Bars around Camden Yards are enjoying a bonanza when the O's are in town

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every night the Birds are roosting at Oriole Park is a winner for bars and nightclubs around the stadium. In fact, just about the only place you can't buy a beer is in the stretch of outfield where Babe Ruth's father once ran a tavern.

Probably the best gauge of how thirsty fans get is to stand on the stubby block of Washington Boulevard directly across from Camden Yards as a game lets out and then brace yourself as many of those 45,000 fans head toward you. Anyway, that's the vantage point for the barkeeps at Pickles Pub (520 Washington Blvd., 752-1784) and Sliders Bar & Grill (504-506 Washington Blvd., 547-8891), which are about as close as you can get to the stadium without a ticket.

"The increase in business has been threefold on game days," says Pickles' owner Vince Poist. Obviously, fans come before and after games, but they also come during games. He explains: "There have been so many sold-out games that people who weren't able to buy tickets outside before the game come over to hear the crowd and share in the excitement."

Since opening four years ago, Pickles has been relished by a collegiate crowd that is sporting even without baseball. Truth be told, the real sporting activity here is trying to squeeze through the wall-to-wall people swaying to the loud recorded rock. I can attest to the fact that the decor relies on old Baltimore photos, not sporting memorabilia, because my face was pressed up against a turn-of-the-century harbor view. The menu here -- nachos, wings, burgers, pizza, sandwiches -- is typical of the stadium-oriented bars.

On the same short block, Sliders' co-owner Mike Taylor concurs that "every game we're pretty much filled to capacity." He's noticed, though, that when games run late or the O's lose, fans tend to head home without a nightcap. More overtly sporting, Sliders has a mural of a sliding Oriole, photos of Babe Ruth and modern-day O's, and major league team ball caps topping the knotty pine bar retained from the days when this was a blue-collar bar in a warehouse district.

Both snug Pickles and even snugger Sliders are considering opening their second floors; they may also seek city permits for ++ sidewalk usage to accommodate all the thirsty fans.

For intense sidewalk action, it's just a short walk over to the side-by-side Wharf Rat Camden Yards (206 W. Pratt St., 244-8900) and Balls (200 W. Pratt St., 659-5844), which both do mucho business inside and out on game days.

The big news is that the Wharf Rat Camden Yards -- with its double-decker name so awkwardly evocative of Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- is a new operation taking the place of the 12-year-old restaurant fixture P.J. Cricketts. Bought out by Fells Point's atmospheric-as-fog Wharf Rat Bar, you can expect lots of changes at the former Cricketts: nautical decor, a brew pub with up to 27 beers on tap, a seafood menu. Already, on game days you can hear live music outside by the likes of Mama Jama and Rhumba Club. Says Wharf Rat co-owner Jane Oliver of her offshoot operation and its next door neighbor: "Balls has beer drinkers before a game and we go for dinner trade from people who are not into stadium food."

The 5-year-old Balls does indeed sell a lot of beer. The sidewalk holding-pen for fans does a brisk business with pit beef and beer in plastic mugs. The 30 TV screens spread around the three-level interior also aren't hurting for patrons, and the bands playing inside can expect applause. Of the upsurge in baseball traffic, general manager Jim Kolmansberger notes: "We went from being an all-around sports bar to being an Orioles bar. We're only putting Orioles memorabilia up now."

Also cashing in on the scene is the year-old Bleachers Bar & Cafe (10 S. Eutaw St., 539-1733). The sporting mania here encompasses a large mural of old-time ballplayers standing in a cornfield of dreams (though one figure looks suspiciously like a former employee), a live radio call-in show Tuesday nights with Stan "The Fan" Charles and O's great Boog Powell, a couple of pool tables and a batting order-style menu featuring a "Homer Dog." This crowd is a bit older and more restrained than at the hormonal Pickles or Balls.

The Camden Pub (647 W. Pratt St., 547-1280) will be familiar to many as a reincarnation of the Campus Inn, where generations of University of Maryland at Baltimore students and staff discussed X-rays over a beer. Though run by the same ownership, the pub felt it was the right time to trade in its cap and gown for a baseball mitt. Now the place is filled with O's pix and pennants, balls, jackets and other stuff. The building's once-boarded-up front windows have been opened up -- hurrah! -- and the freshly painted exterior is handsomely illuminated at night. Best of all, there are plenty of tables inside this light-fare pub, making it a relaxing alternative to most stadium bars.

On the local hotel front, an even more dramatic make-over has taken place at the Sheraton Inner Harbor (300 S. Charles St., 962-8300), which has gone from disco to baseball diamond with the recent transformation of Impulse into The Orioles Bar. There's even a baseball diamond painted on the dance floor, and TV screens that once featured Donna Summer now star the boys of summer. Some of those real life players hang out here, as witness the bar entrance sign: "Please don't ask baseball players for autographs." The baseball decor is hot and heavy, and the wait staff wears O's jerseys.

Also making itself over -- from the disco Illusions to the nostalgia dance club Bumpers -- is the nightclub at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor (Pratt and Eutaw streets, 962-0202). Now it's all pink-and-blue neon, vintage car photos, a dancing staff and James Brown shouting about how good he feels. Baseball players have also been spotted here, which isn't surprising considering visiting teams stay at the Marriott. Realizing that most fans have yet to discover this club hidden inside the monolithic Marriott, the costumed staff has been known to stand out on the street twirling around in Hula-Hoops. Once lured inside, you'll find such specials as a pre-game free bag of peanuts with the first drink. The light-fare menu listing for "Potatoe [sic] Skins" makes you wonder if Dan Quayle has been in the kitchen.

Other hotels in the area have well-upholstered lounges awaiting you, and Harborplace and the Water Street/Calvert Street zone aren't exactly slouches when it comes to wining and dining options.

The largest sports bar downtown, Baltimore's Original Sports Bar (34 Market Place, 244-0135), sees its business go up 30 to 40 percent on game nights, according to general manager Dennis Wildberger.

And for rockers, there's nothing that beats Hammerjacks (1101 S. Howard St., 752-3302), which often opens a bit earlier than its usual 8 p.m. to accommodate those who park there and make the hop, skip and a jump to the ballpark.

The story over in Federal Hill is that stadium-generated business is generally good, but unpredictable. Some of the local restaurants and bars run a shuttle bus to the stadium on game days for a reasonable $2 round-trip charge; and bar and restaurant patrons often get the bus tickets for free.

Among the more popular venues in Federal Hill are the Retro/New Age bar Turner's (12 E. Cross St., 685-8464), the raw bar at Nick's Inner Harbour Seafood (Cross Street Market, 685-2020), the Cajun food and brew pub at Sisson's (36 E. Cross St., 539-2093), the 75 beers and 35 tequilas to choose from at Tio Loco's Cantina (1061 S. Charles St., 752-2258), the Mexican food at No Way Jose Cafe (1041-43 Marshall St., 752-2837), and the well-established eateries Bandaloops (1024 S. Charles St., 727-1355) and Regi's (1002 Light St., 539-REGI).

Of the erratic stadium trade so far, Sisson's g.m. Jack Callanan says: "If the Orioles win, people want to get out and hit the bars and make noise, but on a losing night they go home." And the co-owner of Bandaloops, B.J. Foust, adds: "We haven't seen as many people from D.C. and out of town as we'd expected."

But there is at least some sporting fever to be found in Federal Hill, perhaps nowhere more than at America's Pastime (1032 Light St., 539-7345), a sports center that opened this past spring inside the shell of the former McHenry Theater. Batting cages now occupy much of the theater.

"It's gone way over our expectations," says America's Pastime co-owner Jay Estabrook. "A lot of dads and their sons come to hit a few balls before they go over to the stadium."

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