Sure, the new ballpark is nice, but sorry, it's far from perfect

JOHN STEADMAN

March 27, 1992|By John Steadman

Not everything about the new downtown baseball park, despite the shill-like puffery, makes it the most spectacular creation since the Taj Mahal. There are imperfections.

Even constructing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, offering the first vehicular crossing after the retirement of the ferry boats, didn't occasion such trumpeting for something as simple as a ballpark. Things, indeed, are out of perspective. And this comes from a reporter who for 16 long years, before Edward Bennett Williams and Eli Jacobs arrived, was criticized for advocating a new stadium for Baltimore.

In one sweeping look, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is impressive. But, before any more of us get carried away, it should be examined objectively. Give it time to see how it "works."

If you like an instant antique concept, making the new appear old, then it will offer appeal. It is pleasing to the eye -- and truly delights the Baltimore Orioles because they got it gift-wrapped from a public that paid $265 million for the project and now the team will be able to charge you handsomely for the chance to enjoy it.

The main entrance faces toward Washington, a mere coincidence, even if some political hacks will be coming from there to drink and socialize while not knowing the difference between a fly ball and a fly on the wall.

The field is spacious, one that righthanded power hitters (333 feet down the line) aren't going to like. It is shorter by 11 feet (318 is the given measurement) in rightfield than the standardized dimension of 330 feet the major leagues established in 1956. The dugouts, locker rooms, weight rooms, indoor batting cages, whirlpools, sauna, jacuzzi and amenities for players combine to provide the millionaire athletes a working environment that exceeds the richest country club imaginable.

Unfortunately, luxurious practice and playing facilities aren't correlated to success in the American League. They should, however, put the players in a good frame of mind. Remember, though, with 48,041 seats in the park it makes the capacity 5,976 less than Memorial Stadium.

There are 72 private suites, costing from $55,000 to $75,000 per season. Only a partial view of the proceedings will be available from these well-appointed "apartments," but if you want a panorama of the game below it's necessary to go outside to your private "porch" and take a ballpark seat. It is, indeed, a different way of baseball life.

"This is not the peanuts and popcorn ballpark America grew up with," said Tom Koch, a Baltimore business executive. "It's not 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game.' It's a place to go and entertain."

Since 1954, Koch's former business partner, the late Frank Cuccia, owned the seats behind the Orioles' on-deck circle, but they were no longer available to him. Koch says he's not unhappy with his relocation but isn't where he wanted to be.

A complaint Koch and other ticket buyers express is that what were traditionally "box seats" no longer can be referred to in that context. Now his guests are accommodated in a single row of seats rather than the chumminess of a "box," which he'll be able to endure even if he won't have the privacy of conversation as heretofore.

The proximity to the field is excellent for those in the lower seating area. However, the danger of being hit by line drives is more prevalent than at Memorial Stadium. Hopefully, there won't be serious injuries. Orioles management, if it becomes a problem, could have the ushers distribute catcher's masks and chest protectors.

From an inconvenience standpoint, the width of the aisles, with a railing in the middle, is going to make it difficult for vendors to dispense their wares. On some steps, the concrete underfoot seemed difficult to walk. Admittedly, this is merely a first impression.

The top deck of the park, when compared to Memorial Stadium, appears farther away. Figures on the field seem smaller. Some bleacher seats, of which there aren't enough (1,700), are closer to the players than those costing much more, which is a peculiarity.

Pitchers will be unhappy with the lack of foul territory because an appreciable number of balls will carry into the stands, giving the hitter a longer stay at the plate.

It remains to be seen what will happen on bright afternoons when the sun reflects off buildings that are part of the Baltimore skyline. If that happens to any bothersome degree, pitchers will have reason to rejoice.

Perhaps the most serious mistake in building the park is that an enormous number of seats -- from third base to leftfield and first base to rightfield -- have not been turned toward the infield. A visit to Memorial Stadium, and taking a similar seat, confirmed that the new seats, although more comfortable, will make it difficult on spectators who have their bodies pointed in one direction but will have to turn their heads about 45 degrees to see the pitcher and the batter.

It could become a serious pain in the neck. Maybe at the end of 4 1/2 innings the fans on opposite sides of the field can arise and switch places to equalize any neck trauma that has been induced.

The field itself is 16 feet below street level so about half the spectators will walk down to their ticket locations, which is positive factor, and those headed up have a climb that isn't too taxing.

The park, overall, gets high marks. Eli Jacobs deserves to take a bow. It's what he ordered and the public bought. Some flaws are there, like with any new house that's built. How will it season? In 30 years, or so, Baltimore probably will be building another one to look modern.

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