Checking off good, bad points of Ravens' immense new home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What fills up the sky as never before is Baltimore's first football-only stadium. It's exclusively for the Ravens, who have the right to decide what other events also are held there -- be it a visit from a patriarch, a tractor pull, a concert, a boxing match or a goat-roping.

Approaching it, the new facility, depending on your driving or pedestrian whereabouts, gives the appearance of an aircraft carrier in dry-dock, a spaceship or even a giant crab sprawled on its back. A visit to the construction site was arranged by Nolan Rogers, a lawyer who had a highly decorated career lasting 32 years in the state attorney general's office and is spending his retirement days working for the Maryland Stadium Authority. He is not your ordinary tour director, since he was an outstanding athlete at Duke University and, ultimately, elected to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Rogers knows his subject. He watched both Oriole Park and now the Ravens' stadium sprout out of the ground. "Over there is where Cat's Paw shoes used to be made," he said, "and a two-time mayor and governor, Theodore R. McKeldin, was born over at what used to be 1247 S. Exeter Street." Yes, Rogers is well-versed and thoroughly indoctrinated in what he's talking about.

"I think the stadium is awesome, a kissing cousin, I like to say, to Oriole Park at Camden Yards," he said. "There's not a bad seat in the place." (We reminded him that at the opening of the baseball park, there were 3,000 seats pointed in the wrong direction, a condition that was corrected after a reporter screamed long and loud.)

"As a former athlete and a fan, I think the stadium has everything going for it," Rogers said. "There's an openness when you get inside. The reason it's built so high is the water table, meaning the construction had to be governed by the fact that over a century ago, this was all filled-in land. And over there, in the east end zone, is where the Knabe Piano Factory was founded."

Joining Rogers' well-articulated trip through the stands, moving level to level, were Bob Nathewitch and Alice Brown. They were ecstatic over what they found. But from merely an outside viewpoint, the stadium doesn't show well, to use a real estate term. This is not a criticism of what was built, but it's similar to a house owner building a mansion, which is what this is, on a lot that's much too small.

Now, to present a more definitive reaction:

Exterior: Favorable but not a show-stopper, despite its awesome dimensions. Looks aren't everything, but again, beauty is in the eye of the romantic. It has an industrial presence, which was intended, since this was once part of Baltimore's diversified manufacturing area. The stadium would have been better in a different location for the following reasons: 1) It would have provided another part of the city a chance to rehabilitate itself economically, adding commercial impetus for new and old businesses, which is important. 2) The parking for baseball games would not have been altered by approximately 1.6 million square feet, translating into the loss of 2,200 on-site parking spaces. Arrangements are ongoing to acquire nearby properties supplant what was lost. 3) If built somewhere else, the football team would have its own individual residence.

The two stadiums cannot be considered bookends because the football facility so totally overwhelms the more modest baseball park. It's more a Mutt and Jeff analogy, the ballpark appearing almost insignificant when measured against the football venue. The four open ends at the top, however, serve no useful purpose. On cold November afternoons, they will be a funnel (not tunnel) for the northwesterly winds.

Interior: Stylish. Breathtaking because of its immensity. Kind of like looking into the Grand Canyon. Deep. Spacious. Five seating levels. The disabled have excellent observation spaces. From the playing field to the last row of the top deck measures an astonishing 164 feet, or between 12 and 13 stories high. Players may seem the size of ants from that perspective, making it remindful of the depth of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. There are $8.5 million worth of electronics in place, including two 100-by-24-foot video replay screens that project the most vivid pictures known to modern technology.

Access: Disappointing. The escalators reach only the high-priced club level, where 108 sky suites await privileged visitors. Eight elevators are otherwise available for ticket holders in higher locations, but once you reach the upper concourse, it's a long climb to the top of the stadium. It's 91 steps to the rim (we walked it). There's a 31-degree incline, as contrasted with Memorial Stadium's 34 degrees. But to reach the top of Memorial Stadium, it took only 61 steps. The width of the concourse is 64 feet, which will serve pedestrians well. Again, that's about three times the size of the cramped passageways at Memorial Stadium. Carpeted and tiled floors make for comfortable walking. Fifty-five concession stands are planned.

The view: Nothing to write home about, even though the highest row at the stadium is 35 feet higher than Oriole Park. If in the right seat, you can see a mere slice of the Inner Harbor, that's all. Otherwise, there's a panorama of the city, offering a look at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the distance, the University of Maryland Medical Center, the Domino Sugars sign, the skyline of downtown, the old Montgomery Ward building near Carroll Park and assorted church steeples. The emphasis is not on sightseeing but rather the stadium itself, which should be enough to hold your attention.

Restrooms: Forty-four for women, 39 for men.

Locker rooms: Large enough to accommodate an army regiment, with adjoining quarters for coaches, trainers and equipment handlers. And an enclosure for news conferences. Even an X-ray room for doctors to determine the extent of injuries. Remember when Bob Zuppke, the legendary Illinois coach, used to say to play football you had to have "big feet and smell like a goat"? How times have changed. This is luxury, almost a country-club setting.

Drunk tank: Four holding cells for spectators who become boisterous and unruly. It's probably better than chaining them to a pole for public display before the patrol wagon arrives, as used to happen at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium.

Summation: A $220 million creation that, in years to come, may not provide more than 1 percent return on the equity, if that. But what has been built is a work of well-planned construction art, befitting the long-abused football fans who are paying high prices for the right to see 10 games in comfort. It's a place, almost a palace, for partaking of enjoyment.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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