In September 1989, Larry Lucchino, president of the Baltimore Orioles, visited Toronto's gleaming new SkyDome. He walked across the artificial turf, gazed at the retractable roof, gawked at the hotel that rises above centerfield and blinked at the monstrous video screen. Awestruck, he smiled and said, "They built the eighth wonder of the world. We're just building a nice little ballpark."
That nice little ballpark—Oriole Park at Camden Yards—made its official debut on Monday afternoon, Opening Day, when the Orioles shut out the Cleveland Indians 2-0. And Lucchino was right: It's no SkyDome. It's better—more magnificent in an understated, baseball-only, real-grass, open-air, quirky, cozy, comfortable, cool sort of way.
It's a real ballpark built into a real downtown of a real city. The famous Bro-mo Seltzer clock, a Baltimore landmark, stares in from atop the old gray tower beyond left centerfield. Looming immediately behind the rightfield wall is the enormous red-brick B&O Warehouse, so integral to the stadium that it has instantly joined Fenway Park's Green Monster and Wrigley Field's ivy-covered walls as the game's most distinctive and distinguished architectural features.
The restored 94-year-old warehouse (it has been touted as the longest building on the East Coast) features a pub, a restaurant and a souvenir shop on its ground floor. Upstairs are the Orioles' executive offices. Says Lucchino, "Rick Vaughn [the club's director of public relations] never even had a window at Memorial Stadium [the Orioles' home from 1954 through '91]. Now he looks out his window, sees this field and says he thinks he's gone to heaven."
Some 45,000 Oriole fans were thinking the same thing on Monday, as were many of the Baltimore players. "How can you not love this place?" said first baseman Randy Milligan.
The splendor of Oriole Park is in its character and in its details. It is built of brick and steel, not of concrete like the flying saucers that landed in too many major league cities starting about 25 years ago. Sunlight pours in not only from above, but, as at Wrigley, through openings between the upper and lower decks as well. The park combines elements from the best ballparks of the early 1900s—Fenway, Wrigley, Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, Crosley Field, Forbes Field—with the high-tech amenities of the 1990s: The spectacular JumboTRON video board stands above Wrigley-style centerfield bleachers and is topped by a wonderful, old-fashioned clock and two ornithological weather vanes—orioles, of course.
Oriole Park is built on the site of a saloon once owned by the father of Babe Ruth. The lefthanded Bambino would have loved these dimensions: 333 feet to leftfield, 410 to left center, 400 to center and a tantalizing 318 to right, with angled, hidden corners. The short rightfield porch is guarded by a 25-foot-high wall that's decorated with advertising (the last park to have ads in the field of play was Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, which closed in 1970) and holds the out-of-town scoreboard. Beyond the wall is the B&O warehouse standing 460 feet from home plate. Baltimore designated hitter Sam Horn spent his first batting practice in the park trying to dent the warehouse (to hit a window on one of the upper levels would take about a 480-foot shot). He failed, but he certainly won't be the last to try. "The first ball that hits it better not come off me," says O's lefthander Mike Flanagan. "If somebody hits one that far off me, my feelings will really be hurt."
This is a ballpark full of feelings, the strangest being the one you get while watching a game. As you squint in the sunlight, there is a sense that you've already seen a thousand games in this place. "You get the feeling this wasn't the first game played here," said Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken after the exhibition opener last Friday. Indeed, it's as if this ballpark comes equipped with memories.
"We went to Chicago [the new Comiskey Park] last year and it's...just a stadium." says Milligan. "It's just like in the National League. They just have stadiums. This is a ballpark. It's got the Mini Monster in right-field. It's got the tricky corners in the outfield. The Warehouse. Who can hit the Warehouse? Fans love that stuff."
Oriole Park at Camden Yards was designed by the architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK) of Kansas City, Mo. The total cost of the project was $106.5 million; it was financed by a Maryland state lottery. In seeking to capture that old-time feeling, HOK listened to a number of Oriole people, the most influential voices being those of team owner Eli Jacobs, who grew up watching games at Fenway, and Janet Marie Smith, the club's vice-president for planning and development, who nurtured the project from the time the first blueprints were drawn in December 1988.
Even Baltimore fans got their say. Months before the park was completed they were given tours, during which they offered ideas on what they wanted in their new ballpark. Among those adopted were elevated full-view bullpens and changing tables in men's restrooms.
Perhaps the happiest result is that Oriole Park marks only the beginning of a clear trend in stadium design. HOK is designing two similar structures, one for downtown Denver that will be home to the expansion Colorado Rockies and the other for the Indians in Cleveland. A Washington, D.C., firm, David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services, is designing an asymmetrical, old-fashioned park for the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
But it's fitting that the new age of the retropark is being celebrated already in Baltimore, a provincial, blue-collar, crab-cakes-and-beer town with thick roots and a thicker accent: They love dem O's in Balmer. It's a brick town, a neighborhood town, a town of families, families like the Tylers. Ernie Tyler, who never missed a game in 32 years as the ball steward at Memorial Stadium, has 11 children. Two sons, Jim and Fred, are the equipment managers for the home and visitors clubhouses. Ernie was there Monday, delivering balls to the umpire, working his old post in the new park—a natural fit. Ernie just wouldn't look right delivering baseballs in the SkyDome. And the SkyDome would look ridiculous in Baltimore.
"I couldn't see Astro Turf in this town," says Flanagan. "This is a town of tradition. This team has never had extroverted players. Characters, yes. Extroverts, no. It's a working-class park in a working-class town."
Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer and now the team's assistant general manager, says, "Any other kind of park wouldn't have fit the personality of the city and the people. It's perfect."
It's a civic love affair, this passion between Baltimoreans and their Orioles, and it was born long before the new park. In the past five seasons only the Indians and the Braves have lost more games than the Orioles, yet the O's have become even more beloved. In the last two seasons Baltimore averaged 90 losses but still drew almost five million fans. With the new ballpark, the O's may draw more than three million this season alone. "That is what makes this so special," says Milligan. "It's more than wins and losses here; it's a family thing. You never desert your family."
Never was that more evident than in 1988, when the Orioles lost their first 21 games—demolishing a major league record—en route to a 54-107 disaster. When the O's returned from a road trip with a 1-23 record, a crowd of 50,402 showed up at Memorial Stadium for their first game back. "No matter how badly we played, they came back the next day and rooted for us," says Robinson, who managed most of that pitiful season in which the Orioles still drew 1.6 million fans. "They didn't boo us. No other place in America would have done that. If they don't desert you when you're 1-23 in April, they'll never desert you."
Baltimore knows about desertion, though. The Baltimore Bullets deserted in 1973, moving to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Baltimore Colts deserted in the middle of the night in 1984, stealing away to Indianapolis. That left the Orioles as the only game in town. Says Robinson, "The fans say, 'The Orioles didn't desert us—they're our team.' "
"I can't say that bond doesn't exist elsewhere, because I haven't lived elsewhere," says Lucchino. "But I've felt it here. The fans' loyalty is something we have to nurture. It's a wonderful treasure."
That was obvious last October, during the final weekend at Memorial Stadium. Some 90 former Orioles returned for an emotional three days, capped by a tear-jerking final ceremony in which all the players slowly drifted out to their positions in a wonderful takeoff of the movie Field of Dreams. Players, writers and fans were seen openly weeping. "I don't think I'll ever have a moment like that again in my life," says Flanagan.
Maybe not, but more magic is already in the making at Camden Yards. In the stadium's dress rehearsal, an exhibition game with the New York Mets last Friday, Flanagan got the win in a 5-3 come-from-behind victory. Catching Flanagan was Rick Dempsey—a battery that worked for Baltimore as far back as 1976. And in Monday's Oriole victory, the game was completed in a crisp, oldfangled two hours and two minutes.
It seemed like old times, more ways than one.