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Opening Day ain't what it used to be


I USED TO embrace baseball's Opening Day with all the optimism in my being. There was such a glorious sense of renewal and hope. As a child, I vowed each April to follow every pitch as the Orioles marched toward the World Series, which I just knew would come our way in October.

In recent years, though, Opening Day has held less appeal for me. Well, I thought, I must just be getting older. Maybe my youthful zeal has worn off. But then the real reason hit me: The Orioles don't play at Memorial Stadium any more.

As another season nears, and as plans to tear down Memorial Stadium become finalized, I approach this season with a rather sullen attitude (and that's even before I start thinking about the bullpen).

I miss Memorial Stadium, and when I see Camden Yards, I see all the ills that the economics of baseball today have wrought upon the game.

Sure, the old ballpark had its flaws. But as a 10-year-old, I never saw them. I never noticed the horrible parking problems, or the lousy sight lines from some seats in the lower deck.

Sign of spring

All I saw was that edifice beckoning me each spring like an old friend I hadn't seen in months.

I saw that glorious green grass of the outfield as I ran up the ramps to the upper deck on Opening Day. Seeing that grass for the first time each year was the surest sign I knew that spring had arrived.

And I saw those old men sitting on their stoops on 33rd Street on a muggy summer night, listening to the radio as Chuck Thompson called the action from just down the street.

Now the stadium stands hollow and neglected. The field has been overrun with weeds, and the only cheers come from the ghosts.

The sad truth is that when the Orioles left the neighborhood roost on 33rd Street for the cozy digs of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore lost a piece of its soul. Memorial Stadium was more than a ballpark. It represented the old Oriole Way, which, like the stadium itself, has been replaced by a richer, colder, corporate production known as Camden Yards.

For all its architectural mastery, its superficial beauty and its marvelous location, Camden Yards is window dressing for a franchise that is but a shell of its former self.

Memorial Stadium was Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Boog Powell, players for whom Baltimore was home. Camden Yards is Randy Myers, Bobby Bonilla and Albert Belle, players for whom Baltimore is a temporary port of call.

Memorial Stadium was a baseball crowd. It was Wild Bill Hagy and the "Roar from Section 34." Camden Yards is a social crowd. It is scoreboard-manufactured cheering.

Memorial Stadium was a Sunday afternoon doubleheader. Camden Yards is a "day-night" doubleheader. At Camden Yards, we'll play two, as Ernie Banks would say, but you'll have to pay for each.

Memorial Stadium was Junior Oriole tickets, 10 for $2. It was hot dogs and cotton candy. Camden Yards is $22 outfield seats. It is club-level cheesecake and mineral water.

Memorial Stadium was the place you took your kids. Camden Yards is the place you take your clients.

And that underscores the really troubling thing about baseball in the Camden Yards era: The game is in danger of losing an entire generation of fans.

In this age of club-level seating and corporate sponsors, tickets are increasingly becoming a sign of privilege. The blue-collar fan, who helped build Baltimore into a baseball town, is being priced right out of the park.

Consequently, more and more people who grew up going to Memorial Stadium can't afford to take their own children to Camden Yards. Not on Opening Day, like my dad used to do, or on any other day, for that matter.

Other distractions

Those children, on the outside looking in, will turn their attention elsewhere, and baseball will have lost them. They will surf the Net or play Nintendo. They won't know or care about what's happening at the ballpark.

They won't realize that a blue sky on Opening Day is the bluest sky of the year. And they won't ever appreciate how the stadium's long September shadows mark the arrival of a pennant race.

They won't understand their grandfather, sitting in his favorite chair and speaking, with a distant smile, of the time he was excused from school for a trip to Memorial Stadium on Opening Day.

What was Memorial Stadium, they will ask, and what's so great about baseball?

Is that what baseball is coming to? I hope not.

I'll never own a corporate box at Camden Yards. I just hope that someday when I have children, I can afford tickets to a ballgame. I want to know how it feels to hold their hands as we walk to the upper deck on Opening Day.

Bo Smolka is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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