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Baseball sellouts are ticket to NFL


Ready to play a little game? It goes this way: First, you fast-forward approximately two years. (Come on, you've time-traveled before, haven't you? It's fun. And I give frequent-flyer miles.)

It's a Sunday in late August 1994. The Orioles are in the pennant race, and a few days later, there's going to be this big preseason football game. Yes, Baltimore got the ball. We've got our very own NFL expansion team (Crabbers? Claws? Ponies?), and you're excited. I know I'm excited.

A pennant race and a genuine hometown football game. Makes your little ol' sports-junkie heart just start to beating.

Now, come back to today -- and to reality (I was just kidding about the frequent-flyer miles).

We've got a pennant race and an upcoming, sold-out preseason football game, and you're only half-excited. I know I am.

The pennant race is terrific. The pennant race is about as improbable as last night's 40th consecutive sellout at Camden Yards. The Orioles won 67 games all last season, and they had 68 wins after Friday. How is this possible? Cal Ripken is having the worst year of his career. Gregg Olson is struggling. Randy Milligan is struggling. The Orioles had to bring up a minor-league pitcher to start last night. And yet. And yet.

The Orioles are in a pennant race, and you've got a better chance of copping a seat at the Springsteen concert than you do to see a Tuesday night Orioles-Angels game.

It took only 58 games to set an all-time Orioles attendance record. I know we all feel happy for Eli Jacobs.

Of course, not everything is perfect.

You can say the crowds are too yuppied-up, too-D.C., too rich, too sky-boxed.

You can say the people would rather spend three innings in line at Boog's Barbecue than actually watch the game.

You can say that real fans (i.e., people very much like you and me) get shut out of games.

You can say, when you've got 45,000 at every game, that you have to expect at least half of them think every pop-up is a home run.

And you'd be right each time. But what you can't honestly say, unless you've got one of those neck-brace seats, is that a full house every night isn't about the best way you could ever watch a baseball game.

But we were talking football, weren't we?

Actually we weren't.

There's a sold-out preseason game Thursday night at the not-yet-torn-down Memorial Stadium, and nobody cares.

Yes, the game sold out in about eight minutes, but this is phony-baloney enthusiasm -- enthusiasm in the face of a barrel ++ of a gun.

We all know it's blackmail.

We all bought our tickets anyway.

Some of us will even go to the game. It's sort of like your civic duty, if you want to get pro football back.

But, really, it's the Dolphins and the Saints and the game doesn't count, and how excited are you going to get? Don Shula is coming back, and that's nice, I guess. And the coach of the Saints, Jim Mora, did run a USFL team with the name "Baltimore," although it never actually played in Baltimore, so it's not exactly a homecoming. But that doesn't matter, does it? They'll play the game, and we'll pretend we enjoyed it.

But is anyone talking about it? I've heard more talk about Phil Gramm's keynote speech.

Check out the talk shows. (For the record: How baseball-crazy does a town have to be when moving a player two spots in the lineup -- even if it's Cal Ripken -- takes up half a sports section and 56 of every 60 minutes of radio air time?) On the talk shows, you'll hear more about Brady Anderson's hair care than you will about any football game.

That's OK. In fact, it's better than OK. The truth is that any hayseed town can sell out a preseason football game. Most towns have. It's a drill, like going to the dentist. This doesn't really impress anyone.

What has to impress everyone, though, is a string of baseball sellouts that will, by Thursday, reach 44.

The Orioles are going to sell out more than 60 games this season, which should suggest pretty strongly to anyone interested that it won't be much problem selling out eight games in a new downtown football stadium hard by the new baseball stadium.

What's clear is that Baltimore couldn't have picked a better time to open Camden Yards or to go completely baseball nuts.

If the NFL actually does expand -- that remains the big question -- and if Baltimore actually gets one of the two teams, it will be games like the one today between the Orioles and the Athletics that matter much more than the football game Thursday.

That's something to be excited about.

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