A tough choice for holders of choice seats


If this were any other September, Taylor Branch eagerly would be waiting for his annual letter from the Orioles, the one inviting him to renew his four prime seats at Camden Yards.

Not this year.

With players striking, owners stonewalling and the World Series canceled for the first time since 1904, Mr. Branch said he is struggling to decide whether to continue on the Orioles' season-ticket rolls.

"Baseball owners have done profound injury to the fans, and I won't feel comfortable sending them money after what they've done," said Mr. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who lives in Baltimore.

But the decision isn't that simple. Mr. Branch conceded that if he doesn't renew his choice seats next year, the chances of his getting them back are virtually nil. Those are the harsh rules of the game at Camden Yards, where the Orioles cap their season-ticket sales at 27,500 and keep a waiting list of 10,000 customers.

"I'm feeling terribly squeezed," Mr. Branch said.

His dilemma isn't unusual. With the 1994 season officially over, Orioles ticket buyers are focusing on next season and what to do about their tickets.

Barring a major breakthrough in labor talks, they'll have to decide on their 1995 seats before they even can be sure there will be a 1995 baseball season.

For some longtime fans, the disenchantment has become so deep that they find themselves pondering what once would have been unthinkable -- giving up their tickets.

"For the first time, I find myself wondering whether I want to renew them," said Jonathan Yardley, a Baltimore resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Washington Post. "I don't like the terrible things being done to the game by the owners. . . . I am finding there are lots of other things to do."

For Orioles ticket buyers, it gets even stickier. Although he held the line on ticket prices this year, new owner Peter Angelos was laying the groundwork for a major price increase in 1995 when the work stoppage began four weeks ago. Those steps included retaining a Big Eight accounting firm to advise him on potential price boosts, particularly on seats behind home plate.

That could be another irritant for fans already wary of renewing. But Mr. Angelos cautioned that, for now, raising ticket prices "is last on our list of priorities."

"We'll do everything possible to avoid an increase in 1995 in light of what happened in the 1994 season," Mr. Angelos said.

4 season tickets can run $5,000

In any case, the seat-renewal clock is expected to start ticking sometime in late October or early November. In recent years, that's when the Orioles have begun mailing ticket invoices to their regular customers. Ticket buyers then have had until early December to send in half-payment. By February, the Orioles usually require the full amount, which, for four $15, lower-box seats, runs almost $5,000.

A number of fans say they expect to send their money. They include the ones who, despite the uncertainty shrouding next season, say they won't risk losing seats they like.

"As someone who has had season tickets for nearly 20 years, I don't want to jeopardize my seat locations. So, I would do what I am told," said Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, who has three prime box seats between home plate and first base.

But Mr. Rosenberg said he hopes the Orioles don't take advantage of fan loyalty by demanding full payment for seats before progress is made in the talks. Worse yet, he said, would be a price increase.

"That would be wholly inappropriate," Mr. Rosenberg said.

Migsie Richlin also figures to be back at Camden Yards next season. "I'm not about to give up my tickets," said the Columbia lawyer, who has been buying her Orioles seats since 1979.

That's not surprising from Ms. Richlin, whose devotion to the Orioles borders on the fanatic. She's one of a handful of women to enroll in the Orioles Fantasy Camp. And she writes to Mr. Angelos and other Orioles officials, urging them to improve the location of her four lower-box seats.

"I look at this as a long-term investment, knowing how seats work in baseball," Ms. Richlin said. "Once you give them up, you never get them back. I want the best seats possible when this mess is resolved."

Among the 28 owners, Mr. Angelos seemingly has been most active in striving for a compromise with the players. He has called on management to put aside its salary-cap proposal if that step is needed to make a deal.

That moderate position has been noted by some ticket buyers, who say it has influenced their thinking whether to renew their seats.

"If I were a season-ticket holder of the Milwaukee Brewers or the Chicago White Sox -- whose owners have been most offensive throughout this -- I'd cancel my tickets and tell them to take a hike," said Mr. Yardley, a season-ticket customer since 1978. "The Orioles' owners complicate things in my mind."

Said Michael Green, a Baltimore attorney who shares four box seats with two friends: "I feel badly for Angelos, knowing he spent more than he should to buy the team, with the knowledge this could happen. He made an investment in the community, and we should be willing to help him out."

Despite that empathy, though, there are limits to what some ticket buyers are willing to accept from the local owners.

Deferred payment suggested

Mr. Branch, for instance, suggested that Mr. Angelos delay asking ticket buyers to pay up for the seats until there is some assurance that baseball will be played next Opening Day.

"If he doesn't and says, 'Send us your dough in October,' just like they've delivered a great season and World Series, that will only deepen the resentment and injury," Mr. Branch said.

Said Mr. Yardley: "I certainly hope the Orioles don't put me in the position of putting up money during a strike situation. I don't know what I would do."

As for the Orioles, they aren't revealing their ticket-renewal plans, or even talking about when such details will be announced. Mr. Angelos said he's been too busy working on trying to find a solution to the strike.

In the meantime, however, Mr. Angelos does have some advice for Orioles ticket buyers, particularly the ones who are debating whether to invest in Orioles tickets again next year.

Chuckling, the owner said, "Don't be ambivalent . . . or you may be sorry."

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