Friday, June 24, 2011

Making Sports Heritage Pay

It always surprises me to see how one city capitalizes on its sports heritage and another does not.  Take the case of Montreal, Quebec and Lake Placid, New York.  Located only 100 miles apart the two cities share a common history but could not be more different from each other.  Montreal, a city of 1.6 million inhabitants, hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics.  Lake Placid, a town of approximately 2,500 residents, hosted the 1980 Winter Games only four years later.

References to the 1980 XIII Olympic Winter Games are everywhere in Lake Placid.  A visitor to the tiny upstate New York town sees Olympic banners adorning the Main Street, stores with Olympic apparel, and hotels, restaurants, and attractions celebrating the events of February 1980.  In Lake Placid the Olympic spirit is everywhere and permeates everything.  For more than 30 years Lake Placid has capitalized on the events of twelve winter days in 1980. 

The atmosphere could not be more different in Montreal, host of the Games of the XXI Olympiad.  The Olympic venues are mostly still there.  Olympic Stadium, location of the opening and closing ceremonies is a city landmark, but has been unused since the Expos moved to Washington.  The Olympic Rowing Basin is still there, but serves more as a novelty during the Formula One Grand Prix. Even the Olympic Village, residence for the athletes during the ‘76 games, is still there although now serving as rental apartments.  But references to the Summer Games are no where to be found.  There are no banners, no museums, no stores and no attractions.  For Montreal, it is as if the games never happened.

And that may be the way Montreal wants it.  The Olympic Games were a disaster for North America’s French city.  Current estimates for the construction and maintenance of Olympic Stadium alone top $1.61 billion (Canadian).  All for a structure that hosts no major sports team.  In fact, it wasn’t until December of 2006, thirty years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, that Montreal finally paid off its debt for the 1976 games.  Montreal’s Olympic experience was a nightmare.

Lake Placid also ran a deficit for hosting the Olympics.  But the $4.3 million deficit has been earned back many times over in tourist dollars.  For the restaurants, stores, and hotels it is the only business in town.  The difference is obvious.  Lake Placid embraces its sport heritage...Montreal is running from it.  One city is proud...the other just wants the memory to go away.   

Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How to Keep Score

I’ve been playing and coaching baseball and softball for more than fifty years now, and one of the absolute joys of the game is keeping score and compiling statistics. The different eras of baseball, after all, can be contrasted and compared better than any other sport, because of statistics.

In my basement you’ll find box after box crammed with scorebooks, and while they primarily serve as historic snapshots of by-gone games played by by-gone players, those books also vividly demonstrate that the standard guidelines for keeping score are more often than not replaced by abstract offerings from the mostly ignorant masses searching for ways to interpret and record what just happened on the field.

In amateur ball, the person responsible for scorekeeping may vary from inning to inning, game to game. And each scorekeeper, guaranteed, brings his or her special nuance to the page. To record an infield putout, for example, some game trackers use the conventional system wherein numbers are assigned to each defensive position. A 6-3 putout means the shortstop (6) fields a grounder and throws to first (3) for the out. But I’ve seen that same play recorded by letters: GO (groundout), S-1st.

And while there are as many ways to keep score as there are scorekeepers, there’s something else going on that’s worth mentioning here. Scorekeeping seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. If I ask some of the young guys on our softball team to keep score, they look at me like I’ve got a hole in my head! They don’t know how. Go to an Orioles game and look around. Virtually no one keeps score any more. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, you went to the ball game, bought your game program with the scorecard, and kept score. I remember asking my father how to record tricky plays, over and over and over.

All of which leads me to announce that on Saturday, June 25, at 4pm at Sports Legends, we are going to have a program on how to keep score. Every MLB game is recorded by an official scorer provided by the home team. It is his job to keep score, rule on whether a play is a hit or error, and interpret the game according to official scorekeeping standards. Jim Hennemann is the Orioles official scorekeeper. Bill Stetka used to be. Both will be at Legends to discuss and demonstrate how to keep score…the right way.

But -guaranteed- they will tell you that even in their official capacity they still find ways to deviate from the norm, which makes every page of every scorebook a unique interpretation of another chapter of the greatest game ever invented, our national pastime.

Come on down to Legends; you’ll be glad you did.

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Taking Back Our Yard

October 15, 1997. I had just started working at the B&O Railroad Museum and was asked to stick around after work for a late meeting. I was a little annoyed because it was Game 6 of the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians. The Orioles had gone wire-to-wire under Davey Johnson with a 98-64 record. They were one game away from the World Series. This was going to be the year.

From my office I could hear the crowd’s every reaction to the action on the field, the cheers, the sighs, the clapping. “No worries…” I thought…after all…there would be other playoff games. 

Fast-forward to the present. It is hard to believe that fourteen years have passed since the Orioles were last in the playoffs. Hard to believe it has been fourteen years since we had a winning season. Hard to believe that this year’s college sophomores hadn’t started kindergarten the last time the Birds finished a season over .500. A whole generation has come to age not knowing what it feels like to support a winning hometown baseball team.

Oriole Park is still the magnificent ballpark that set the standard for all others. It is still the gem of downtown Baltimore. The team has a skipper that is determined to win. The front office under Andy MacPhail has returned to the team’s roots of developing young talent in the minor league system. The ownership has even spent money on some star power.

So what is missing? The answer is simple…us. As a baseball fan it is sad to see Oriole Park nearly empty on a mild Friday night when the Birds take on one of their AL East Division rivals. It is sad to see whole sections of that beautiful ballpark go unused. It is time for us to come back.  

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to join a group led by Debbie and Steve Peroutka called “Take Back Our Yard” ( The group buys blocks of Orioles tickets when the Yankees or Red Sox are in town to help bring orange back to the ballpark. In addition to the camaraderie of other Orioles fans, participants get orange Oriole t-shirts and a pre-game party at the Sports Legends Museum. The catch? Wear orange and do not sell or give away the tickets to opposing fans.

The idea for “Take Back Our Yard” came from Debbie Peroutka. She and her husband Steve were out for a drink one night when they heard a young golfer refer to Oriole Park as “Fenway South.” The couple was irritated. Debbie determined right there that they were going to take back Oriole Park one section at a time. “In the tradition of Big Wheel and Wild Bill Hagy, Steve Peroutka said of his wife, “Debbie wants to be the cheerleader for the next big comeback.”

Debbie Peroutka is exactly what Oriole Park needs. “We want companies, or little leagues, or whatever organization to say ‘let’s buy a section’ with everyone wearing orange,” says husband Steve. Every grassroots movement has to start somewhere.  It is needed. We need to show our support. We need to show that Baltimore can support its team. I hope this movement catches on.

Shawn Herne is the Chief Curator for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sports Treasures in Your Attic

This Saturday, June 4, our Sports Legends Museum plays host to the sports heritage version of the Great American Antique Road Show, as Grey Flannel Auctions out of New York comes to town for a full day of free appraisals of sports treasures from your attic, study or basement. That's right, we are offering a free chance for you to once-and-for-all find out how much your great-granddaddy's Shoeless Joe Jackson autographed ball is really worth...and, just as importantly, whether it is authentic.

I have been in the business of interpreting local sports history through memorabilia for the past thirty years, and over that period the value of keepsakes has transformed from items fans collected as personal mementoes of their favorite player or significant games or events they attended to commodities valued first and foremost for their financial worth.

In 1981 the average, not historically significant, Babe Ruth autographed ball went for about $100, give or take. If you had one, that meant you either got it in a first-hand encounter with the great Bambino, or someone from your family got it and passed it to the next generation. By the early nineties that same Ruth ball was going for more than $1,000. Today, its value has increased tenfold, or more.

I expect there is a bad side and a good side to this dramatic collectibles transformation. The bad being that we, as sports fans, have fully pushed away from the original intent of securing memorabilia as personal keepsakes. The good is that that old ball or glove or jersey or photo in the moldy box in your parents' basement, which for years resided there in meaningless obscurity, might now take on a whole new meaning in terms of cash value.

Stop by Legends on Saturday and bring your old sports stuff by for a professional looksee. Grey Flannel will help you determine just what you might have...for free!

See you out there,

Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is the executive director for the Babe Ruth Birthplace Foundation, Inc.