The Ultimate Baltimore/Baseball Symbolism: Millionaires to Play in Empty, Taxpayer Financed Stadium

Camden Yards, long a symbol of downtown-development delusion, stretches a metaphor to the breaking point


Today Camden Yards, the ballyhooed baseball stadium in downtown Baltimore, will feature something never before seen in the century-plus history of Major League Baseball: an official game played with not a single paying spectator in sight.

After postponing yesterday's Orioles-White Sox game amid civil unrest, and locking in fans for a half-hour or so after Saturday night's contest with the Red Sox because of the conflict just outside the stadium gates, the team, in conjunction with MLB and state and local government officials, has decided that the best way to ensure fan safety is to not have fans.

It's no surprise that Camden Yards would play such an important symbolic role in the ongoing civic breakdown of Baltimore. The stadium has long been the prototype for showering tax dollars on millionaire sports owners in the name of spurring downtown urban renewal. As the Maryland Public Policy Institute's Louis Miserendino wrote in the Baltimore Sun on the occasion of the ballpark's 20th anniversary,

The imitators are many: St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit have built downtown baseball and football stadiums as centerpieces of their redevelopment programs.

Clearly, this approach has made their downtowns more fun, but it comes at a steep cost: the hundreds of millions spent on stadiums were not available for new schools, better roads, improved parks or other infrastructure in neighborhoods.

None of the cities that banked on downtown "stadium stimuli" have reversed their population losses. Between 2000 and 2010, Baltimore lost 30,193 residents (4.6 percent of its population), St. Louis, 28,895 (8.3 percent), Pittsburgh, 28,859 (8.6 percent), Cincinnati, 34,340 (10.4 percent), Cleveland, 81,588 (17.1 percent), and Detroit, 237,493 (24.9 percent). Meanwhile, some cities that have refused to subsidize stadiums have fared much better.

When city governments give subsidies and/or targeted tax breaks, as is wonderfully illustrated by Todd Krainin in his Reason TV video about Baltimore development promises (embedded at the bottom of this post), chances are they will make up for the revenue shortfall by jacking up taxes and fees on the rest of their subjects. All of which makes these comments on the riots from John Angelos, son of longtime Orioles owner and trial-lawyer tycoon Peter Angelos (a uniquely despised person among Orioles fans, in my experience), ring just a wee bit hollow:

[M]y greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night's property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation by diminishing every American's civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.

As Patrick Dougherty has previously observed (though using much more measured language than I), those looking for a villain in Baltimore's economic woes may want to fix their gaze up at the owner's box:

The $300 million that the City of Baltimore spent to build a stadium for a private entity could have been applied elsewhere that widespread benefit and wealth creation for its residents and left the Orioles to build the stadium themselves. […]

The true winners in the stadium subsidy game are, not surprisingly, the owners that end up making money off of generous leases to play in new stadiums that the people paying to attend and watch the games played there have actually paid for.

The other part of Camden Yards symbolism that has always stuck in my craw is what The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin calls its "urban old-timey" design. Not that there's anything wrong with how it feels in Baltimore itself (which has one of the richest old-timey baseball and urban histories in the country), but do we really need ersatz nostalgia for some mythical good ol' days in Arlington, Texas and Queens?

You don't have to be Chris Rock to note the following progression: Pro baseball teams flee inner cities during and just after the racial unrest of the 1950s and '60s, then come back in the '90s and aughts dressed up in the distinctive clothes of pre-war nostalgia after being paid handsome bribes by city officials. It's a great deal for owners, players, well-heeled fans and tourists; pretty crappy for the rest of the city.

Game time today is at 2:05 ET, for those who enjoy weird echoes (or the sounds of baseball players cussing). I certainly don't agree with Dave Zirin about everything, but I'll give him the last word:

[T]here will be something haunted about the visuals that will ensue. Whenever the Orioles play away from home, the surrounding commercial neighborhood can resemble a ghost town, revealing the inability of sports to act as an economic stimulus. Now the inside of the stadium will be the ghost town. No fans. No workers. No screaming. No cheering. As quiet as Freddie Gray.