mind that streets won't be redirected for traffic and 50 to 60 uniformed people will be stationed in major intersections to keep things moving.
* Park at a distance.
You probably won't have a choice. Except for season ticket-holders and others who own a permit space in the stadium lot, parking in a downtown garage looks like the best option.
Like most things in life, the rich guys get all the breaks, and that includes the best 2,000 of the 5,000 parking spaces at the stadium.
But bear this in mind: the stadium lot will be the scene of the worst traffic congestion after the games.
The Orioles are expected to charge $5 for parking. So are most of the parking vendors in the immediate vicinity.
The City Council has made it easier for communities around the stadium to require permit parking and violators could face stiff fines.
Still, there is some fear in neighborhoods adjacent to Camden Yards that they are about to be overrun.
"People are very skeptical at this point," said Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th. "It's going to take a while to work out the kinks no matter what."
Believe it or not, the number of parking spaces is not the problem. Matching cars with empty spaces is the trick. More than 30,000 off-street parking spaces are available within a mile of the ballpark and most are not filled by 6 p.m. Planners expect to deal with as many as 14,000 cars each game.
So what's the best solution to match cars with spaces?
"If the General Assembly passed a law that said if you lived south of Pratt Street, you can't park north of Pratt Street and vice versa, we'd have no problems," said Robert T. Schaffner, chief of parking management for the city Transportation Department.
* Arrive early and stay late.
One of the greatest advantages to a downtown stadium is its proximity to the Inner Harbor. Why not take advantage of it? It may look like a long walk on paper, but the stadium is convenient to the Maryland Science Center, Harborplace, restaurants and other tourist attractions. Staggering departure and arrival times will make the trip more pleasant.
Transportation planners are certain that people eventually will catch on. The Orioles estimate they have 600,000 regular customers, and once the hard-core learn how to do it, the congestion will ease considerably. Until then, just how bad it will get April 6 is anybody's guess.
"I'm not saying this is going to be a breeze -- no one is saying this will be easy the first couple of months," said David W. Chapin, a state transportation official who is coordinating transportation plans with the stadium authority. "Some people will find this easier [than Memorial Stadium]. Some people are going to say we screwed up."