Making a ballpark the old-fashioned way STADIUM DESIGN WAS A PRODUCT OF TRADITION AND REVISION

March 29, 1992|By Mark Hymantaff | Mark Hymantaff,Staff Writer

At the start, the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority knew they wanted something special. Much beyond that, no one could say.

Edward Bennett Williams, then the Orioles' owner, "clearly dictated" two terms -- that the ballpark would be open-air and that it would have a natural grass playing field, recalled Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The memorandum of agreement, the pre-lease document that Williams signed, binding the Orioles to a new home for 15 years, referred to the project as a "baseball park," not a stadium. In the lease, there is mention of "intimacy" and of choosing a design "that meets the sophisticated aesthetic standard of downtown Baltimore."

That's a start. But how do you go from there to a finished ballpark with 48,000 seats, asymmetrical outfield dimensions, a right-field wall that is taller than many found at federal prisons and -- topping it all -- an eight-story warehouse building peering down on every pitch?

For one thing, you proceed carefully.

With a Memorial Stadium crowd of 50,000 fans cheering each word, Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced the agreement between the Orioles and the stadium authority on May 2, 1988. The comprehensive design of the new ballpark -- complete with brick facade, criss-crossing steel trusses and gently sloping exit ramps -- was announced more than a year later, June 11, 1989.

The year had been a tragic and eventful one. In August 1988, Williams finally lost his 11-year battle with cancer, leaving the team, and the long-term lease commitment, to his wife, Agnes.

In December, Mrs. Williams agreed to sell the team to a group led by New York financier Eli S. Jacobs, and the sale was approved by major-league owners the following June. By then, many of the critical design decisions had been made. Among them: to put the ballpark at Camden Yards, near an old, recycled train yard; to build a stadium that was traditional in look but offered fans every modern convenience.

The stadium authority was first to become intrigued with the idea of saving the 94-year-old building. In the early stages of their talks, Belgrad said, "The Orioles did not agree or disagree."

For the Orioles, the decision was complicated. The warehouse gave the ballpark a distinctive look and identity. It lent an air of tradition that team officials had promoted in discussions about the ballpark itself.

On the other hand, saving it meant saying yes to some inconveniences and limitations. The stadium authority's interest in saving the building held only if the Orioles were willing to locate their executive offices in it, rather than in offices created for them in the bowels of the new ballpark.

The decision came down to this: Save the warehouse and enhance the ballpark design. Or raze the building and shorten the walk from the executive suite to the home-team clubhouse.

The Orioles chose the former.

Principal design architect Joe Spear, senior vice president at HOK Sports Facilities Group, is glad they did.

"It would not be the same design without that building. It would be a very different, actually, very strained, design." he said. The warehouse, Spear said, blotted out lots of downtown distractions - "There a high traffic road on the other side of the warehouse, a MARC station. There's a lot going on there."

When the warehouse debate was closed, others popped up. Jacobs inherited a design that did not totally thrill him. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but in written responses to questions about the ballpark, Jacobs confirmed that the first design he reviewed "didn't seem to fit."

"I thought it looked like a spaceship," the Orioles' owner said. "It didn't reflect traditional baseball values."

At the time, the ballpark had been designed with four levels: upper and lower decks, plus separate levels for sky boxes and the ballpark's roughly 4,500 upscale club seats.

The original design might have meant shorter lines for cappuccino on the luxury levels, but at the expense of Joe Fan. As a fourth level, the upper deck would have been pitched relatively steeply -- about 33 degrees -- a necessity if fans in the back rows were to have unobstructed views of the field. But if one deck were removed, the geometry would be changed markedly.

Spear recalled meeting Jacobs and a friend at Royals Stadium in Kansas City on a Sunday in 1989 to prowl that ballpark's upper deck -- pitched at 33.1 degrees -- and to respond to the owner's pointed questions.

"He asked if our ballpark was going to be this steep, and I told him, currently, yes," Spear said. "He was very concerned. He said we should think of ways to lower that."

It was left to Spear to devise a solution to the upper-deck dilemma, which he did by combining the private suites and club seats onto a single, climate-controlled level. In turn, that brought the pitch down to a vertigo-resistant 31 degrees.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.