Of late my thoughts, which at the vernal equinox tend to involve shortstops, double plays and the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), have found room as well for a 17th-century Englishman named Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland. The connection is not as preposterous as it may seem.
Lord Falkland was a noble and courageous man who, before driving himself to despair and an early death, distinguished himself in the Long Parliament. In 1641 he enunciated the principle upon which all truly conservative thought and action rest: "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." Ever since, mankind has spent much of its time systematically and energetically ignoring this sage counsel. Which brings us to baseball.
No, the subject today is not the designated hitter, artificial grass or the split season--though all are classic examples of unnecessary change committed in the name of progress. The subject is a ballpark that is one of my favorite places and that is in danger of being ravaged in order to accommodate the various interests of a handful of people. Though the specifics of the case are not likely to be of interest to many except the few thousand people who regularly attend baseball games in that park, the significance of the case seems to me to be a good deal larger.
The ballpark is Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It was built by that city in 1949 and is now used by the Orioles and the Colts, Baltimore's professional baseball and football teams. It can seat about 53,000 for baseball, 60,000 for football. It is in the shape of a horseshoe, with the open end left open; seated in the grandstands, one looks across the infield and outfield to a lovely patch of grass and trees behind which houses can be seen--a view that manages to connect the spectator in the stadium with the larger world beyond, and that also serves to remind the spectator that baseball is a country game that originated in places where grass and trees flourished.
There are times when this view persuades me that Memorial Stadium, which from the outside is an ugly lump of steel and concrete floating on a sea of asphalt, is the loveliest ballpark in all the wide world of Bowie Kuhn. Yet this may well change, if certain machinations now taking place in Annapolis reach the results that the participants desire. Though most of those involved have the very best of intentions, they may end up ruining Memorial Stadium in order to save it--much in the fashion that the government of the United States, hoping for the best, turned Washington's magnificent Union Station into the preposterous National Visitors Center.
The villain of the piece is Robert Irsay, the owner of the Colts, who lives in Illinois. In the few years since he took over the team, Irsay has managed to run this once-great franchise into the ground and to make sellout crowds a thing of the past. So a couple of years ago, apparently exercising a bizarre form of logic, he began to make loud noises about taking the team elsewhere unless the city altered the stadium to suit his fancy. The city, in a panic over the prospect of losing a big-league franchise, went to the state for help and got it: Assurances of a loan for expansion and modernization of the ballpark. But things never quite worked out; now, with the loan guarantee soon to expire, state and city officials are desperately negotiating with Irsay and his people, behind closed doors, in hopes of making him happy enough to stick around.
If they do reach agreement, what seems likely to happen is that the open end of the stadium will be closed with additional grandstands and the upper deck extended into the outfield. The view of grass and trees will be eliminated, in other words, so that more seats can be added--though there is no reason to believe that the Colts, or for that matter the Orioles, will be able to fill those seats. With something akin to horror, I contemplate the prospect of sitting in this "improved" ballpark with perhaps 15,000 other souls--staring, of a summer afternoon, not at green trees and white houses but at 55,000 empty seats. A wonderful ballpark will be ruined in order to accommodate an owner who does not live in, or even near, the city that his team represents.
If Maryland wants to spend $22 million to improve Memorial Stadium, there are plenty of ways to do so without spoiling its fundamental charm, but that is not the point of these ruminations; if the governor and mayor want my advice about specific alterations, as I am serenely confident they do not, they can find me. The point is that this is a textbook example of what Lord Falkland was talking about. Change is in the wind not because the necessity of it has been demonstrated, but because we are junkies for change who believe that it alone will solve our problems and improve our lives.
It happens all around us. Ten years ago I bought a small sports car, for the manageable sum of $4,200. This particular model, I had learned, was regarded by those who know about such things as one of the best sports cars ever made; it had clean lines, a powerful and efficient engine, comfortable seating for two, and was held to be an instant classic. The car is still being made, but its 1982 model is hardly recognizable as kin of the car I once owned; it has been gunked up with chromium and decorative stripes, its sleek lines have been corrupted in order to accommodate a cramped rear seat, and its price has soared well into five figures--all this in the name of "improvement"!
Or consider a bit of domestic business I must attend to: Replacing something on a storm-screen door called the "strike plate." It holds a sliding rod that catches and holds the latch when the door is closed. We go through strike plates at the rate of three or four a year--not because we slam the door, which we do not, but because the device is made of a metal alloy that begins to disintegrate the minute you attach it to the door frame. Once upon a time these things were made of real metal and lasted a good long while, but then someone had a better idea. The folks at the hardware store tell me I have no choice; the junk they sell, which most certainly came into being as an "improvement," is all they can get.
Of course the car and the strike plate have something to do with built-in obsolescence as well as unnecessary change, and in that respect they differ from Memorial Stadium. But they all reflect our culture's conviction that Disraeli was right when he said: "Change is inevitable. In a progressive country change is constant." From that and similar declarations by others comes our belief that change equals progress--and that it is necessary to change in order to progress. But looking across the outfield in Memorial Stadium to a vista that has given me so much pleasure, and knowing that this vista may well become a victim of mindless, unnecessary change, I am persuaded more deeply that ever than Disraeli was wrong and Falkland right. I am also rooting for a stalemate in Annapolis.