Camden Yards has quickly become Baltimore's symbol

MIKE LITTWIN

July 14, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

I was having lunch yesterday with a writer friend from New York City. Between bites of rigatoni, he was gushing about Baltimore.

Yeah, a New Yorker knocked out by the urban charms of Baltimore. This All-Star spell was working.

Of course it was working on him. He had a ticket.

It turns out he loved the harbor, the ballpark, the warehouse, even the rigatoni.

"But, hey," he said, "I remember Baltimore when it was a dump. The streets were patrolled by big, ugly dogs and the tallest building was the Bromo Seltzer tower. They've done great things with this town."

The Bromo Seltzer tower is my favorite building in town. It's camp and it's funky, and I like camp and funky whenever I can get it.

And, like the camp-and-funky warehouse, the tower is a wonderful frame for the ballpark.

Everything revolves around the ballpark these days. If there's nnTC lesson to take from the All-Star Game, it is how much Oriole Park has come to mean to Baltimore in such a short time.

A quick post-All-Star Game quiz: Is there anyone out there who still believes that building a baseball park at Camden Yards was a bad idea?

The answer is, of course, yes.

There's always one guy. A dumb guy. A very dumb guy. Steve Martin plays him in the movie.

Once upon a time, if memory serves, there were a lot of dumb guys. Not that there weren't good arguments against building the stadium. There was one great one: Why should we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium when Memorial Stadium was in no danger of falling down?

I sort of remember that the answer was blackmail -- that the Orioles might move if they didn't get a new stadium. Remember worrying about the Orioles moving? It seems kind of funny now that people are bidding to pay $150 million to keep the Orioles here.

The ballpark is the only reason the Orioles will bring a record price.

Not yet two years old, Oriole Park at Camden Yards may be the most talked-about structure in America. The TV cameras have been making love to the place for days.

And America's sportswriters, a particularly jaded lot, have been sending home transcripts filled with the sort of lusty descriptives usually reserved for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Suddenly, for the outside world, the ballpark defines Baltimore. It nearly overwhelms Baltimore.

But that's all right.

At some point in the 20th century, stadiums came to take the place of cathedrals. Of course, just like cathedrals of old, the stadiums are built on the backs of the people. In the old days, that meant carrying tons of stone. Today, it's buying lottery tickets.

These stadiums have become, for better of worse, our monuments. I think you can make the case that Camden Yards, as a monument, says everything we want said about Baltimore.

(OK, not everything. Washington lawyers get all the tickets. Demand so outstrips supply that we've lost, at least for the near future, the luxury of spontaneity. You have to plan your summer baseball sometime in the late winter, like it's a vacation. "Honey, let's go down the Yards in August.")

What makes the ballpark work is the location. If you put Oriole Park in Lansdowne -- that was one of the proposed sites -- you may have a ballpark with an interesting retro look, but what of the character? It takes more than a high wall in right field to provide character.

From the moment the plans were laid out, Oriole Park was destined to rest next to a warehouse set off by an idiosyncratic skyline. It belongs exactly where it is -- where the blimp can get a full shot of downtown and still catch Cal Ripken changing his stance.

Of course, downtown Baltimore was a success story before the ballpark. The Inner Harbor brought life back to the place, but now it's nothing short of a sensation.

If you spent any time in the area during the past few days -- I went just to see how the panhandlers were faring -- you know what I mean. The pedestrian traffic from the ballpark to the Convention Center to the Inner Harbor and back was a city planner's dream.

That was human commerce, which, not incidentally, generally leads to the other kind of commerce.

A city isn't a city unless it has both.

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