Complex scores with early-birds Games: Besides being entertained and fed, visitors can try their hand at a world of sports.


"Get in there!" the crowd shouts. They want me to step in against Randy Johnson, the flame-throwing left-hander for the Seattle Mariners. We're on the second floor of ESPN Zone, the new sports-themed entertainment complex in the Inner Harbor, and it's clear these lunatics gathered around the batting cage are out for blood.

As I grab a bat, dig in and stare at the glowering, ex-biker visage of Johnson on the video screen, there are two factors that may prevent my death.

No. 1: The Big Unit will be throwing tennis balls instead of real baseballs, which would cause my head to split open like a watermelon dropped on the sidewalk if they ever hit me.

No. 2: Instead of Johnson's usual 95-mph heater, the ball that bursts from a hole in the screen will be traveling "only" 65 mph, which means I might actually see it before I flail at it and throw out my back.

Still, things get ugly in a hurry: nine swings, three whiffs, three grounders, three weak fly balls your grandmother could catch.

But that was about the only negative during a two-hour tour of Baltimore's newest theme restaurant yesterday.

Although the cavernous 35,000-square-foot complex does not officially open until Sunday, this was a "soft opening," an opportunity for the public to check out the place beforehand.

From the moment you spot the army of satellite dishes on the roof and stroll under the 45-foot "sports kebab" sign -- a skewer running through basketballs and footballs the size of boulders -- it's clear what the agenda is here.

"The idea is that this is a sports fan's nirvana," said Scott Dickey, ESPN Zone's director of marketing and sales. "The whole building is an extension of the ESPN broadcast network."

What a concept: You can eat, you can drink, you can watch every sporting event known to man on 220 monitors (including over the urinals and toilet in the men's room -- but enough about that) and then you can participate in some of those events via interactive games.

Is this a great country, or what?

They might need fire hoses to clear the place at closing time.

Our visit began in the Screening Room, a dining area dominated by an enormous 16-by-13-foot video screen from which flashed major league baseball standings and trivia questions. ("What's pro golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez's real name?" The answer is a bit of a let-down: Juan.)

Although the 1995 running of the bulls at Pamplona was showing on the big screen, complete with the usual trampling of dozens of wine-soaked Spaniards, patrons at some booths could use video touch screens to watch whatever regular TV programming they wanted.

One was watching a soap opera. She was not, as far as is known, shown the door.

Up front, watching the action from reclining leather chairs and chowing down on a turkey burger and Miller Lite, was Steve Fischoff, 26, a financial consultant from Chicago.

In town to visit his college buddy Brian Barker, 26, of Baltimore, Fischoff wore the dreamy, satiated look of a man who didn't plan to get up until next Tuesday.

"These seats are incredible," Fischoff said as yet another Spaniard fell in the dusty streets in front of yet another snorting bull. "We had dinner here last night and now we're back for lunch."

In the Studio Grill next door, which seats 175 and is decorated with mock-ups of the actual ESPN news desks at headquarters in Bristol, Conn., diners can choose from a menu that runs the gamut from bar food to pork tenderloin.

On the far wall is a large painting depicting Baltimore sports legends John Unitas, Art Donovan, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell in -- stay with me here -- 18th century garb, preparing to sign the Declaration of Independence.

But somehow it works. Instead of coming across as the by-product of a monstrous substance-abuse problem, the total effect is interesting: five serene elder statesmen of sports, as influential, in their own ways, as Jefferson, Hancock, etc.

But we didn't linger long here. Like every other graying, overweight jock past his prime, we were eager to get to the second floor and work up a sweat.

There are dozens of games to choose from. Besides a batting cage where you can test your swing against Johnson, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, et al., there's an interactive video golf game that lets you play individual holes at 18 of the most famous courses in the world.

Another interactive video game lets you fish for large-mouth bass; yet another puts you in a miniature hockey rink, firing slap shots at a goalie bearing an uncanny resemblance to the psycho Jason in those "Friday the 13th" movies.

Our last stop was in the ESPN Zone gift shop, where the price tag on the first item we inspected (varsity-style jacket with leather sleeves, $220) made my heart stop.

Still, Pam Shepard, assistant general manager for merchandise, said sales during the "soft opening" last weekend were "off the scale."

And, indeed, there were many other, more reasonably priced items, such as ESPN Zone hats for $22, T-shirts for $17 and beer glasses for $8, although "reasonably priced" is a relative term these days.

But since we had only $10 in our pocket and a car sitting at a nearby parking garage that charges the usual usurious rates, we left without picking up a souvenir.

Which is either a sign of maturity or poverty, I can't decide which.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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