SOAPBOX • Fans may be obsessed, but they're also looking out for Portland's future

Stephen C. Skidmore, a citizen of Portland who died Jan. 18, 1883, left a fountain behind 'to beautify and bless' his adopted home. The following words, penned by attorney and author C.E.S. Wood, are etched on the downtown fountain Skidmore contributed funds for: 'Good citizens are the riches of a city.' They also are seared into my memory.

It was November 1982. We stood there, the six of us, wearing nothing but boxers and high-tops. My fraternity pledge brothers and I had been abandoned and given one simple mission: 'Memorize these words and explain their meaning.'

I remember not caring at all what the words meant. My needs were more pressing and pragmatic: Avoid hypothermia and a felony conviction for indecent exposure.

Over the years, the words would occasionally come back to me: 'To beautify and bless' and 'Good citizens are the riches of a city.' In short, I realized that Mr. Skidmore left Portland better off than he found it.

And now, Portland faces opportunities far greater than a turn-of-the-century fountain. The OHSU tram, Memorial Coliseum renovation and a major league baseball park are all under consideration. It is the ballpark that fuels the greatest debate.

Yes, I am one of them Ñ a proponent of major league baseball and a new downtown stadium. I have engaged in the baseball debate recently and find myself puzzled by the opposition. I am not a fan of the theater or symphony. Yet in my worst moment, I would never lie down in the path of a new concert hall and viciously protest its arrival, knowing that funds would not be siphoned from basic services and the schools my children attend.

It is this attitude that I find most perplexing: the stubborn insistence that baseball and schools are mutually exclusive, that the well-being of one demands the nonexistence of the other. I wonder about the opposition's true motivation. Especially when a ballpark would bring jobs, development and tax revenue for these very schools.

Is there anyone in Massachusetts who would claim that the Boston Red Sox are just as important as the Boston public school system? I doubt it. And yet the Red Sox are inseparable from their community. Schools and baseball coexist.

Perhaps the antibaseball hysteria stems from a misunderstanding of the baseball bill or, perhaps, of baseball fans themselves. You see, we are not the beer-swilling, school-hating Neanderthals that some have suggested. Rather, the baseball fan is a sentimentalist at heart. We dream about Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field, and of the day that Portland will have its own classic ball yard.

My friends frequently ask about my obsession with baseball. I simply say, 'The ballpark is the one place this 40-year-old man is given the freedom to be a 10-year-old boy once again.'

Today, my family and I occasionally visit Portland's Saturday Market. My children are instantly drawn to the Skidmore Fountain. I watch as my 3-year-old jumps in the water and splashes, oblivious of the fountain's benefactor. I stand at the very place I stood 20 years ago and read the words again: 'To beautify and bless.'

Some 70 years after Skidmore's passing, I again realize that Portland is more beautiful and its citizens more blessed because of Skidmore's gift. I look again at my daughter splashing in the water. I watch, and I wonder. Seventy years from today, what blessings will we have bestowed upon Portland's future residents? Will we be viewed as having been good citizens?

I truly desire a timely resolution to the school funding crisis. I also desire major league baseball and the blessing of a new ballpark. Baseball and properly funded schools are not mutually exclusive. We can and should pursue both.

James A. Murphy lives in Cedar Mill and works in the insurance business. He was able to avoid hypothermia 20 years ago and to this day is felony-free.

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