Out in Left Field

September 02, 1992

Despite the near-unanimous plaudits for the new ballpark and the excitement of an unexpected pennant race by the Orioles, there is a sour note at Camden Yards. Hundreds of fans are bitter about their seats around the left-field foul pole. Others complain that high-priced seats well down the right-field line and some of the terrace boxes are inferior. Were these design errors, or is the problem a public relations blunder by the Orioles?

Stadium Authority and Orioles officials deny the controversial seats are the result of bad design. Quite the contrary, they say. Either some seats were going to face straight out into the outfield, with the infield action off at a 45-degree angle, or the ballpark would have looked a lot different. To point all seats toward the pitcher's mound, for example, would have resulted in a more oval shape with all seats much farther from the field. One of the ballpark's most endearing features is its irregular shape with minimal foul territory separating the fans from the action.

The people responsible for the design have a point. Even in hallowed Fenway Park in Boston, spectators have to turn their heads while seated barely past the base paths. But Fenway is much smaller, and the sightlines are shorter. The fortunate occupant of a lower box seat behind the first base coach's box at Camden Yards still has to look at an angle to see the pitcher and batter. There are trade-offs in any design; the Camden Yards designers may not have made the worst choices.

Where the Orioles erred was in human relations. They priced seats in the left-field elbow the same as seats on the base paths. Those lower box seats near the foul pole shouldn't be called box seats at all. Adjoining lower reserved seats have better sight lines. Many of these seats were sold to season ticket holders whose expectations had been inflated by the hoopla over the new ballpark. Instead of getting better seats than at Memorial Stadium, they got worse. Their fury was predictable.

The season is in its last five weeks, and most Orioles fans would take anything they could get for seats at a playoff or -- can we dream? -- a World Series. The authority and the Orioles are aware they have a problem and are looking at the options. Enhanced sensitivity to the fans' complaints must be an integral part of any solution.

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