Architecture's Bridge to Ballpark Memories

April 07, 1991|By ROSLYN A. MAZER

As we Orioles fans contemplate our good fortune at Memoria Stadium tomorrow, we should be grateful for the lucky bounce that will also guarantee our continued baseball pleasure at Camden Yards next year.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

In their first shaky season in the big leagues, Houston baseball fans poured into the first domed stadium in April, 1965 to watch President Lyndon Johnson throw out the first pitch. But a structure which Houston parvenu Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz promised would create a perfectly controlled environment and "grandeur . . . for the bleacher fan and the country club member" had skylights which nearly blinded its outfielders.

A $20,000 coat of acrylic paint diffused the sunlight, but wilted, then killed off the Tifway Bermuda grass imported from Georgia. Judge Hofheinz ordered the dead grass to be painted green. When this, too, failed to yield a permanent solution, a three-eights-inch carpet called "Astroturf" replaced the grass in 1966.

One can appreciate the frustration of Houston fans, one of whom, writer Larry McMurtry, said the Astrodome looked like "the working end of a gigantic roll-on deodorant."

Houstonians and their comrades-in-suffering under domes in Minneapolis, Seattle and Toronto continue to pay the awful price which has inspired the rebirth of the old-time ballpark tradition in Baltimore. Instead of domes which require engineers to compute the hazards of rapid body heat build up, the visionaries at Camden Yards are putting scale models into wind tunnels and water tanks to replicate the flight of a batted ball between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. with a prevailing wind blowing from the northwest, from 51 hit directions and five "launch angles."

Instead of the mind-numbing hum of scrubbers and filters keeping the air perfectly cooled to 72 degrees, Baltimore's lucky fans who brave the sunshine, fresh air and cool breezes will be treated to reduced foul ball territory (meaning fewer foul-ball outs and more exciting moments) and back-to-back bullpens three feet above field level so we can see who is warming up.

The ballpark at Camden Yards promises to bring full circle the uneven march toward architectural enhancement of baseball's pleasures. Manufactured nostalgia. A refurbished B&O train station and warehouse -- landmarks preserved and integrated into a design which will instantly identify this place as Baltimore's place for baseball.

A gently sloped upper deck, roomy seats, adequate parking facilities, soothing green steel beams instead of massive concrete -- all will contribute to unmediated baseball pleasure for fans and players.

But a fan is tethered to a ballpark in a hundred ways through the years, making the prospect of a forced exit a bit unsettling.

The second of two daughters in a family with no sons, I was a Colts and Orioles fan from the start, finding sports to be a wonderful way to share an afternoon with my father. His soul seemed bonded more to football than baseball; I have vivid memories of him pounding the walls in despair at our Rockfield Avenue house when Johnny Unitas fumbled a rain-slick football on the ten-yard line, with a minute to go in a 1966 game against Green Bay, costing the Colts the Western Conference title. The primal chant, "Kill, Bubba, Kill," still echoes whenever I'm in the upper deck at the stadium.

My lifelong passion for baseball emerged in 1966, when Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Paul Blair were my teen-age heroes. I attended my first World Series game that year. The rush of anticipation jogging up the ramp at Memorial Stadium was rewarded with Frank Robinson's solo home run off Don Drysdale in the fourth inning, clinching the series, 4-0, against the Dodgers on October 9.

A 1967 graduate of Western High School (the last year of Western's downtown campus), I remember leaning out of the windows overlooking Howard and Centre streets with my friends during the World Series parade. Baseball's offerings and coming of age in a downtown, urban setting happily merged when I was seventeen.

For the last 25 years, my baseball connections have been richer and more complicated. I now live and practice law in Washington, but attend as many as 30 home games and listen always, with humble and riveted gratitude, to Jon Miller's exceptional radio tutorials.

Even when I'm not in Baltimore -- at spring training in Florida, an Orioles road game in Detroit, the heartbreaking season closer in Toronto in 1989 or a charming Carolina League All Star game in Durham Park -- each new chapter in my baseball education provokes a ready comparison to this familiar place.

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