What an unseemly spectacle this is, the one being presented now to standing-room-only audiences in Baltimore and Annapolis as the politicos and fat cats of Maryland compete to be firstest with the mostest in delivering a new stadium to the state. One would have to look long and hard to find more vivid evidence that the world of high-stakes politics and fast money is utterly divorced from the world in which ordinary people live.
The big boys in Maryland want to replace Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with a new edifice, one loaded down with "sky boxes" and similar luxuries to which big boys would like to become accustomed, and they seem quite prepared to do just about anything in order to get it. Just about anything includes, in no particular order of importance: announcing a report that allegedly supports a new stadium and then refusing to let anyone look at it; trying to curry favor with voters in various parts of the state; and -- this, of course, above all -- hunting up ways to appropriate public funds in order to pay for the big boys' pipe dreams.
Poor Baltimore! Any way it turns, there's a big boy taking it to the cleaners. Last year it was Robert Irsay, the quintessential big boy, sneaking the city's beloved football team off to Indianapolis by dark of night. This year it has been a consortium of big boys drumming up enthusiasm for a new baseball-and-football stadium the city does not need, has displayed little evidence of wanting, and, if it has one forced upon it, will have a devil of a time paying for.
It all started in January, when the study commission released its report. Though privately financed, this study had been undertaken at the request of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who has long been in favor of maintaining Memorial Stadium, with improvements. But to the mayor's considerable surprise (and, it seems, embarrassment), the commission announced with much flourish that it favored constructing a new stadium, at a cost (it said) of $80 million, as opposed to refurbishing Memorial Stadium, at a cost (it said) of $57 million.
But while making this recommendation the commission did something odd: It refused to make the report public. Take us on good faith, its members seemed to be saying. Last week, though, word leaked out that, as the Baltimore Sun described it, the report "deals solely with renovating Memorial Stadium and contains nothing about building a new facility." The $80 million figure, it seems, was quite literally a "ballpark figure," one approximately as substantial and verifiable as the thin air from which it was drawn.
But this has not discouraged the politicians from attempting to make capital from the stadium question. Mayor Schaefer and Attorney General Stephen Sachs, who are likely to be running against each other for the governorship next year, issued conflicting rumbles and shrieks on the subject; so too, in his more diffident way, did Gov. Harry Hughes, who may well decide to run against Sen. Charles McC. Mathias in 1986. Nothing that any of these gentlemen said made a great deal of sense, but all of it was designed to flatter the assumed interests of their would-be constituencies.
Beneath all the noise lie certain assumptions: That a new stadium will lure the National Football League back to Baltimore; that the lack of a new stadium will cause Edward Bennett Williams to take the Orioles away from Baltimore; that Memorial Stadium is a shabby and outdated edifice that no longer serves the city satisfactorily. These dark notions are regularly voiced by one big boy or another, and repeated even more darkly by various personages in the Baltimore media who have made careers out of shouting for a new ballpark. The only trouble is that the first two notions have yet to be proved and the third is simply untrue.
* The NFL may or may not return to Baltimore, but it certainly isn't going to make any commitments years ahead of the fact. Constructing a new stadium to suit the fancy of its self-indulgent owners would cost Maryland a minimum of $80 million, more likely double that when you toss in the cost of a site and of necessary improvements in highways and parking. Spend all that money and there's still no guarantee that a new NFL team -- playing a grand total of perhaps 10 home games a year -- would be assigned to Baltimore. Is this a gamble that Maryland really wants to take?
* Edward Bennett Williams has his complaints about Memorial Stadium, but he has every reason to be willing to suffer its shortcomings; the Orioles have set attendance records in four of the last five years, and his lease with the city is highly favorable to him. His dealings with the city have been careful but to all appearances honorable. He is in every respect the polar opposite of Irsay; though he almost certainly would prefer to have a more modern stadium, he isn't going to go pouting off to Phoenix or Jacksonville if he doesn't get one.
* Memorial Stadium does have its shortcomings: limited parking, uncomfortable seats in the upper deck, inadequate team offices and locker rooms. But it also has great assets that the big boys conven- iently ignore in their haste to deride it. Though the parking lots are fairly small, there is a vast amount of on-street parking within easy walking distance, and regular stadium-goers are quite familiar with convenient spots. Its location only three miles from the center of the city makes it not merely equally accessible to peo- ple coming from all directions, but an important part of the fabric of life in Baltimore itself. It may be a better stadium for baseball than for football, but the Colts played to sellout crowds for years and everybody managed to live with it.
Bert Lance was right: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Memorial Stadium may be slightly busted, but it ain't broke. This, I am entirely confident, would prove to be the majority sentiment should anybody bother to consult the people who actually attend games there -- the ordinary people who'll never see the inside of a sky box but whose dollars keep the teams that play in the stadium afloat. These are the same people whose tax dollars would be spent to build a new ballpark, not to mention the tax dollars of Marylanders who couldn't tell the Baltimore Orioles from the Montreal Canadiens.
Before Maryland goes an inch further toward committing itself to a new stadium, it needs to ask itself this: For whom are we proposing to build this thing? The citizens of Maryland, or a small group of powerful men whose personal interests -- whether financial or political -- might be improved by it? The answer seems to me to be transparent, and to be reason enough to chuck the stadium plans in the wastebasket forthwith.