I don’t blame you for being concerned. When the Orioles moved back their left-field wall to create an artificial quirk in a ballpark that didn’t need it—to cut back on the number of homers to the short porch, even though, to the best of my understanding, O’s hitters were allowed to take advantage of it as well—the first thought in everyone’s mind was, Oh no! How can the Orioles afford this? Moving that wall cost $3.5 million! If this team had $3.5 million just lying around, couldn’t they have spent it on a pitcher who maybe didn’t give up so many home runs to left? Worry not, for the O’s didn’t have to spend a penny on that gratuitous renovation. Maryland taxpayers are footing the bill, in the form of giving the team a discount on rent. Oh no! Couldn’t the state of Maryland use that money for something more important and/or practical than a cosmetic change to a beautiful, perfect ballpark? Worry not, for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has an answer to that. “This [expenditure] is a tiny one compared to the rest of the improvements that will have to be made to extend the lease,” Hogan said. Oh no!
Say what you will about Hogan, but he wasn’t lying about that. Over the weekend, quietly and without much public debate, the state legislature approved borrowing $1.2 billion to spend on upgrades to the Orioles’ and Ravens’ stadiums. That’s the quid. The quo will be both teams renewing their leases once they’re up, and staying in Baltimore, even though neither seemed particularly interested in leaving.
In fact, no one even noticed it when the legislature authorized the ransom payment, coming as it did in the middle of a marathon weekend session. The wider public only became aware via an announcement by the team, teased in that format usually presaging momentous news along the lines of Our owner died, or perhaps The tank is over. But no, it was neither. It was merely a bat flip of a statement from John Angelos celebrating the public money the O’s were able to extort through their previous refusal to sign a lease without that cash. Happy home opener, fans.
Six hundred million dollars per team, for renovations! Camden Yards only cost $110 million to build! Even in today’s money, the cost of initial construction was barely a third of what the Orioles are now getting to throw on a new coat of paint. The lion’s share of that $600 million will come out of Maryland’s lottery revenues, which, as Neil deMause points out, currently goes toward education spending and the general fund. But neither of those things can promise John Means as an opening day starter, so you tell me which is the better investment.
Camden Yards turns 30 this year, and the notion that it’s not good enough is maybe even more galling than teams like Texas and Atlanta fleeing their stadiums before three decades had elapsed. It’s Camden Yards! It is perhaps the perfect ballpark experience. It is a gem, a paragon of exactly how to incorporate an urban stadium into the surrounding neighborhood, and it has aged wonderfully if it’s aged at all. It remains a destination no matter the team playing inside of it. No one in history has ever spoken the phrase, “I would love to go watch the Orioles play, if only Camden Yards were a little nicer.”
The opposite is more likely. The O’s are bad. They’re bad on purpose, so we don’t have to belabor the point. But it is worth noting that doing the stadium extortion dance now, in Year Whatever of a However-Many-Years Tank (and is it truly a tank if the endgame appears not to be a plan to compete but rather to run out the clock until Peter Angelos dies?), flies in the face of the gentleman’s compact that usually governs new stadium deals. We give you something to cheer for, and you give us a stadium, is in rough terms the agreement. The Bills, for example, know the steps to that dance, waiting as they did until the team was a real contender to squeeze New York for a new stadium. Civic pride is easier to put a price tag on than civic shame. But the Orioles do not feel beholden to their end of any bargain. They will take Maryland’s money, as they take their fans’ money and MLB’s national TV money and freer-spending clubs’ money as revenue sharing, and offer nothing back. It’s slightly insulting, to see the stadium grift laid so bare without even a patina of reciprocity: We get $600 million, and in return, fuck you.
(Oh, the team and their compensated economic experts will happily tell you all about the positive economic impact of a stadium, even though researchers not being paid to arrive at a certain answer will, nearly unanimously, not arrive at said answer. John Angelos’s letter throws around big numbers, like “more than ten billion dollars in economic tourism impact.” But if you would like to know how far to trust any numbers offered up by the Orioles, consider that Monday’s home opener was announced as a sellout, and then look at the actual crowd. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.)
No, the real reason the Orioles and Ravens will be getting $1.2 billion is because this is Baltimore, a city still traumatized by the loss of the Colts. That is the teams’ largest bit of leverage, and the only leverage they really need. The city and state will never let a franchise leave again, will spend whatever it costs to keep them, even without waiting for those franchises to agitate about leaving. It is, in a certain light, a commitment. In another light it’s a preemptive ransom payment. But the appeal of Baltimore, through the eyes of an owner, is that a modern-day team need not even make the vulgar effort of holding the city hostage; it’s already hostage to its past.