Building the ballpark, an ego at a time

May 25, 1993|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

Peter Richmond's "Ballpark" has much about it to recommend to baseball readers, even at $23, even though it is under attack from most of the book's chief subjects, the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority.

First, there is the story, which is much more than a tale about a construction site at Camden Yards. To be sure, the new stadium is the centerpiece, but the book is filled with rich subtext: Memorial Stadium, Edward Bennett Williams, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Earl Weaver.

Another nice thing is Mr. Richmond, who simply is one of the most gifted sportswriters around. He could make a visit to an Eastern Shore sod farm into an exhilarating moment. And in this book, he has.

But the book isn't perfect and, depending on who is doing the critiquing, it may not even be an accurate depiction of how the ballpark came to be built.

Just ask the Orioles and the stadium authority, who aren't exactly racing to the bookstores to make a financial success of Mr. Richmond's work.

Last week, they fired off a tersely worded joint statement panning the book for its "serious factual errors, misstatements and uninformed opinion."

They're also unhappy with Mr. Richmond for calling attention to their closed-door quarrels about everything from what to name the ballpark to what color to paint it. In doing so, Mr. Richmond has ignored a solid working relationship, they say, and left the book's readers with a "distorted picture."

In one important way, the Orioles and the stadium authority have a point. "Ballpark" is loaded with errors that, though not life-threatening, do make it -- and him -- vulnerable to attack.

The mistakes are everywhere. On Opening Day 1991, the Orioles did not lose 5-1; they lost 9-1. Jay Ballard was not the losing pitcher; thename was -- remember? -- Jeff Ballard.

Mr. Richmond writes that Herbert J. Belgrad, the stadium authority chairman, picked up his law degree from the University of Maryland at College Park. Half-right. The university's law school, on Greene Street, is nearer to left field than some of the ballpark's on-site parking spaces.

Attention carpenters and private-suite owners: The wood inlay that adorns the posh club level at the ballpark is cherry, not Honduran mahogany.

But the book is not about wood trim or Opening Day box scores. It's the story of a couple dozen people -- architects, sod farmers, brick layers, public servants -- who embarked on a bumpy four-year collaboration to build a perfect ballpark.

In Mr. Richmond's book, the stadium planners have their dreams, ambition, commitment to making the ballpark an enjoyable place. But most of all, they have egos.

They build a jewel of a ballpark, sharing ideas and working together. But underlying it all is a largely unspoken tug-of-war among the planners over who deserves credit for the success of Camden Yards.

Pay attention now. This gets complicated.

In "Ballpark," Orioles president Larry Lucchino gets credit for seeing the wisdom of a baseball-only park before anybody else; Mr. Belgrad for saving the historic B&O Warehouse; a former stadium authority executive, Chris Delaporte, for suggesting to Mr. Lucchino that he hire stadium grand dame Janet Marie Smith; and a Los Angeles art critic/baseball fan, John Pastier, for filling Ms. Smith's head with Camden Yards ideas that, Mr. Pastier claims bitterly, she conveniently adopted as her own.

It's lively reading for those with an interest in the politics of Camden Yards. The whole thing fits together quite nicely until Mr. Richmond pays a visit to Eli S. Jacobs, the press-shy Orioles owner.

Offered the chance to talk up his role in the project, Mr. Jacobs quickly overcomes those old suspicions about reporters. He invites Mr. Richmond to the inner sanctum, his Park Avenue office, for lunch at his desk -- chicken and pasta salad. By way of introduction, perhaps, he mentions to the author that he has filed suit against writers before and wouldn't be reluctant to do so again.

Then, Mr. Jacobs allows that the design of Camden Yards reflects "my basic vision."

"The strategic part -- the large part -- is mine," the owner says.

Give Mr. Richmond credit for getting an audience with Mr. Jacobs and for painting a vivid, dead-on word picture of the New York investor. But this section might have been even more revealing if Mr. Richmond had reminded the owner of several key facts. Among them:

* He bought the team in December 1988, after many important design decisions had been made, including decisions to build an old-fashioned-style ballpark that brings fans close to the action.

* The ballpark's chief architect, from HOK Design Group in Kansas City, was Joe Spear.

No other ballpark planner comes across as quite so eager to call attention to his or her role in creating the Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Not Mr. Belgrad. Not Mr. Lucchino. Not even Ms. Smith, though Mr. Richmond writes how the Orioles executive's penchant for showing up in newspaper articles and on national TV interviews exasperates less photogenic partners on the project.

Maybe Mr. Spear, the architect, has it right.

He tells Mr. Richmond, "A good idea is a good idea, isn't it?"

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream"

Author: Peter Richmond

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 284 pages, $23

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