When the lights went out at Pimlico Race Course during the Preakness, Baltimore looked as klutzy as a runner who breaks his toe in the kitchen just before a major marathon.
It was ridiculous and it hurt.
"Bad, bad publicity," says William Donald Schaefer, the promotion-minded former mayor and governor, sounding like an
elder statesman chastising the new generation.
A record 91,000 crowd, a record 92 degrees, a busted transformer, the lights go out, the air-conditioning shuts down, the betting machines don't work. You can't get a bet down on what turns out to be a great horse race.
"A black eye for the city," he says. "It's bad enough the Orioles are losing."
Schaefer divides the blame more or less evenly between Pimlico and City Hall.
"It should have been incumbent on Pimlico and the city to be prepared," he says. "It's the big premier day that gives Maryland racing national exposure. This was the biggest one and it was a flop."
So can a city that's considering joining Washington in a bid for the Olympic games put on a really big show? Well, sure. There were 122 Preaknesses before the lights went out this year.
"We used to have great Preaknesses," says Schaefer, recalling without undue modesty those days when he was mayor.
He thinks the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke doesn't really care about promotion. And it is true that Schmoke has never donned 1890s swim garb to jump into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.
But even advertising executive Sandy Hillman, who cut her promotional teeth on the city fairs and ethnic festivals of the early days of Schaeferism, thinks the city's pretty good at putting on big events.
Just two weeks before the Preakness, Baltimore played host to the high-tone, high-tech, upscale Whitbread round-the-world sailors with the elan of James Bond introducing a new girl friend to Americans at the bar of the Monte Carlo Yacht Club.
"It was flawless execution," says Hillman, a partner in the advertising and PR agency Trahan, Burden & Charles, which represented two of the boats. "The city and state did a beautiful job.
"Look at the European press," she says. "We got a lot of press and we looked like a first-rank American city."
She didn't even think the Preakness outage was the giant fiasco Schaefer saw.
"It was so civilized," she says. She passed through the clubhouse after the lights went out. "People weren't yelling and screaming. There was none of that."
The uncivilized people yelling and screaming were all out in the infield anyway and unaffected by the power outage. They could even make bets.
"I think that Pimlico was an anomaly," Hillman says, "a big deal for insiders but not outside the racing industry."
Some racing insiders, notably a couple of writers from Kentucky, do argue the Preakness ought to be raced somewhere else. Maybe North Dakota.
"Pimlico long has been a track held together with paper clips and Velcro," wrote a guy from Louisville. "It has all the charm of an industrial park. I'm not sure they've painted the place since Citation was a yearling. I'd vote for moving the second leg of the Triple Crown to another location. The Floyd County Fair would be an improvement."
Pretty fair invective but not what Baltimore boosters want to hear. Floyd County, by the way, is far out in the backwoods of southeast Kentucky.
Hillman notes that the Preakness is mostly private enterprise.
"Most events are managed by city crews," she says. "The public works guys and the sanitation crews are as good as anybody in the country in supporting public events. They're so adept they can handle any situation."
She ticks off a whole generation of big time public events that went off famously: from the tall ship celebrations, city fairs and Sunny Sundays to the openings of Harborplace, the aquarium, Pier 6 and the Convention Center.
"Events are wonderful signature pieces for a city," Hillman says. "I think the media impression is that we are a good urban events producer."
She offers as proof the cover story on this month's USAIR magazine, which touts Baltimore as "a great tourist destination."
"People come here when we produce a major event," she says, "and they go home happy."
That seems to be what happened when the really high-powered International Development Research Council held its World Congress here during Preakness Week.
The 1,500 members of the IDRC handle real estate transactions - site selection, property acquisition, facility development and expansion - for powerhouse Fortune 500 corporations. Their president, for example, is Bruce Russell, a director and vice president for real estate at Eastman Kodak. These are men and women you want to like your town.
And they did, says Ioanna Morfessis, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Alliance. Like the Whitbread yachtsmen, the corporate real estate executives praised Baltimore's "excellent" hospitality.
Tourists uniformly report Baltimoreans are naturally friendly, unlike, say, New Yorkers whose Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has to coerce into civility by authoritarian fiat.
Although, Baltimore's civility rating may have been shattered by the battle between the Orioles and the Yankees on Tuesday night in New York. As is his practice after giving up a home run, an exceedingly uncivil Armando Benitez drilled Tino Martinez, the next batter, with a fast ball - and sparked a dugout riot. Maybe it was the influence of playing in Yankee Stadium.
Nonetheless, Richard Kadzis, communications director for IDRC at their Atlanta headquarters, says "Baltimore and Maryland are excellent hosts.
"Our clients are duly impressed with Baltimore and Maryland as a place potentially to do business and make some future investments."
Which, of course, is what every promoter of the city wants to hear.
GBA, in fact, took nine high-powered corporate executives out to the Preakness on May 16.
"They had a great time," Morfessis reports. "We are fully capable to be host to world class events."
The record looks pretty good. The All-Star Game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1993 was a resounding success from every possible point of view except perhaps for the quality of the baseball played.
"I think we showcased the city like it's never been showcased before," Bill Stottler, then assistant convention director, told The Sun. He reveled in the CBS coverage.
"Every time they turned around, they were saying something great about Baltimore," he said. "God, it was like I was paying them."
The city, of course, has stumbled in the past.
Last year's municipal bicentennial celebration wasn't so much a bust as invisible. Attendance lagged even at such stirring events as the rededications of the Cecil Calvert Monument, the J. Joseph Curran Bell Tower and the Christopher Columbus Obelisk.
But the visits of Pope John Paul II in 1995 and of Mother Teresa in 1996 were splendidly successful.
"We've been blessed, definitely blessed," said a Harborplace merchant selling papal "miracle mugs." "This is just the kind of advertising money can't buy."
Perhaps that's all that Baltimore needs to pull off a big league event: Camden Yards and a little divine intervention.
Carl Schoettler is a veteran feature writer at The Sun.
! Pub date: 5/24/98