Once they changed the name from Baltimore Arena to “First Mariner” it was as if they took a hammer to my memories and knocked a little chip off the corners. Old-timers likely felt a little twinge when they had updated the original “Civic Center” name to the trendier “Arena” back in the day as part of the harbor revitalization. This time however, they are going a little further than just changing the name – they are tearing the whole thing down. A new 18,500-seat building is going up in its place and I know it’s overly dramatic, but I feel as if it will be built over top of all my recollections.
Some of them are vivid, such as the first time I realized my Father carried a knife with him. He was from Baltimore, growing up as a minority in his neighborhood next to Memorial Stadium, and did not relish returning after dark. We were going to a particularly high profile event at the Arena and for the first time they were using metal detectors. The building only has a single entrance – which still baffles planners and attendees alike. I loved the idea of everyone coming in together. I was stunned when my Dad set off the archway and then had to sheepishly place his long blade in its worn leather case into a big garbage can. (I can now appreciate that he did this so that we could go in rather than keep his knife and turn back.) The real shocker was when I peered into the can as we hustled by – it was filled to the half way mark with a thick pile mostly made up of Saturday night special style pistols. That there was a matching can on the other side of the turnstiles did little to ease my anxiety.
The Arena was home to MISL’s top franchise, the Baltimore Blast. With a cast of colorful characters on the field and innovative marketing concepts, the crowds enjoyed a fun night for the whole family at every game. The best part however, in my humble opinion, was when the team was introduced. The lights would go down with disco strobes circulating and a tiny bit of dry ice would be unleashed as a space ship in the form of the team’s orange and gold soccer ball logo would descend from the ceiling. Once on the ground it would open it’s hatch and the team would come running through the doors. The joy in this was taking advantage of the seating only being on three sides so that the players could come from the stage side and if a youngster suspended disbelief for a moment you could imagine a clown car scenario where the entire team was crammed in there just waiting to “land” and get on with the task at hand in beating some collection of journeymen players on the hated New York Arrows. I know it sounds cheesy as I read this back – but it really was a bit of low rent magic for an impressionable youngster.
Where the building really left its mark for me was as a mecca for pro wrestling. As the northern outpost for the NWA, it formed a battleground between the WWF and it’s southern competitors and was the host of numerous historical moments. The fact that the city always came out to rabidly support either product was not lost on the companies either. My friend Chad and I, along with his aunt, were there when Tito Santana (Arriba!) won the Intercontinental title from Greg “The Hammer” Valentine in a steel cage. This was when title changes were rare and never happened on television. The place went absolutely insane! I remember how dark the building was with only a glowing cast on the cage coming from the top as people high-five and hugged as if their lives had just been changed. I was there for two nights to see a barrage of worldwide superstars and a handful of classic matches at the second Crockett Cup. I was there the only time Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan teamed up (to beat One Man Gang and King Kong Bundy) in what ended up being Sammartino’s final match of his career. I was too young to see Superstar Billy Graham win the then WWWF title from Sammartino and perhaps too old to see Ron Simmons become the first African-American to win the WCW title from Vader on that canvas.
Elvis, The Beatles, U2, The Stones have all played there (because of the stage set-up this was a great building to see a concert in.) Singers from Sinatra to Pavarotti to Otis Redding to Tom Jones and Miley Cyrus have made the old box swoon. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there. The Skipjacks minor league hockey and the old Baltimore Bullets brought athletic glory. But for me it was all about the larger than life wrestling. I only wish I had been old enough to participate in the shenanigans Ric Flair and others would get down and dirty with at the Marriott nearby.
Post any memories you have of the “dumpy old building” as The Sun has recently tagged it.