JUST LIKE OLD TIMES Fond memories, habits return with NFL game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some will be out on their lawns and porches, soaking up the crowds. Others are thinking of renting out their driveways, earning a couple of extra bucks. A few have tickets, and are planning to stroll over and catch the excitement in person.

Just about everyone will be more careful about plotting their comings and goings, trying to avoid the traffic and preserve their on-street parking spaces.

It'll be like old times for the neighbors of Memorial Stadium tonight when the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins play a sold-out exhibition game as part of the state's campaign to bring professional football back to Baltimore.

With the Orioles move this year to the downtown Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the game will be the first major event at the venerable stadium in Northeast Baltimore since last November's Maryland-Penn State college football contest.

In Ednor Gardens, Lakeside and Waverly, an area of middle-class row and single family houses, tonight's game interrupts a baseball season of silence that residents have only recently begun getting used to. Almost universally, they welcome the return of the action to the field and on their streets.

"I think it's great," says Caroline Truitt, 69, who has lived with her husband, Vernon, for 26 years three houses from the stadium on 33rd Street. She is looking forward to a return of the festive air created by the crowds. "The football people get a little more rowdy than the baseball people, but people going to the stadium never bothered us," says Mrs. Truitt. "I always liked watching them going to the games," she says.

"I think it's good, particularly if it helps us get back to the NFL," echoes Vernon Truitt, 72. A former Colts season ticket-holder, Mr. Truitt would "wait until 10 minutes to 2 and meander over" to Memorial Stadium for the kickoff, then return home and marvel at how quickly the throngs would clear out. "A half-hour after the game, it was quiet," he says.

But the sense of nostalgia over the return of a major sports event to Memorial Stadium is for many tempered by a feeling of concern about the future of the facility.

The status of the stadium is this: Both a task force and a private consultant have recommended that the stadium eventually be torn down and replaced by a mix of homes and offices in a park-like setting. But if the National Football League awards Baltimore one of two expansion franchises this fall, the new team would use Memorial Stadium while a new football stadium is built downtown.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last spring that he'd go ahead with plans to redevelop the site even if the NFL delayed its decision on expansion. But the Maryland Stadium Authority has said its offer to help pay for the estimated $5 million demolition of the stadium is contingent upon the structure remaining until the authority has no potential use for it. Even if the NFL rejects Baltimore's bid for a football team, there are those who feel the authority might pressure the city to keep Memorial Stadium up while it attempts to lure one of several reportedly unhappy franchises from another city.

Compounding the confusion is the situation of Eastern High School, which sits across 33rd Street from Memorial Stadium. The same consultant who recommended the demolition of the stadium a year ago also suggested Eastern be torn down, but Johns Hopkins University has since expressed interest in possibly taking over Eastern for use as a social science research park.

"The worst thing for the neighborhood is the uncertainty involved," says City Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, D-3rd, whose district includes the neighborhoods around the stadium. In the spring, the city will begin a major landscaping effort around the perimeter of the stadium, he says, to serve as a "visible statement" that residents "are not forgotten and to establish a buffer zone between the neighborhoods and future development."

Indeed, in some ways tonight's exhibition game serves as an exclamatory reminder that on most nights the stadium is empty.

"Although I'm not a football fan, it's good to see the stadium get somekind of use," says Sharon Morris, 36, a corporate librarian who lives in the first block of 33rd Street, east of the stadium. "I don't want to see it vacant."

Ms. Morris and her attorney husband, John, who have lived there 11 years, retained their Orioles season ticket package, but she says going to Camden Yards is not the same as going to Memorial Stadium.

"It's not that far," she says of the new stadium, "but it still doesn't match being able to leave two minutes before the game, walk up the alley and just be there."

That alley is where the family of her neighbor, Helen Minter, used to let fans park in their parking pad for a couple of bucks a pop, a seldom enforced misdemeanor. "One year, one of my boys made $1,000," says Mrs. Minter, 58, who has lived on 33rd Street for 23 years. She may try to pick up a few extra dollars herself tonight, but she won't say for sure. "The police may be watching me," she says.

But for Mrs. Minter, the appeal of Memorial Stadium was sentimental as well as financial. "I used to sit out every night and look at traffic," she says.

The absence of the crowds and traffic have taken some getting used to. "It was a little strange at first, but most people like it now," says K.C. Docie, head of the Waverly Improvement Association. "I do enjoy going home and having a parking space and not running my life around the games."

Mike Copeland, 36, who has lived on Venable Avenue for two years, is one who is happy to be working tonight and missing the commotion. He goes so far as to say, "I'm glad they built a new stadium."

But many more echo the feelings of Catherine Miller, whose 46-year residence on Lakeside Avenue across from the stadium predates its opening by eight years.

"The game's all right with me, it doesn't interfere with me," she says. "If my windows are closed, I won't even hear it."

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