It had the look of the mall on Christmas Eve.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards was humming in the early morning light today. Scores of laborers -- it was cold enough to think of them as Santa's elves -- were primping, painting, sweeping, scraping, cutting, cleaning. So much to do, so little time.
Baseball has finally come downtown. The days and days and days of hype and hoopla will soon be forgotten. Play ball!
"It's almost like waiting for Christmas," Lisa Waskiewicz of the Orioles' public relations staff, said. "It's never been this busy. But it's really exciting because it's a part of history."
Only yesterday, the Orioles were playing the Phillies in Florida, the Sunshine State. Today they were playing the Mets in an chilly exhibition game at the new Camden Yards park.
An icy wind whipped across the field this morning. The wind-chill index was near 10 degrees. But baseball was in the air.
Terry the Tap Dancer, formally known as construction worker Terry Hitzelberger, was putting the finishing touches on the foul ball screen behind home plate.
"I've been here over a year," he said, pausing from his work. "Beautiful park. Beautiful park."
He had a bit of a bittersweet feeling. It was the dawn of baseball at the new park, but the sun was setting on Mr. Hitzelberger's work there.
"I'll be out of job Sunday night," on the eve of Opening Day, said Mr. Hitzelberger, 47, a member of the Ironworker's Local 16 who works for BMI Construction.
His company installed seven miles of handrails, lots of gates and the left field foul pole, he said.
Today was the first day on the job for Wayne Andrew, 35, who was wiping down the stadium seats along the third-base side.
"I feel kinda' glad to be here the first day, the first game," he said.
He and about 75 co-workers, employees of Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services in Catonsville, form the stadium clean-up crew.
Near the right-field foul pole, Robert Himmel, 45, was cutting the ends of a bolts on the seats. Yesterday, he and his colleagues, employees of the Wedding Co., had adjusted the tension on some of the folding seats.
Today's job was easy. "Pretty good for $16 an hour," joked Mr. Himmel, a member of the Carpenter's Local 101.
"It's a great park," he said. "This is a good thing for the city. I'm proud to be a part of this."
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Convention Bureau was coaching taxidrivers, hotel personnel and others about being extra nice to all the out-of-towners, including scores of journalists from far and wide.
Eleanor Mulligan, a hostess at the historic Mother Seton House at 600 N. Paca St., attended the hospitality industry breakfast. She's been an Oriole fan from the very beginning, in 1954.
"It's beyond all our expectations," she said of the new ballpark.
With her sister, Kathryn, and colleagues Eileen McGinn and Kathleen Harner, she admired the lines of the park from a front-row seat near home plate.
Thirty yards away, Rodney Lane, a member of the grounds crew, was smoothing the dirt around the batter's box. Gloria Estefan's voice was booming over the public-address system: "Get on your feet."
Last night, hundreds of fans cheered the homecoming of their beloved Orioles outside the new ballpark.
Veteran catcher Rick Dempsey, who has not yet learned whether he will make the team, was the cheerleader, spelling out the HTC team name, then climbing over a barrier fence to join the fans as the brief celebration ended.
The popular player, hoping to end his career with at least one more season in an Oriole uniform, said he could not find the words to express his excitement if his dream comes true. But he seemed over whelmed just at the sight of the new ballpark.
"Everything is so first-class," he said. "It's breathtaking, it's so exciting."
The Orioles arrived an hour earlier than expected after their Florida exhibition season finale, and took advantage of the time to peek at the new and improved clubhouse and see the green virgin field of dreams bathed in the stadium lights.
An awesome moment? Maybe. But there were some practical aspects to consider.
Outfielder Mike Devereaux, for one, wanted to hear the sound system and asked if the jumbo video playback screen could be turned on for him to see.
Star shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., the 1991 American League Most Valuable Player, made an unplanned and very brief speech to the crowd. Although a far more dynamic player than public speaker, Mr. Ripken elicited a big cheer in saying the team is hoping to re-create some of the history and magic of what went on at Memorial Stadium.
He had steam in his breath from the 38-degree chill, and shook the podium with his hands in mock shivering that brought an appreciative laugh from the crowd.
Today, it was still cold enough to be Christmas. And maybe it was.
Baseball's back, all wrapped up in a new stadium.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
* Exhibition game at RFK Stadium: Orioles vs. Boston Red Sox, 1:35. TV: None
SUNDAY * Oriole Advocate 8K Race: From Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, 8:30 a.m.. Race is filled.
* Opening Week Oriole Parade, 11:30 a.m.: A 1.5-mile parade along Pratt Street.
* Oriole workout: 2 p.m. at new stadium. Tickets are $3, available at regular ticket outlets. They also go on sale at 9 a.m. Sunday at Oriole Park.
MONDAY * Opening Day: Orioles vs. Indians, 3:05 p.m. Gates open at noon. Game is sold out. TV: Channel 2.