With the return of professional football to Memorial Stadium -- if just for a night -- only a day away, it is a good time to ask the key question: What is pro football worth to Baltimore?
You can count tax revenues, for starters. The Maryland Stadium Authority estimates that pro football downtown would generate $16 million in taxes a year -- against a new stadium that would cost $130 million-plus to build through instant lottery proceeds. (The authority also figured that the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards would generate $12 million a year by drawing 2.5 million fans, a gross underestimate since that attendance total has already been passed.)
More difficult, but doable, would be to survey the many businesses, hotels, restaurants, taverns and parking garages that serve the waves of baseball fans washing into rather than out of Baltimore on summer nights.
Still more abstract is the effect two pro sports franchises could have on helping attract large corporations here. To the extent that big-league teams define major league markets, Baltimore and St. Louis are the largest cities with only one team.
Most undefinable of all, though, is the effect of replacing the Colts on the spirit of Baltimore. Many people find the modern fixation on sports pathetic, yet there is little else that so binds us, that truly blurs racial and economic lines.
Some people will argue this is so much nonsense, that a city with war-zone neighborhoods and barren school libraries or a state chest-high in red ink can't afford this debt for a dalliance, these funds for fun and games.
The Rev. Joe Ehrmann has a unique viewpoint. He played on the Baltimore Colts defensive line in the '70s and now runs a ministry for the poor in East Baltimore. His is a neighborhood where merchants hurriedly roll down steel curtains at 5 p.m. and the stoops teem with teen moms and their toddlers past midnight. For all the poverty around him, he sees goodness in a city institution that leads white kids playing on cul-de-sacs to emulate a black outfielder, or for black children to idolize a white shortstop. He feels value in an attraction that causes suburban residents to see the city and its needs, in something powerful enough to inflate a region's self-esteem.
It would be foolish to state that football on Sundays is the salve for a city. The opening of Oriole Park and effusive stories in national publications haven't altered the bleak local headlines about city killings. And it can be embarrassing how the question of whether a star player deserves $30 million or more can dominate our dialogue.
Still, few institutions have succeeded in making us feel we're in this together. To the extent that a football team can, it is well worth the effort.