Camden Yards says howdy in Texas

January 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

ARLINGTON, Texas -- You don't expect to come across a sure-fire piece of Baltimore out here in the suburban flatlands between Dallas and Fort Worth, but there it is, raising up majestically out of a parking lot next to an amusement park, just off an interstate highway headed straight for the big country of West Texas: Camden Yards, the Sequel.

Welcome home, pardner.

It's a shiny new ballpark made of red brick, green steel, high archways and iron railings, with green seats, an asymmetrical playing field, quirks borrowed from famous stadiums and a distinctive old-time feel.

Sound familiar? Even the name of the new home of the Rangers is a Texas take on Bawlmer's baseball jewel, right down to the preposition.

The Ballpark In Arlington, they're calling it.

Howdy, hon.

As the old saying goes: If you can't build an instant institution, copy one!

Granted, a closer inspection reveals that the Sequel is indeed different in many respects. The longhorn figures burnished into the brick facade, for instance. Just a guess, but they wouldn't seem quite as appropriate hard by the Inner Harbor. Neither would the Texas granite, whatever that is, that covers the bottom of the facade.

The subterranean, hydraulically-lifted tarp is a kick. And the seats all point toward the infield, a nice touch.

Actually, the inside of the Ballpark has a considerably different feel. There is a double-decked "home run porch" in right field, an idea lifted from Tiger Stadium. There are columns planted among the seats, an idea lifted from old Comiskey Park. There is a hand-operated scoreboard, an idea lifted from Fenway Park.

There is going to be a baseball museum, a children's learning center, an auditorium, a sports grill, four stories of office space behind the center-field bleachers. (An orthodontist is among those who have leased space.) The grand design calls for two lakes ringed by shops and restaurants, and a 25,000-seat amphitheater nearby.

So, yes, it's different from Camden Yards. And certainly not as genuine. The old-timeyness seems artificial out here in the baby-boom 'burbs, where time began about 15 minutes ago.

But then, in many ways, the place is no different from Camden Yards. With its layers of sky boxes and club seats, it is a model of maximized profits. But, most importantly, it is, like Camden Yards, a baseball setting with personality. Charm.

In sum, a terrific setting, one that drives home a point becoming increasingly obvious as a new generation of ballparks begins to leap off the blueprints into reality:

Baltimore saved baseball.

Overstating the case? Hardly. Let's review the recent history of stadium design. There were the nightmare cookie-cutters of a quarter-century ago, then nothing for years except a few plastic domes, then SkyDome and, finally, the new Comiskey Park. Not exactly the stuff of Doubleday.

The new Comiskey was a step in the right direction with its grass field and open air, but it was charmless, without distinction, more like an office or a mall than a ballpark. Yet with that as the cutting edge, and with a half-dozen cities contemplating new parks, there was the possibility of a new generation composed entirely of functional, expensive blah.

Then along came Camden Yards, which, with its nooks and atmosphere and hat-tips to history, demonstrated that personality and profit could marry. And the light bulbs went off in Cleveland, Texas and Denver.

Cleveland's new park is, so they say, a dusky, natural blend into a downtown neighborhood surrounded by bridges. Denver's is built up against a warehouse. (Of all things!) Texas has The Sequel. All are grass, asymmetrical, distinctive. All borrowed liberally from Camden Yards.

Of course, it is unlikely that the new parks will capture the fancy of fans quite as completely. The new places are a little more avaricious than Camden Yards, with more sky boxes jammed inside. And here's betting that they won't instantly feel as if they've been around for years, as did Camden Yards on the afternoon of the first game. Camden Yards is, let's face it, a singular event.

Still, these other places represent a long, long journey from Riverfront Stadium. From the new Comiskey, too.

Camden Yards showed them how to do it. Camden Yards changed the course of stadium design. One look at The Ballpark In Arlington tells you that.

From now on, any club that builds a new stadium -- they're talking in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Detroit -- will try to pull off the same trick, pull together history, tradition and geography. Whatever form it takes, it's an improvement over the blah that preceded it.

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