It's a Perfect Place for a Celebration : All-Star game: Camden Yards in Baltimore is the ideal place for baseball to stage its midsummer classic.

NEWSDAY

In retrospect, San Diego probably was the appropriate site for the last All-Star game. Consider that 1992 was the year of the small (and large) market crash, the year more than two-thirds of major-league clubs reported a drop in attendance while network television indicated baseball was a lost cause, the year in which the commissioner resigned under pressure after the owners rejected his attempt to offer direction and leadership. What better place to promote the sport than a city where the undercapitalized owners were plotting to downsize the franchise to Triple-A proportions.

Not that it was public knowledge at the time. In fact, the Padres had assembled what appeared to be their best team since 1984, when they made their lone appearance in a World Series, and were in the midst of a pennant race at the All-Star break. But a week before the extravaganza at Jack Murphy Stadium, the first shots of a loud, contentious summer had been fired when Fay Vincent unilaterally ordered the realignment of the National League and the Chicago Cubs filed suit to block the plan.

By September, baseball was in state of open revolt, leading to Vincent's resignation on Labor Day. And the Padres were on their way to obscurity. Needing additional pitching to remain in contention, they instead traded valuable left-hander Craig Lefferts for two minor-leaguers and cash.

It was the start of an exodus of high-priced talent, an exodus that precipitated the resignation of general manager Joe McIlvaine in June. As of Thursday, McIlvaine is back with the Mets, where he spent a decade in the front office. He will represent management at the All-Star festivities starting today.

Which brings us to Baltimore, site of the 1993 Midsummer Classic and as fitting a location for a baseball celebration as there is in this boom year for the sport. A new commissioner has yet to be elected, the owners have decided to risk selling their own TV advertising in lieu of guaranteed revenue and the players were not amused by plans to impose another round of playoffs starting in 1994 without consultation, especially with the basic agreement up for renegotiation. And yet, despite all the negative images of the sport brought on by constant carping about money, it has been a box-office smash.

There currently are no fewer than six franchises on a pace to exceed 3 million in attendance. The Phillies, should they remain in the NL East race, could raise the total to seven. The Rockies, in their first season, are almost assured of establishing a one-season record in the neighborhood of 4.5 million.

The Orioles, All-Star hosts, happen to be one of baseball's nouveau riche franchises. Two decades ago, when they fielded some of the best teams of the modern era, they struggled to draw 1 million customers to Memorial Stadium. Approximately 3.6 million fans will enter Oriole Park at Camden Yards this season to watch a competent but undistinguished group of players.

"Not only can you not get a ticket to the All-Star game," noted Mike Littwin, a cityside columnist for the Baltimore Sun who spent his first seven years in the city chronicling sports, "you cannot get a ticket for a Tuesday night game against Cleveland. Build a new stadium and they will come."

This is the second year for the new park with old-fashioned ambience, an urban playground built specifically for baseball and in harmony with the city's rich history. "It's a Fenway, a Wrigley, with 1990s amenities," Littwin said.

But the resurgence of baseball in Baltimore didn't begin with the opening of Oriole Park. It can be traced back to 1979, when famed attorney Edward Bennett Williams purchased the Orioles from Jerry Hoffberger for the grand sum of $12 million. "Williams marketed the team and made it fashionable for people to come up from Washington," recalled Frank Cashen, the Mets' senior vice president-consultant who was the Baltimore general manager from 1966-75, a decade of artistic success.

The '79 O's were a resourceful group that surprised even itself by winning 102 games and the American League pennant. "It was not the best team in terms of talent but it was a bunch of amazing role players," said Ken Nigro, a former Baltimore sports writer and Orioles official who now runs baseball fantasy camps. "(Manager) Earl Weaver used to say, 'We have a lot of depth, and it's deep, too.' Baseball just sort of took off."

Crowds doubled almost overnight. Through good years and bad, the Orioles regularly attracted two million fans thereafter. When Eli Jacobs purchased the club in 1989, the price was $70 million.

It was Williams whose refusal to sign a new, long-term lease for Memorial Stadium set in motion the Camden Yards project. The transfer was accomplished in a moving ceremony on the last day of the 1991 season when home plate was dug up, placed in the trunk of a stretch limousine and moved to the new site downtown, when players from all 38 seasons of franchise history were invited to take their positions without a word of introduction, when a full house sang Auld Lang Syne along with the athletes. And Rick Dempsey, the former catcher and spark plug, even tucked a pillow in his uniform shirt and did his impersonation of Babe Ruth trotting around the bases.

What a perfect finishing touch. Ruth was born in Baltimore and pitched for the Orioles when they were members of the International League and his father's saloon occupied a spot in what now is left-center field at Camden Yards. In the new facility, baseball has honored its past and set the stage for the future.

When Jacobs filed for bankruptcy, the judge in the proceedings began entertaining bids for the Orioles. Two groups already have made official offers and three others are expected to do so by the Aug. 2 deadline. The high bid to date is $148.1 million. "I think it may go to $160 million," Nigro said.

The sport is thriving in former wastelands like Atlanta and in new territories like Miami. Still, there are pockets of poverty, foremost among them San Diego and Pittsburgh.

We will hear the caterwauling soon enough. Will there be a strike or a lockout in '94? Will the new playoff format ruin the pennant races? Will anybody still be watching baseball on television? These apparently are prime topics for next season when the owners, in their infinite wisdom, have selected Three Rivers Stadium as the site of the All-Star game.

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