Stadium's first foul ball: Big dugouts to be shrunk Too high, too long

field seats to result

November 28, 1991|By Mark Hyman

Since they became partners in building a downtown ballpark three years ago, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Baltimore Orioles have collaborated on lots of decisions.

They've picked a color scheme for the ballpark hallways (featuring Camden Green). They decided on a gentle slope for the upper deck (a fan-friendly 31.5 degrees). They even agreed that the name should be Oriole Park at Camden Yards, though the negotiations lasted longer than some marriages.

But the latest joint decision has to rank among the most memorable: Starting next week, they're going to be demolishing the dugouts.

The Orioles and the Stadium Authority are not trying to create the first major-league ballpark where players would be forced to store their gloves under box seats. Rather, they're hoping to correct a glaring mistake they committed in the planning of the $105.4 million ballpark -- dugouts that are a little too high and a lot too long.

Originally, the Orioles asked for huge dugouts, and got them -- the current length of the home dugout is 87 feet, 4 inches, more than 20 feet longer than their old digs at Memorial Stadium. They liked the extra underground space it created for players. They liked that the dugouts were roomy enough to handle "peak periods" -- occasions such as All-Star Games and playoff games, when normal-sized dugouts can become cramped, according to Janet Marie Smith, Orioles vice president for planning and development.

But after the dugouts were built, the Orioles noticed something they disliked. They had perhaps baseball's premier dugouts. But because of the sprawl, they also had precious few on-the-field seats.

"We realized that, by providing this grand amenity, we were taking away from Joe Fan, which is what we care about most," Ms. Smith said.

And they also were blocking the view of people behind those dugouts.

"You can see the whole field. But you can't really see a guy if he is leaning down in the on-deck circle, only his head," said Tom Rogers, project manager for the new ballpark.

The new design should take care of that and, in the long run, be profitable for the Orioles, who are paying for the renovations, estimated to cost at least $100,000. The smaller dugouts are expected to add 72 seats in the main grandstand and 12 to 24 more seats in "Triple X" boxes, to be located beside the dugouts. Similar seats at Memorial Stadium often are reserved for VIPs.

All told, that is a gain of 80 to 90 seats, which, at $13 per ticket, could mean extra revenue to the team next season of about $90,000.

Shortening the dugouts is part of the renovation job. Another will be sawing off about 2 feet from the width of the dugout roofs, a change that should greatly improve sightlines for ticket holders directly behind the bench. Under the old design, they were nearest the field. But their view was nothing to write to Cal Ripken about.

In addition to squeezing players' space, the construction also will cut the areas reserved for press photographers. Under the original plan, the outfield side of the Orioles dugout abutted a comparatively large camera pit 43 feet, 5 inches long.

The Orioles allotted a lot of space, in part to compensate for new restrictions they plan to impose on photographers. Within limits, they had been free to roam the playing field at Memorial Stadium. Because foul territory at the new ballpark has been shrunk considerably, the rules will be changed to restrict picture takers to defined areas.

Mr. Rogers said the dugout changes, though not overly complicated, are costly because of the high number of tradesmen involved. The job will require relocating some electrical systems, moving doors, installing new handrails and applying new waterproofing, said Mr. Rogers, who estimated that all the work would be finished in eight weeks.

The state is paying virtually all the costs of building the 47,000-seat ballpark, which is expected to be ready for the Orioles' 1992 opening game April 6. Among the few items the Orioles are paying for are the costs of moving to the new stadium and their office furnishings.

Through the efforts of Ms. Smith, primarily, they've also contributed heavily to the planning of the ballpark.

Ms. Smith said the Orioles "have invested millions of dollars along the way [in the stadium project], but no one has kept a running tab."

She said the Orioles took on the dugout expense because the team regards the fans' interest as vitally important.

"It's interesting how you can put the best minds to work on something and not always feel the priorities were in balance at the end," she added. "Fans matter most to us. If we have erred in any way, it will be on the side of making this a great ballpark for the fans."

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