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Stadium Struggle in Baltimore: Push and Pull of Power

January 04, 1987|RICHARD JUSTICE | The Washington Post

BALTIMORE — This is a story about a city and a stadium and about the accompanying politics and pressures.

It's a story of commissions and study groups, some of Baltimore's most powerful people and inner-city politics. Finally, it's a story about a city that is, in a sense, held hostage.

When the Colts fled in the middle of a winter night three years ago, they left an immeasurable scar on a proud city's psyche. The movie "Diner" has a scene in which a man insists his fiancee pass a Colts trivia test before they can be married. For 25 years, the Baltimore Colts held such a position of importance here that things of this sort are barely exaggerated.

"You couldn't live here and not see people wearing (figurative) black arm bands after the Colts left," said Herb Belgrad, a lawyer who heads the Maryland Stadium Authority, a group that recently recommended construction of a two-stadium complex in downtown Baltimore.

City officials and business leaders had been talking about building a new stadium since 1972, but when the Colts left town, the talk became serious. Many city leaders wanted to act quickly, especially since there already was a fear that the Orioles would leave, too.

Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams purchased the Orioles in 1979 and, although he said he intended to stay, he refused to sign a long-term lease for Memorial Stadium.

So in 1984, Baltimore civic leaders had two goals: to lure an NFL expansion franchise and to make Williams and the Orioles happy. Not since the trendy Inner Harbor development has Baltimore attempted a project of such magnitude.

"I think he (Williams) is going to get everything he could possibly want in terms of facilities," Belgrad said. "It will be a state-of-the-art facility in terms of sight lines, seat configuration and construction in an area with the greatest potential for ticket sales."

Belgrad and others hope that construction can begin in 1988 and that, on some evening in 1991, the National Football League will have returned to Baltimore and the Orioles, locked into a 30-year lease, will play their first game in the new facility.

They see a complex with a horseshoe-shaped baseball stadium facing toward the lights of the Inner Harbor. They see a facility that will be "the crown jewel" in the redevelopment of downtown Baltimore.

This also is a story about the incredible power wielded by the men who control professional sports franchises.

In formulating its report, the stadium authority spoke directly or indirectly to the commissioners of major league baseball and to the NFL; to at least one former commissioner; to officials with dozens of pro franchises, including the Orioles, and to various architects and stadium officials.

They wanted to be precise because the Maryland state legislature will have until April to approve Camden Yards as a site and the sale of bonds for construction of the complex. In the interviews, the stadium authority tried to determine exactly what each sport wanted in a facility.

They found each wanted everything -- including a stadium just for that sport.

And they already knew each had leverage. The NFL won't return to Baltimore until there's a commitment to build a new stadium. The Orioles won't publicly threaten a move, but the threat is there, nonetheless. Their latest Memorial Stadium lease is up after the 1987 season, and a half-dozen other cities would love to have the team, including Williams' hometown of Washington.

Officials may argue how many dollars a sports franchise means to an economy, but, as Belgrad said, "You can't measure all their value in terms of dollars. The prestige factor is immeasurable."

What the Orioles want, then, is simple: the best facility in their sport.

They have told the stadium authority they must have an open-air stadium with a natural grass field and that, yes, something like Royals Stadium in Kansas City would be nice. And, oh yes, one other thing: they want a stadium built solely to accommodate the needs of a baseball team and its fans.

A couple of architects have said they could accommodate both football and baseball in one facility, but both the Orioles and the NFL appear skeptical. So, too, is the authority.

According to very preliminary estimates, a dual-purpose stadium can be built for $85 million and two stadiums for $100 million. No final design has been agreed upon, but the preliminary baseball model is similar to one now planned for downtown San Francisco. Ironically, the design for the football stadium is similar to the Indianapolis Colts' Hoosier Dome -- without the dome.

Even if the authority decides a two-stadium complex is financially realistic, no construction will begin until Williams and the Orioles sign a long-term lease. Williams, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said he will sign a long-term lease. Several sources near the Orioles also say he will sign. Others wonder.

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