Early yesterday afternoon, they stood in the lower box seats, looking up, surveying this latest addition to the new ballpark.
The welcoming party included all the stadium planning luminaries: from the Maryland Stadium Authority, chairman Herbert J. Belgrad and executive director Bruce Hoffman; representing the Orioles, president Larry Lucchino and vice president Janet Marie Smith.
The group had come together not to name the stadium or sign a ballpark lease. Yesterday's business was to inspect the new foul-ball net.
The net finally was lifted to its guide wires yesterday, apparently ending a year of negotiation between the Orioles and the stadium authority concerning how high the net would be above the heads of fans sitting in the stadium's choicest box seats.
Starting Opening Day, about 2,000 fans sitting underneath the net will see for themselves. For many, the view will be even closer than they had imagined: The net is posted at 9 to 10 feet.
Fans who remember Memorial Stadium's protective net will notice a significant difference. There, the net began at the backstop and swept up quickly to the facade of the mezzanine. The net at the new ballpark is relatively flat, and stops at the cross aisle that separates the lower and terrace boxes. Balls that roll that far will hit a bump and, most often, roll back into the waiting arms of Orioles ball steward Ernie Tyler.
Given a choice, few ticket holders sitting behind the plate probably would choose the lower net. But yesterday, the adjustment to the new height seemed minimal. Through the white nylon netting -- similar to the material used on the Orioles batting cage -- the playing field was easy to see. The screen, though only several feet overhead, did not seem confining.
The Orioles and the stadium authority did not start out to create a low net. To a large extent, the decision has been dictated by the ballpark's intimate sightlines. The net could have been raised to roughly 15 feet above the last rows of lower box seats, but only by lifting the barrier above the first level of the press box, which sits unusually low in the stadium, directly behind the terrace seating level.
The Orioles could have chosen that route. But among the print reporters, the notion of watching Cal Ripken bat through a net for 81 games would not have been wildly popular.
"We wouldn't be happy, but I am not sure we'd have a whole lot to say about it," said Peter Schmuck, who covers the Orioles for The Sun, and chairman of the Baltimore chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Schmuck said he knew of no other major-league park at which writers see the game through such a net. And if the Orioles' stadium were to become the first?
"I don't think it makes that much difference as far as covering the games. But it would obstruct the view."
Hoffman said the goal of the stadium authority has been to create the best sightlines for everyone, fans and media.
"There's a marriage here we are trying to make work," he said. "You have the writing press. You have 2,000 fans. You don't want to hurt anybody's view."
The stadium authority and the Orioles have tried to choose a net that will be least noticeable over the heads of the fans. "It's as transparent as we can make it," Hoffman said of the nylon netting.
And it is far better than the alternative. For months, the plan was to equip the ballpark with a screen of wire mesh. About two
weeks ago, the ballpark planners abandoned that idea. The material was not as easy to see through. And because it could not be stretched as tightly as netting, the 9-foot clearance seemed even less.
"The wire mesh was too heavy, difficult to work with and wouldn't hold its shape," said Bob Wyatt, the ballpark's construction manager. "There was no amount of tension we could do to make it work."
And there was another problem, one Wyatt noticed when he stood at second base and looked back at the screen -- a nasty reflection.
"It is a galvanized product. So, when you looked at it from the bTC field, you couldn't see," he said.
Wyatt and others hope the netting is the answer to their problems. He, for one, isn't worried much about ticket holders bumping their heads.
"If we got Wilt Chamberlain in the ballpark, it might come within a few inches of his head. But it will be fine for any reasonable fan," he said.