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Manufacturing My Game

By Joe Mathews

I GET A LITTLE misty-eyed every time I walk into an old-time ballpark. The day I first caught a glimpse of Wrigley Field on a summer trip I took around the country to visit major league baseball stadiums, I immediately dropped to my knees and began to pray in the direction of the oldest thing in the ballpark: Cubs announcer Harry Caray.

But of all the ballparks I saw that summer, the old, storied ones--Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and even Baltimore's Memorial Stadium--were the most memorable. And I still cannot look at pictures of the old Comiskey Park, which stood on sainted ground in one of the worst areas of South Chicago for eighty years, without breaking down in tears.

That is why I had such great hopes for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the new home of the American League's Baltimore Orioles and the most ballyhooed new landmark since the Colossus at Rhodes.

AT FIRST BLUSH, Camden Yards was the stadium of my dreams. Sports columnists in the know promised it would bring the old-time charm back to ballpark design that Watergate-era concrete monoliths like Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium had stolen away.

The new park, which was completed in time for yesterday's opening day game at a price of $106 million, even had the endorsement of the greatest baseball fan who ever lived, the late commissioner of baseball and former Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti. Bart, when shown the plans for the proposed stadium, was heard to remark, "once you build this, everyone will want one like it."

Thinking of a summer trip to the new shrine, I began to research the stadium. And while Giamatti's statement is widely regarded as an endorsement, I like to think he, too, may have secretly known the truth: Camden is part of a conspiracy to conquer the Western world first by seducing it with manufactured history and then by numbing it with high-tech convenience.

This conspiracy has long been in the making. What evidence I do have suggests that the conspirators first struck thirty years ago in Houston, Tex. It was there, in 1962, that, in the name of convenience, the Astrodome opened complete with glass roof and real grass.

Like Camden Yards, it looked good on paper. But then they built the glass dome and a little too much light began to shine on the project. Players taking batting practice under the dome were so blinded by the glare that four glass panels had to be painted white. That, in turn, killed the grass. The grounds keeping compromise that artificially grew out of this crisis--Astroturf--haunts the national pastime to this day.

A second and more toxic assault on baseball was waged in the late '60s and early '70s by the multi-purpose school, a group of well-intentioned but misguided municipal officials who widely spewed the sacrilege that football and baseball could be played in the same stadium.

The poisoned fruits of their efforts are huge monuments to concrete that currently desecrate skylines in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The cheap Astroturf and symmetrical, cookie-cutter dimensions of these fields hurt both sports.

They also have one other thing in common: they have eroded support for the grand old game--the most valuable treasure our nation possesses--among the newest generation of Americans. Recent surveys show that young Americans prefer basketball and football to baseball.

CAMDEN YARDS constitutes the greatest threat to the integrity of baseball since the designated hitter rule precisely because it is not the eyesore that the Astrodome or the concrete monoliths are.

Camden is dangerous not only because it will fail to inspire the young but because it has charmed baseball purists--people who would throw themselves in front of any wrecking ball that came within a Mickey Mantle home run of a big league ballpark.

The ballpark has the non-symmetrical dimensions that every baseball purist has built into their ideal stadium: 335 feet to left field, 319 right field, with a deeper power alley in right-center field than in left-center and a 25-foot tall wall in right. The deepest part of the ballpark isn't even dead center field--it's to the left of dead center, 410 feet away from home plate.

But the dimensions are not what these poor, deceived purists like most about the new ballpark. They romanticize about its placement in the middle of Baltimore's rustic harbor district. Sixty feet on the other side of the right field fence stands the 94-year-old B & O warehouse, the longest building on the East Coast and the ballpark's signature piece.

And when the purists have finished gazing longingly at the historic red brick building, they can fix their eyes on the grass (home grown, one Oriole official reminded me, in Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern Shore) in right-center field, where the parents of legendary Yankees' slugger Babe Ruth once reportedly ran a tavern.

But look beyond these surface bits of manufactured nostalgia and there seems to be a conspiracy at work.

The sheer convenience of the entire place is designed to make fans soft. There is a 272-by-96 foot Sony Jumbo TRON screen so that the fans don't even have to watch the game live. The seats are designed five inches wider than those of other big league stadiums, a move clearly motivated by those who would profit from our sloth and obesity. There is also an extra half-foot of leg room, which promotes the exact sort of relaxed lounging that causes bad posture. The bullpens are elevated so fans do not need to strain themselves to see which pitchers are warming up.

This conspiracy is so far-reaching that even the ballplayers are targets. They have warm-up rooms, video rooms, press rooms, locker rooms, training rooms, bed rooms. The clubhouses and training rooms are huge and plush, and the bullpens are wired for cable TV. All this extravagance can only hurt the quality of the game. What ballplayer will want to leave the warm waters of the clubhouse jacuzzi for the burning August sun?

WHO IS BEHIND this conspiracy? Theories abound--the military-industrial complex, the money that has corrupted big-time politics, The Crimson business office--but no one is sure who's responsible.

And just when we need it most, there is a dearth of brave politicians willing to stand up to the conspiracy. President Bush, the ultimate political wimp, gave his tacit support for the stadium by throwing out the first ball in yesterday's sold-out opener with the Cleveland Indians.

Those who think that a Democrat in the White House would take action will also be disappointed. Though aides to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton told me their man loves the game, I'm not convinced. Clinton is widely rumored to be a fan of the Houston Astros, a team that plays in the ultimate baseball horror--a domed stadium.

Even joining a grass-roots movement won't make any difference. When I asked a press officer in the Santa Monica, Calif. office of Jerry Brown about the new stadium, he scornfully replied that the former California governor has more important things to worry about.

Right. As if he has any chance of winning the nomination. Absent a nuclear Saddam or a beefed-up QRR requirement, fighting Camden should become the ultimate apple pie issue.

But while baseball fans are seduced and softened by Camden, the conspiracy is planning similar new ballparks in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Arlington, Tex. The sad truth is that unless fans fight to take it back, the game of the old Comiskey Park will one day be little more than ancient history.

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