FanFest is big hit for baseball fans of any generation


At first glance, it resembles a huge trade show. Displays, tables of merchandise, placards and friendly volunteers caring for the multitudes of visitors.

The mood is one of exhilaration and of letting the good times roll. Call it a Family Fun Convention devoted exclusively to baseball.

The idea was to turn the Convention Center and Festival Hall into a giant baseball theme park, to manufacture an "event" out of the days and nights leading up to the All-Star Game. An extravaganza. If there's fault to be found, it's the simulation of creating a ballpark effect inside the buildings didn't quite come off.

There's something for everyone if you're a baseball fan, regardless of age or how involved you might be with the present or past and if you don't know Rabbit Maranville from Bunny Griffith or even Yogi Berra from Yogi Cihocki.

For the first time since old Oriole Park, the one that burned Baltimore out of the minor leagues and set the stage for its re-entry to the majors, we looked through a knothole.

Not a real one but close enough to make you believe it was. It took a man back to a moment in time when he was a young boy and enthralled by such International League heroes as Eddie Mayo and Les Powers.

There's also a chance, in this wandering tour, to see how bats, gloves and baseballs are made.

An impressive wall of hats, featuring every team in the major and minor leagues today, gives the spectator a chance to study the color combinations and inventiveness that goes into fitting a club nickname with an appropriate cap design.

Card and memorabilia collectors and sellers have rows of wares. They come from all over the country, such places as Omaha, St. Louis, Houston, San Leandro, Calif., Maywood, N.J., and Lake Placid, N.Y.

The area depicted as Ebbets Field is a disappointment. Instead of a replica of the old park, all that's offered is a panoramic picture and a food outlet.

The Baseball Hall of Fame display from Cooperstown, N.Y., is an attention getter. If there was a complaint to be offered it's that more treasures from this greatest of all sports museums aren't visible.

But there was a locker from Yankee Stadium and the uniform, glove, bat and spiked shoes worn by Babe Ruth, the game's all-time greatest player, born only four blocks away on Emory Street.

Serving as a volunteer host was Vincent J. Bagli, the esteemed sportscaster, who has been in love with baseball since discovering this greatest of all games while in first grade.

The only living, breathing ballplayer on the premises, during our visit, was Andy Carey, who looked fit enough to be of help to the current New York Yankees, his alma mater.

You could have your picture taken and placed on a baseball card as a keepsake. What Major League Baseball Properties created is virtually confined to the Convention Center. The Babe Ruth Museum handled Festival Hall and proves it knows how to produce a first-rate attraction, even surpassing, in some ways, the more expansive plan by Baseball Properties.

The presentation on Baltimore baseball, major and minor, the Elite Giants and the Negro leagues is exceptional and a credit to Mike Gibbons and Greg Schwallenberg of the Babe Ruth Museum.

How were the opening night fans reacting to the overall FanFest concept? We solicited capsule critiques:

John Gregory: "It kind of reminds you of a visit to old Gwynn Oak Amusement Park; that kind of a family atmosphere. I saw an Oriole jersey, a new one, with a price tag of $150."

Bob Balassone: "Overall, I was impressed. I would, though, have enjoyed a larger display from Cooperstown."

Charley Shubow: "It's fabulous."

Gerry Sandusky, the WBAL-TV sports director, endowed with keen perception, said: "It's to baseball what malls are to shopping."

Broadcaster Jon Miller opened the festivities, introduced Mayor Kurt Schmoke and the hits of the entire show, The FanFest Kids, ages 7 to 14, all Baltimore children. They offered a lineup of happy, fast-moving songs and had an impact that captivated the audience.

For the uninitiated, there'a chance to see what a locker room and dugout look like.

Meanwhile, monitors are going non-stop showing all types of baseball films, including how to play the various positions. So it's an awesome effort.

In places, it's too commercial yet fulfills what it set out to do -- to link the public with the All-Star Game and create the fun that goes with a gala jamboree, something reminiscent of a sober Mardi Gras.

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