Ballpark comes with built-in aura

April 06, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

On Day One, perhaps you will notice the concrete -- surprisingly abundant after all this talk of steel beams and brick walls -- still wearing the sharp-edged grittiness of the freshly troweled sidewalk.

And, maybe, as you enter the outer corridors by the festive concession stands beneath artfully exposed pipes and ducts, you will feel an uneasy pang that says, "Please, not another Harborplace."

But then you will walk up a ramp and into the sunlight, and ease down onto one of the slatted green seats with all that leg room. You will look around for a moment, a bit cowed by the view, and a feeling will wash over you of a thousand warm evenings in July, with night bugs swarming low on a crouched batter, runners edging from the bases and fans leaning forward for a pitch deep in the count in the late innings of a close one.

It is immediate baseball comfort and familiarity, this place, sort of like getting a brand-new baseball glove that has already been oiled and broken in, one that all you have to do is whiff the leather to conjure up the grass stains and dust from some long-past slide into home.

This easy comfort is no mean feat, considering that a new ballpark has none of the usual hooks of familiarity, such as section numbers that quickly call to mind their location. Section 34? If you're talking Memorial Stadium, that's down in right field, of course, where the beer-bellies and the blue-collars used to cheer hell-for-leather on into September.

The only blue collars you'll find in the New 34 are likely to be button-down, ensnared in silk ties. It's in the high-rent district of the lower deck, behind the chicken-wire foul screen.

But, relax, there are plenty of worthy successors to the Old 34, and practically every vantage point in the new place comes equipped with its pre-fab aura of baseball's past, present and future.

Why does it work?

Maybe it's all that green, or the quirky angles, or the foul ground that's as snug as a Little League field. Maybe it's the way the left-field grandstand curls around the foul pole, with the front rows flush up to the wall like in the old parks.

Or maybe it's the promenade beyond the right-field scoreboard, where you can stroll to the buzz of the crowd and peek in over thebleachers.

Or maybe it's the short roof that angles out over the upper deck. Yes, it's already an ornamental joy, looking as if it fell straight out of the 1930s, awaiting only Roy Hobbs to bounce one off the facing in deep left.

But wait until the first muggy Sunday afternoon, when it will become a utilitarian joy of shade and breezes. Or the first rain delay, when there at last will be some shelter for the upper-deck crowd.

Another odd little touch that somehow works is the bullpens. The bullpen dugouts can even look downright surreal from some vantage points.

They're sandwiched between equal-sized billboards, so that they, too, can look like billboards, with the seated pitchers part of the advertisement.

Then one of the pitchers stands or crosses his legs, and the illusion is akin to that of a hand suddenly reaching from the television.

But, with all of its warmth and coziness, this ballpark has its cool, pale underbelly.

The innards of the club level are enough to make your skin crawl. It is a curving hotel lobby that goes on and on, no more evocative of baseball than the back seat of George Steinbrenner's limo.

It is the alter ego of Oriole Park, and to walk down the tiled hall with its wood trim is to contemplate cellular phones and corporate logos.

Neatly smocked waitresses wheel grandiose, multi-tiered carts laden with cheesecakes and liqueurs. Sitting-room alcoves bubble out from the corridor, where people relax in plush armchairs and couches, seated with bland expressions and crossed legs while sipping cocktails and watching the game on a wall-mounted television, or watching nothing at all.

Even from out in the sunny seats of the rest of the park, the view of this level is unsettling. That belt of concrete you see curving through the sea of green for the length of the grandstand is the bunker-like facing of the club section, and the windowpanes of the luxury boxes squint back at you with the cold glare of a banker's bifocals.

One also can't help but realize that, were it not for the thick band of club-level seats, the folks in the upper deck would be a great deal closer to the action.

But enough of all that. You'll probably never be allowed in there, anyway. Ushers who guard the doors and exclusive escalators will make sure.

Try the bleachers instead.

Memorize these section numbers: 90, 92, 94 and 96.

Those are the bleacher sections of right-center field, the worthy successors to Old Section 34. They form a world unto itself, and carry the greatest potential for Dog Day wackiness.

To sit there, with the outfield at your feet and the old brick warehouse rising behind you like a sentinel, will be a joy even without considering the $4-a-head bargain. (But let the buyer beware -- from some of the seats in Section 96 you cannot see first base without craning far to the right.)

Are the bleachers, then, the best view of the game?

Hardly, and even a die-hard might not want to sit there every game. They are still far from most of the action, although their snugness with the outfield wall makes them far superior to Memorial's bleachers, which tailed away from the wall as sharply as a slicing foul ball.

Nor will the bleachers be to some people's taste even if only for a single game. Their charm is quirky, one that will be experienced right away or not at all. Those in the latter category can take comfort with a cocktail on the club level.

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