One's own words don't make an especially nourishing meal, so pardon the look of revulsion on my face as I sit down to what looks for all the world like a six-course banquet. The words were written four years ago, at the request of the sporting editors of this newspaper, as part of an article celebrating the joys of baseball in Baltimore. They read as follows:
"Unlike the lawless thugs who follow the Yankees or the ill-mannered collegians who applaud the Red Sox, the Oriole fans are reasonably respectful of the rights of others ... passably informed about the subtleties of the game, and good-hearted enough to acknowledge excellence of performance on those infrequent occasions when it is inadvertently displayed by the opposition. Memorial Stadium has, in fact, the smallest lout population of any major-league ballpark I have visited."
That was 1983; this, alas, is 1987. Have you visited Memorial Stadium in 1987? If you have, then you know that my fond words of four years ago are now approximately as applicable to Oriole "fans" as the Ten Commandments are to American politicians. To anyone who regularly attends baseball games in Baltimore, the decline of civility at Memorial Stadium is a startling and disheartening development. The baseball fans of Baltimore, who until only recently were notable for their good humor, are rapidly becoming as nasty as the baseball fans of Philadelphia -- fans whom Lance Parrish, signed this year by the Phillies, recently characterized as "idiots."
Precisely why this change of mood has occurred in Baltimore is a matter for conjecture -- of which a bit will be offered in a moment -- but there can be no question that it is a reality. Oriole players, for whom local fans once expressed little except admiration and gratitude, are now the objects of mean, reflexive vituperation from the stands; and those same stands have of late become the gathering place for an especially disagreeable breed of "fan," the yuppie whose urge for ostentation is exceeded only by his ignorance of baseball.
Until late last season, Baltimore baseball fans reflected the character of the city itself: low-keyed, easygoing, grateful for whatever small favors come its way along the busy route between Washington and New York. Errors and boners by Oriole players were lamented, but accepted as part of the game and permitted to pass without vociferous public comment. Even opposing players -- Reggie Jackson being the principal, and predictable, exception -- got off with light criticism.
But now everybody gets it. In a recent game against the Angels, Ray Knight was loudly booed for missing a throw to third -- it looked to be an errant throw, from where I sat -- from the catcher, Terry Kennedy; that Knight has been a hustler since the instant he put on an Oriole uniform evidently mattered not a bit to the boo-birds. Neither does the long and distinguished record of Eddie Murray seem to matter to these people; they boo him so regularly, and loudly, that in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated they were described as "Baltimorons."
The same term certainly applies to the yuppies, who have discovered baseball and seem determined to make it their own. I first became aware of them on a Friday evening last season, when a gaggle of gray-suited strivers of both sexes settled a few rows in front of me and proceeded to spend the entire evening watching everything -- each other, primarily -- except the ball game; one of them actually sat with his back to the field, presumably so we could get an unrestricted view of him. When I asked an usher about the phenomenon, he said: "Never come on a Friday night. Friday night is yuppie night."
But now, it seems, every night is yuppie night. Last Tuesday it was my privilege to have directly in front of me a half dozen of the breed, all presumably financial wizards, since they occupied a box that belongs to a nationally prominent accounting firm. Obviously they were eager to display their financial acumen, as their entire evening was spent making noisy bets on whether each player at bat would get on base; when the issue was determined they would rise, display their wads of cash, and pass the money around, whooping all the while and chanting "Dolla! Dolla! Dolla!" When Murray came to bat their chant wasn't the customary "Eddie! Eddie!" but "Money! Money!" They also enjoyed dangling plastic-tipped mini-cigars from their teeth, in the manner no doubt of certain fast-track financiers currently awaiting indictment.
They presented in every respect an odious spectacle, one calculated to distract others' attention from the game -- for one thing, the fellows spent much of the evening on their feet -- and to call attention to those staging it. The spectacle had much to do with avarice and arrogance but nothing, at least so far as I could determine, to do with baseball. This merely makes the yuppies part and parcel with the boo-birds, whose vociferousness is exceeded only by their ignorance of, and inattention to, the game.
I say this not as a baseball purist who regards the ballpark as a cathedral or shrine; people are entitled to attend games for whatever reason, and to make fools of themselves in whatever manner. But it is a great pity that a ballpark previously known as an oasis of civility is now declining into boorishness. Going to a baseball game is supposed to be fun; but it's not exactly fun when the guy in front of you is screaming about money and the guy in back is booing the groundskeepers.
Why this has come to pass is, as was suggested above, something of a riddle, but a few reasonable explanations can be found. One is the resentment many fans feel for ballplayers' high salaries, especially those ballplayers who do not seem to be returning full value; a $1.2 million man can seem a fat target to someone struggling to feed a family on $20,000. Another surely is the indifferent performance put on by the Orioles in the last two months of 1986; that shabby display angered Baltimoreans more than the players may realize, and memories of it clearly have not faded.
Yet another explanation may be the proliferation, in Baltimore as elsewhere, of radio call-in shows devoted to sports. These programs seem to exist primarily to inflame sentiments among persons short on knowledge and long on opinion; their effect in the ballpark is to focus hostilities on particular players -- Murray being the most particular -- and to upset the players themselves. That the players take these idiots seriously is itself a mystery of no small dimensions, but apparently they do.
None of this is a big deal unless you are one of those baseball fans -- still, I suspect, a majority -- who go to the ballpark for pleasure and relaxation. There can be little of either when a willful minority makes its presence so gratuitously felt. Thanks to these people the ballpark is no longer the civilized place it once was; and that, I submit, is a pity.