Take 48,000 baseball fans, many of whom haven't been this excited since the Orioles acquired Todd Cruz. Put them in a new ballpark they are exploring for the first time. And what have you got?
Ordinarily, traffic jams in the main concourse, looping lines at the food stands and a two-inning wait outside the women's restroom: in short, mass confusion.
But the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Orioles hope they can smooth the transition to the new ballpark on Opening Day and beyond with an elaborate system of signs that will guide fans anywhere they could want to go.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is decorated with roughly 2,000 directional and informational signs, roughly twice the number found in most major-league ballparks. There are overhead signs telling fans where to find unfamiliar sections, row and seat numbers. At several entry gates, fans will find 4-foot-tall locater maps showing every conceivable ballpark amenity. There even are 150 small panels offering fans the most basic baseball advice: Watch Out For Foul Balls.
Bruce Hoffman, the stadium authority executive director, said the planners have worked to ensure that fans won't have to search far to find the nearest public telephone or nacho stand.
"From the start, I've been concerned that the signs be clear and understandable, so the average person who doesn't know where Section 238 is could find it without a whole lot of problems," Hoffman said.
Good looks counted, too. "I wanted signs that looked sort of old-fashioned, but were short and sweet when it came to delivering the message. I've think we've done that. The signs are beautiful. They're part of the architecture."
Creating an accessible system of routes and numbers for the new ballpark wasn't easy, nor was it achieved by one person. Most elements of the plan were devised by a team of Orioles and stadium authority officials, working with the stadium architects from HOK Sports Facilities Group.
The Orioles borrowed some ideas from Memorial Stadium, where the numbers, letters and signs worked well enough. But the downtown ballpark raised many new issues.
Perhaps the trickiest question faced by the sign planners was how best to number the ballpark's 161 seating sections. At most stadiums, particularly those surrounded by parking spaces, that task is as simple as counting into triple digits. But not at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"Normally one side of the stadium is odd, the other even," said Matt Connolly, one of the key players on the ballpark graphics team, and a project designer for HOK. "That way, spectators know. Odd numbers are on the first-base side. Even, third base."
For several reasons, the cookie-cutter approach failed at the new stadium. One reason is the ballpark is wedged snugly into a city street grid, meaning all fans making their way from the stadium lot would enter the ballpark from a single direction -- heading north, to the right-field corner. Also, many fans are expected to come to the stadium on foot, mostly from the Inner Harbor, mostly arriving via the Eutaw Street/outfield corridor.
An unusual traffic pattern called for an unusual numbering system. So, at the new ballpark, Section 1, which consists of terrace boxes, hugs the right-field foul pole. From that point, sections are numbered clockwise, ending with Section 388, a region of the left-field upper deck that is roughly halfway between home plate and Lexington Market.
Other seating numbers are worth noting, if not memorizing. All lower-box seat sections are even numbers. All terrace-box sections are odd. Maybe this will help fans recall where they are and how much they paid for their tickets. But the system has another goal: to help stadium ushers and security guards quickly identify where to find a particular seat.
"Let's say a fight breaks out in a certain section. Say it is Section 13. Immediately, security knows what level and exactly where in the stadium in relation to home plate," Connolly said. "We tried to keep things as simple as possible for the operations staff."
Some signs in the ballpark may be too effective. Posted at most entrances to the seating bowl are small acrylic signs that show a beleaguered Oriole bird under attack from a hail of baseballs. The signs are intended to alert fans to the new stadium's intimate sightlines and, as a result, the increased risk they may run of being conked with a screaming foul ball.
Even before work crews had finished installing the bird signs, they began to disappear.
"We've had workers sawing those signs off with hacksaw blades as keepsakes," said Connolly, who noted that about 20 of the bird boards are missing. "They [the sign admirers] keep saying they want them to hang in a kid's bedroom. Why, I don't know."