Being a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, as I was for about 30 years, is akin to being addicted to prescription depressants.
People wonder why you haven’t graduated to happier drugs, like Drano or radioactive wastewater. But it’s hard to give up on a team you grew up with, even if it hasn’t had a winning season in the past 13 years.
I have an autographed photo of Brooks Robinson on my desk, as well as a baseball signed by former lunatic Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver. Paleontologists of the future, digging in the fire-ant-riddled ruins of my house, will no doubt look at these relics and wonder: “Why?”
But I have moved on. I am now an incredibly loyal and excruciatingly boring fan of the Rays. Cocktail-party invitations have, needless to say, dried up.
So I felt like the stars had aligned when the Orioles, playing their first spring-training game in the remodeled Ed Smith Stadium, hosted the Tampa Bay Rays. And like everyone else in the sold-out crowd that lined up long before the gates opened at 11 a.m., I was hoping to be among the first to lay eyes on the $23.7 million transformation of the charmless 22-year-old building known simply as the Ed.
That the new Ed happened at all is, if not a miracle, an example of civic determination. Negotiations with the former tenant, the Cincinnati Reds, broke down in 2008 over what costs the community was willing to bear to upgrade the old stadium. When the Reds announced they were moving their spring training headquarters to Goodyear, Ariz., the city and county began a desperate search for a new team. The Boston Red Sox, a team with a national following that had played in old Payne Park from 1933 to 1958, were the clear favorite on the dance card. Financial disagreements doomed that plan, too, so civic leaders moved hastily to Plan B: The Baltimore Orioles, a vagabond team that had played in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and, in 1991, shared space with the Chicago White Sox at Ed Smith Stadium.
Although the Orioles did not have the “wow” factor of the Red Sox (13 consecutive losing seasons does that to you), they did seem willing to negotiate. The O’s insisted upon a $31.2 revamping of the Ed and the team’s minor-league facility at Twin Lakes Park, which sounded good to some, but not to others. A group that called itself Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government (SCRG) argued that the price tag seemed high for an area mired in a recession. They also argued—and filed a lawsuit that went nowhere—that the Commission had secretly worked out a deal with the Orioles, thereby violating the state’s Sunshine Law.
What the SCRG may have lacked in legal wherewithal, they more than made up in creativity. On July 22, 2009, they publicly showed their displeasure with the County Commission’s negotiations by wheeling out an 18-foot inflatable rat.
I never saw any rats at the Ed this spring, but people flocked to the place like they were giving away free cheese. The Orioles drew a stadium-record crowd of 115,506 fans this year, besting the previous mark, which was set in 1994 when basketball legend Michael Jordan incorrectly imagined that his ability to slam-dunk would somehow make him able to hit an inside 95-mph fastball.
I attended two games, and every single person I encountered seemed to love the new stadium. I was curious about why it was such a hit. Mike Romeo of Catonsville, Md., said the new Ed reminded him of Camden Yards, the state-of-the-art stadium where the Orioles have played their home games since 1992.
“Although this place is a lot cleaner,” said his wife, Laura, who had agreed to accompany her husband to the game even though she would have rather been on the beach at Siesta Key. Both are newcomers to the area and said they would definitely be back for spring training next year.
Mike Romeo probably wouldn’t have come to Sarasota if the Orioles weren’t here, but that wasn’t the case for a couple of other locals.
Eighty-two-year-old Henry Ford (no, not that Henry Ford, though he says he gets asked that all the time) came to the game with his buddy, Skip Berg, 65, both of Venice. Both are longtime season-ticket holders dating back to the days in old Payne Park and the pre-improved Ed Smith Stadium.
“It’s very nice,” said Ford, taking in the new digs.
I asked him if he thought the renovation was worth the money.
“If you want something, you’ve got to pay for it,” he said. “Sarasota obviously wanted to continue to be a spring-training city. If they didn’t want to spend the money, the team would have gone someplace else.”
Both men described themselves as unaffiliated fans of spring-training baseball.
“We’re only Orioles fans because they’re here,” Berg said.
If someone asked me (and trust me, no one has) to predict the success of a new spring training park, I would say it’s a mixture of tradition, charm and a good-sized (and affluent) population. And in those areas, the refurbished Ed has hit the trifecta.
Tradition smacks you in the face (almost literally) when you walk in the front gate of the new stadium, a building that is festooned with All Things Oriole. Banners commemorating the team’s many championships (none lately) hang from the ceiling. The grill room is called Café 54 in honor of the year Major League Baseball returned to Baltimore. A milepost shows the distances to the Orioles’ various minor league parks. (Just so you know, it’s 917 miles to Aberdeen, Md., home of the Class-A Ironbirds.) Upstairs (yes, the new Ed has two stories) are three luxury suites numbered 66, 70 and 83, the last years the Orioles won the World Series. The old blue seats in the Ed have been replaced by green chairs handed down from Camden Yards, which, just to lard the whole tradition thing on even thicker, is located within a long foul ball from Babe Ruth’s birthplace.
So the new Ed has all that going for it, not to mention the fact that Sarasota has an 86-year tradition of spring-training baseball.
Charm? Well, all you have to do is step across 12th Street and take in the new park’s façade. Its airy archways, beige stucco walls and clay-tile roof make the building look more like an opera house than a place where grown men in uniforms sweat, spit and scratch. (Baseball’s ongoing themes of loss, redemption and hope everlasting are operatic in nature, so perhaps the building’s exterior design is fitting.)
Charm, of course, is a subjective quality, but on a hot late-March day, I appreciated the new, gauzy overhang that keeps the fans below in relative shade. Lots of traditionalists don’t like the modern whiz-bang scoreboards, but this one doesn’t seem tacky, just big enough so I can tell who’s up to bat and who’s winning. (Not a small accommodation for aging eyes, like mine.)
There’s a barbecue pit/berm area over the left-field wall, something that’s become quite the rage in new ballparks, and there is an air-conditioned lounge on the upper deck behind third base, though they wouldn’t let me in on opening day, even when I lied and told them I worked for the Chamber of Commerce.
The affluence thing is important, because a day at the ballpark—even a spring training park—is not cheap.
My wanderings gave me an appetite, so I popped into one of the many concession stands on both floors. It’s pretty much standard ballpark fare at standard ballpark prices (i.e., ridiculous). Because this is, after all, the spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles, there is the obligatory crab cake sandwich served on a thin hamburger bun and garnished with iceberg lettuce and a slice of what might eventually have grown up to be a tomato. For a little more than its $9 cost, you’d be better off buying a draft Budweiser ($6.50) and a bag of peanuts ($4).
Still, long lines at the concession stands and in the official Orioles merchandise shop, where you can buy a jersey without a player’s name on it for only $89, suggest that this is not a stadium where fans are hurting for money.
Local officials are ecstatic about the record-breaking attendance in the new stadium’s first year. Quite a few of those fans traveled here from the Orioles’ hometown area, says Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau president Virginia Haley.
“We had a kiosk set up in the new stadium this spring, and we met a lot of people from the Baltimore-Washington area who were coming to Sarasota for the first time,” Haley says. “It’s not a market that we targeted much in the past, so the numbers were very encouraging.”
So what does it all boil down to? What makes, and will make, the new Ed so popular? Is it savvy marketing? The Orioles themselves? The beige walls and clay-tile roofs? Is it the lukewarm $4 hot dogs? Probably not.
In fact, I’m guessing that it’s something much simpler.
I attended a game in late March that pitted the Orioles against the popular (in some places) Boston Red Sox. The P.A. announcer whipped up the sell-out crowd with his pre-game warm-up:
“The current temperature in Boston? Forty-one degrees!”
“The temperature in Baltimore? Thirty-seven degrees and snowing!”
(Much louder cheers.)
“And the temperature in Sarasota, Florida? A balmy 83 degrees!”
(General pandemonium. Joyous applause. Stamping of feet. Waving of $6.50 Budweisers in sun-pinked fists.)
It’s the weather.
David Grimes writes a weekly humor column for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He is the author or co-author of six books; the most recent is Florida Curiosities, Volume Three.