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At Oriole Park, a very good year Success of ballpark meets all expectations during inaugural season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fans filled the ballpark game after game, racking up 5 straight sellouts and a stunning season's attendance of 3,567,819.

Downtown bustled with activity as visitors to the ballpark detoured past the Inner Harbor on the way to their extra-roomy, Camden green seats.

Even the Orioles did their part, staying in the divisional race about six months longer than even the most optimistic rooter might have predicted.

Was it a good year for baseball in Baltimore?

Maybe the best.

On the season's final day, it's time to take a look back at the inaugural year at Camden Yards, analyzing every ticket stub, parking space and Italian sausage.

Food

ARA Leisure Services, the ballpark caterers, kept close track of what people were eating this year at Camden Yards. Their conclusion: Everything.

"It was a terrific year," said ARA general manager Jay Boyle. "It exceeded our expectations, and ours were pretty high."

What food items were the biggest sellers in the ballpark's first year? As ARA officials recover from the culinary onslaught, they are putting together a partial list of what they sold. So far, they say that ballpark patrons consumed, among other things, 250,000 bags of peanuts, 400,000 pretzels, 500,000 orders of french fries and 1.5 million hot dogs.

To wash down this mountain of food, fans at Camden Yards also ordered 2.5 million sodas, cooled by 5 million pounds of ice chips.

Not surprisingly, Opening Day was the best day of the season for ARA -- sales were about three times higher than the company's most lucrative Opening Day at Memorial Stadium. That day, fans who streamed into the ballpark spent more than $20 per person on everything from leisure wear featuring the "Baltimore Baseball" logo to limited edition Opening Day pennants.

As the season wore on, that number slipped. (ARA does not reveal its exact sales figures). But some stands remained extremely popular, exceeding even what company officials had expected.

Tops on that list was Boog's, the barbecue beef and pork palace where, for the price of a sandwich, you could pose for a photograph with a Baltimore baseball luminary -- the famous first baseman turned entrepreneur.

ARA expected the stand would draw steady, if unspectacular, business to a large tent stationed on Eutaw Street, beyond the right-field flag court. Instead, fans often waited up to 20 minutes for their barbecue sandwiches, the line sometimes weaving back to Gate H, the ballpark's Camden Street entrance.

"Boog's has been a phenomenon," said Boyle, who noted that the sandwich stand took in more dollars than any other single location, including Pastimes, the ballpark's indoor, much larger cafeteria.

Standing in front of his stand one night during the last week of home games, Boog Powell, looking more like a customer than the proprietor, tried to figure out the success of his business. He quickly turned the questions on the customers.

"Are you people here for my autograph or for the food?" Powell shouted to the throng.

Playfully, a customer yelled back, "You can get lost. We're all here to eat."

"I like that," said Powell, who expects to be back at the ballpark with his sandwiches next season. "That means when I'm not here, you'll be here. . . . I can count on you."

Rent

Last week, the Maryland Stadium Authority approved its budget for next season and also offered its best guess of what the Orioles will pay in rent for 1992. Measured against anything but Cal Ripken Jr.'s new contract, the number is huge: $4.65 million.

That wouldn't be the top rent ever paid by the Orioles -- the team paid a record $5.2 million in 1989 at Memorial Stadium, due mostly to accounting issues related to the sale of the team that year. But this year's number could creep considerably higher, according to stadium authority executive director Bruce Hoffman, who said the state's rent predictions are "very conservative."

The rent won't be paid until next year, when the Orioles and the authority get together to crunch the numbers generated by the stadium's remarkably successful inaugural season. And when they do start figuring, they'll be using a formula detailed in the revised, 30-year lease signed by the parties last month.

Under those terms, the state gets a percentage of the money the Orioles earn from tickets, concessions, parking, stadium advertisements and luxury suites.

Rent from the Orioles is the biggest source of dollars for the stadium authority, but it isn't the only one. The authority also expects to collect roughly $2.5 million from the admission tax tacked onto the price of each game ticket.

Seats

Even before the gates opened, there was a lot to like about Camden Yards' new seats.

They were wider -- by as much as two inches -- than those at Memorial Stadium. Up to eight inches had been added between rows. Even the upper deck had been flattened to increase the comfort level for fans susceptible to vertigo.

For the most part, it worked.

"We love our seats," said lawyer Mark Snyder, whose four lower boxes are between home plate and the Orioles' dugout.

There isn't much to dislike in the lower sections, where fans probably are closer to the on-deck circles than to the nearest frozen yogurt stand. From these seats, the views of the ballpark are unfettered and, at times, gorgeous.

But not all fans were happy customers. Irene Meister of Baltimore spent her season with friends and family members in seats deep in the ballpark's left-field elbow.

Sitting there during the season's final homestand, Meister said the seats were "lousy."

"The reason is simple: We can't see the game," she said.

Left field has been the most publicized ballpark flash point, but there were others. As many as a few dozen aisle seats in the ballpark are so close to guard railing that fans cannot file past unless the person seated in them stands or swings his legs out of traffic. During a nine-inning game, fans with those seats moved up to 45 times to let fans pass.

"My right knee is getting stronger," said Doug Stonebarger of Laurel, who accepted his predicament with a sense of humor.

Last month, the Orioles announced they had sliced ticket prices for the left-field seats and others with obstructed views by between $1 and $4 starting next year. The team also has said it will offer to move fans to better seats. Otherwise, neither the team nor the stadium authority has talked of plans to address the seating complaints.

Traffic

Cars were supposed to be stuck in stadium lots for hours. The backups were supposed to stretch to the Beltway and beyond. The predictions were the grimmest imaginable for anyone crazy enough to consider driving to Camden Yards.

Then the stadium opened. And nothing happened. With few exceptions, traffic and fans moved remarkably smoothly around the new ballpark.

"The predictions that gridlock would destroy all the good things that have happened, that it would turn downtown into a traffic jungle, simply never developed," said stadium authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad.

One reason was an aggressive advertising campaign that armed fans with all types of information about traveling to the ballpark, from locations of parking lots to advice about the best route to Camden Yards.

Another reason: Enough fans embraced mass transit.

About 19 percent of fans came to the games by a means other than their automobiles, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Transportation. Of that number, 16 percent used mass transit while 3 percent were part of groups that came by chartered bus.

The figures are within the range that officials said they'd hoped to reach during the first season.

"We're generally pleased with [the] way things have gone," said David Chapin, a DOT official who worked on the ballpark project. "There was an initial perception that the ballpark would be a difficult place to drive to and that parking would be inadequate. We think we've dispelled that."

Light rail was the most popular mass-transit option for fans headed to the ballpark. Roughly 3,000 people per night rode the new rail system, twice as many as those who arrived by Metro or by the network of express buses.

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