Orioles Don't Want Fans They Want Investors

In his book, "Why Time Begins on Opening Day," Thomas Boswell wrote, "Parks may teach us as much about towns as they do about the game." If that's true, I'd rather not learn what Oriole Park at Camden Yards is teaching me about Baltimore.

The new ball park shows that Baltimore is no longer a city of the blue-collar worker but of the corporate commuter. We file in from I-95 to the Inner Harbor area, then scoot away just as fast as we can.


Maybe I fear our small-time city expanding toward big-time status as the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington merge. Like two galaxies colliding, we're following those behemoth metroplex conglomerates of Dallas-Ft. Worth or Tampa-St. Petersburg and losing our individuality in the process.

Maybe this change is inevitable, but I don't have to like it. Maybe the complaints the Orioles offices are receiving aren't truly about seat relocation, but about the relocation of the city itself and the Orioles assistance in that transition. Or maybe I'm blinded by nostalgia.


I remember one Memorial Stadium game in particular. It was my 13th birthday and as had become tradition, my father took me and a couple of my friends to an O's game. He returned form the sales window with four box-seat tickets several rows behind home plate. It was a great day, a day that even John Waters could love. My Dad bought us junk food all afternoon, some drunk threw up all over my friend's back in the concession line, Lee "the Big Bopper" May hit a three-run homer, and the O's trounced the then-lowly Toronto Blue Jays.

Oh, how things have changed.

What I loved about Memorial Stadium was its unpredictability. Just as my father's back-road routes through West Baltimore gave me glimpses of neighborhoods that would have otherwise remained anonymous, Memorial Stadium exposed me to the people who made up this city. I wondered whom would I be sitting next to in the stands -- a cigar-chomping man from Essex, a black family from Edmondson Village, some students from Hopkins?

The stadium seemed to welcome everybody. I have the feeling this won't be the case with the new ball park.

When the bill to build the new stadium passed, I resigned myself to what was left of the Memorial Stadium years. I was in denial, but there were signs that the future had already arrived. Cars from D.C. and Virginia clogged Charles Street. The honorary guest list included Messrs. Reagan, Quayle, Bush and Sununu, and Queen Elizabeth. Plaques proliferated, inscribed with company names and banded to box-seat railings like "No Trespassing" signs.

That is what seems to be wrong with the new ball park, too -- it excludes rather than includes.

My nostalgia got the best of me, and I renewed my mini-plan, hoping old memories would be revived in the new park. What I didn't realize was how cleverly the Orioles had manipulated that nostalgia to sell tickets. I was there for the tear-jerking finale. I was there for "Turn Back the Clock Day." My '66 replica cap stenciled with Diet Pepsi logos hangs in my closet, a symbol of what pro sports has become.

As the '92 season draws closer, and as the recipient of various letter campaigns from the Orioles, I finally realize what the new stadium is -- a country club. Ticket prices and seat locations are designed to benefit those with large incomes. The Orioles don't want fans; they want investors.


The '91 sales slogan was: "The Orioles are about to offer you a one-year contract with a multi-year option." The contractual lingo told us that going to the park in '91 wasn't about watching baseball, it was about locking in '92 dividends in the form of preferential seating at the new stadium.

Last month I received a letter inviting me to be one of 750 members of the "Camden Club," a "Stadium club" housed on the renovated floors of the B&O; warehouse serving that old-time baseball favorite, nouvelle cuisine. All this could be mine for the initial membership fee (non-refundable) of $1,000, plus monthly membership dues of $45 a month, plus a minimum monthly food and beverage charge of $35 a month. Michael Gee wrote in the Boston Herald last year, "Baseball is a disposable consumer experience. That's why it's enjoyable." Maybe so, but there is a select group with more to dispose of than others.

The message was loud and clear. I was invited to a party, but I couldn't afford the tuxedo rental. The new stadium caters to a financially established fan. In an era of trickle-down economics, the only ones trickling into the choice seats are the corporations and businesses.

Maybe I am being nostalgic. Perhaps the myth of baseball as the common man's game, suggested by Steven Riess in "Touching Base," disappeared when stadiums metamorphosed from wooden bleachers into architectural designs in concrete and steel. Baseball is no longer, if it ever was, a game for the middle-class and blue-collar American. Boxes are either penthouses or leased pieces of real estate with prices to match the down payment on a house. They become conference rooms to seal deals and to schmooze with company elite.

It's been said that where you are is who you are. Then the location of the stadium is a sign of whom the team really belongs to. Its convenience for northbound I-95 travelers makes it possible for them to avoid the city. Although the new stadium is close to the harbor front, it's hard to call this the heart of the city.

Most revealing is the view the fans will have. It's no coincidence the stadium doesn't face the row-house neighborhoods of West Baltimore. Instead it opens to a newly sandblasted railroad warehouse, as quaint as an antique shop, and a skyline of corporate skyscrapers. The view will rank with the Citgo sign flashing above the Green Monster of Fenway in Boston.


That's what's going to be disturbing about the new ball park. I'll think about how good it is to watch baseball again. The "classic" design will make me feel nostalgic. I feel lucky that things haven't changed that much, that we still have a team.

But as Cal Ripken Jr. lifts one over the center field fence, I'll follow the ball's trajectory through the sky, and I'll catch sight of those buildings, and the spell will be broken, like a visitor at Busch Gardens realizing he isn't in Europe after all. And as that ball seems to head toward those buildings, I'll remember not only where all baseball is heading, but this city as well, and wonder where I'll be watching it from next year -- from the box seats, or a chair in my own living room.

Barney Kirby teaches in the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.