A 'familiar-from-the-start' ballpark with a perfect fit

Dan Rodricks

April 07, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

The people who designed and built Oriole Park at Camden Yards have achieved something extraordinary -- they have created a place that makes first-time visitors feel they have been there before, a ballpark that is at once new and familiar.

I know that sounds like a cheap pickup line -- "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" -- but the sentiment is genuine. The emotional impact of this place -- the gestalt Americana of Camden Yards -- is as total as it is pleasing. But it does not result from smart architecture alone. It derives from the happy confluence of smart architecture and a magical something indiscernible in the blueprints. This place seems familiar at first sight not because of slick contrivance, some trompe l'oeil of green paint and brick arches. It is a real phenomenon in our midst, a baseball park that seems as though it has been in place in Baltimore for 90 years. You arrive there not knowing what to expect yet feeling increasingly at home with every step you take.

Obviously, the place is modern and customized for the well-heeled. There is luxury that we have not seen in public

accommodations in Baltimore (with the possible exception of a couple of fancy hotels that feature towel warmers in marble baths). And it's obvious who the preferred customers are. When they sat down to make a seating plan, the architects probably drew the rim of "club level" executive suites before they drew the foundation lines.

But forget all that. Executive suites have nothing to do with baseball. They are for people who talk mutual funds instead of ERAs, people with clients who require full-time schmoozing, even, if you can believe it, while Cal's batting.

The better perspective on Oriole Park comes right off the street and into The Yards. That's where I'm coming from.

I say accord the architects, planners, graphic designers and all the detail elves the great credit they deserve. They did what they said they would do, and they made the transition from blueprint to concrete and steel superbly.

But Oriole Park, and Camden Yards on which it sits, has a certain something, a star quality, a charm to the nth degree. It has an aura of being a place that once was filled with spectators in straw boaters and players in baggy flannel. It acknowledges baseball's past without crossing the line to nostalgia theme park.

Ironically, Camden Yards' baseball roots are limited to an amusing connection to Babe Ruth's saloon-keeping family -- Ruth's Cafe was located in what is now center field -- yet a visitor is made to feel that this has long been a hallowed ground of the national pastime. After all the debating about whether to build, then where to build, it turns out the location could not be more perfect.

That Wall -- the west wall of the B&O warehouse beyond right field -- is a wonder of the world of baseball myth.

That's not hype. I hate hype. I hate instant anything, from coffee to legends. I dismiss men and places that brag of being legendary without having earned their reputations and inspired great stories. But we can be forgiven for attaching fable to the wall on the first day of the season because its marriage with the ballpark seems utterly perfect. Baseball fans will soon speak of it the way they speak of the Green Monster in Boston and the Upper Deck in Detroit. It will be The Warehouse in Baltimore, and left-handed batters will aim for its windows the way they once aimed at remote targets near sandlots, playgrounds and farm fields. How satisfying it is to contemplate grown men trying to repeat the offenses of their youth by breaking a neighbor's window with a ball off a bat.

I sat deep and high above centerfield for part of yesterday's game, and there was a moment when Brady Anderson's bat connected with the ball and the sharp crack, the familiar sound of wood, reached fully to my ears. I felt connected to the game, pulled in from my remote seat by an acoustical magic that other stadiums lack.

Almost everywhere I walked -- except, of course, for the overly swanky, executive-suite-excess level -- I kept coming back to this idea that Oriole Park is splendid because it feels familiar from the start. That might sound like an ad man's hype; in fact, a recent mail-order catalogue from a yuppie clothing manufacturer bragged of a polo shirt that feels "familiar from the start." But this is a reality of Oriole Park.

It makes us think of other ballparks, real -- Fenway? Wrigley? -- or imagined -- the home field of The New York Knights in "The Natural"? -- where we have been before. That it doesn't at all imitate Memorial Stadium means, for Baltimore fans, that the familiarity comes from somewhere else, some place in memory or imagination, some place deep inside.

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