The most important thing you need to know about All-Star FanFest is that it's a cool place for kids.
Cool as in neat. Cool as in air-conditioned, which is an important consideration during a sizzling All-Star Week at Camden Yards. Cool as in lots of great stuff about baseball history and technology -- more than 300,000 square feet of attractions and exhibits at the Baltimore Convention Center and Festival Hall.
The FanFest concept is not brand-new. It is a combination carnival and convention that has been part of the All-Star Week festivities for the past couple of years. But it is very new to Baltimore, which last was host to the All-Star Game when it was just a one-day affair.
The midsummer classic has been transformed into a weeklong expression of civic pride, and it kicked off yesterday with an opening ceremony in the lobby of the Convention Center. There were speeches by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Orioles president Larry Lucchino as well as musical entertainment and a well-orchestrated announcement of the All-Star pitchers and reserves, but there was plenty more for the thousands of season-ticket holders who got the first look at what Major League Baseball bills as a "once-in-a-lifetime baseball theme park."
That might be a bit of an overstatement. FanFest is an impressive array of baseball-related displays and activities presented in a stadium motif, but there is as much conventioneering and promotion as entertainment. Maybe more.
No one seemed to mind. There were only so many tickets available for the All- Star Game, but FanFest -- which opens to the public today -- provides an opportunity to be a part of the All-Star festivities for a fraction of the price of a ticket to the game. Sure, there was a lot of crass commercialism, but there was a little something for everyone.
Want to hit against Jim Palmer? Step into the video batting cage and take a few swings against a Hall of Fame pitcher. Rather face Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina? You can choose among a number of past and present pitchers when you step up to the plate.
The kids also can try their luck pitching at a computerized strike zone that measures the velocity of each pitch and awards points for accuracy.
That was fun (though my fastball topped out at 46 mph), and it was included in the price of admission. In addition, there were carnival-style booths at a nominal cost that provided the opportunity to win baseball souvenirs.
Looking for autographs? More than 100 former major-league players will be available for free autographs during the five days of FanFest, including dozens of old-time Orioles.
Interested in baseball history? This might be the closest a lot of fans get to Cooperstown, because FanFest features the largest memorabilia exhibit ever on loan from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Hall of Fame exhibit features a collection of old uniforms and equipment as well as representations of some of the greatest moments in the history of the game. There's even a giant picture of Pete Rose delivering his record-breaking 4,192nd base hit. Rose may be ineligible for admission to the Hall, but everyone is welcome at FanFest.
The ticket price -- $12 for adults and $8 for children -- includes admission and access to all attractions, but there is plenty for sale once you get inside. It is a veritable swap meet of baseball trinkets, clothing and memorabilia. It is also the staging area for the baseball card wars.
The Upper Deck Co. paid a large sum to sponsor the event, but all of the other major baseball card manufacturers are represented on the convention floor.
"I don't think it is a competitive thing," said Bob Ibach of Lesnik Public Relations, which represents the Topps Co. "I think the way we look at it is that we have new products and this is a great opportunity to unveil a new product line."
There are plenty of other products along the miles of aisles at the Convention Center and Festival Hall. The Balfour Co., which may be better known for class rings than baseball-related jewelry, staked out a prime spot near the mock baseball diamond to hawk replica All-Star rings. Long-distance company MCI, in a real stretch of the baseball imagination, rented a large room and called it the MCI Call of Fame, where salesmen pushed the company's telephone service.
Twelve bucks to get into the place, and a telephone sales pitch? This obviously isn't a perfect world.
But there also are interesting exhibits that show how baseball equipment is made. Inside the Rawlings Traveling Workshop, for instance, fans can witness each step in the making of a fielding glove, or watch a craftsman turn a piece of raw ash into a baseball bat.
That, more than the carnival booths or caramel corn, may be what makes FanFest more than an upscale flea market, especially for the youngsters. They probably didn't come for an education, but they couldn't help but leave with a better feel for the history of the sport and the technology that helps keep it fresh. For many, that may have been worth the price of admission.
TODAY 9 a.m.-10 p.m. -- Upper Deck All-Star FanFest, opening day, Convention Center and Festival Hall.
9 a.m.-10 p.m. -- Upper Deck All-Star FanFest continues.
p.m. -- Stars of Early Black Baseball Tribute (sponsored by
For information on All-Star Week events, call (410) 685-9800.