Thinking higher would help lower Camden Yards' launch-pad profile

July 14, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

Any time the mildest of criticism is inferred, even whispered, about the "eighth wonder of the world," otherwise known as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, it's equivalent to committing some sacrilegious act of provincial betrayal. Baloney.

It's an eye-pleasing facility, comfortable and also conducive to producing home runs. Bushels of them. Anything hit in the air is a threat to go all the way. For historians, this is in keeping with the tradition of Baltimore baseball, at least during the past 75 years.

Old Oriole Park, the one built to house the ill-fated Federal League and later the International League, was known euphemistically as a "cigar box." It burned to the ground on the Fourth of July 1944, in the most momentous and inadvertent fireworks show the city ever witnessed.

It's also where Joe Hauser, in 1930, bombed 63 home runs. And where Buzz Arlet in 1932 hit 54 and George Puccinelli pounded 53 in 1935. "Howitzer" Howie Moss accounted for the same number, 53, at Municipal Stadium in 1947 before home plate was put in a different location and the plant was rebuilt and rededicated as Memorial Stadium.

Now to new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, on the site where Babe Ruth, the greatest player in the history of the game, once lived. It can be more aptly described as, if not a "cigar box," then a "band box." This makes it a joyous place, if you're a hitter, to lift the ball in the air and give yourself a chance to circle the bases.

Pitchers can't be expected to be fond of the place, as witness what Sterling Hitchcock, once a New York Yankee, now of the Seattle Mariners, said: "Why, a 12-year-old boy could hit a home run here." When Boog Powell, one of the Orioles' most illustrious long-ball hitters, heard about Hitchcock's remark, he added, "I .. agree, because when I was 12 years old, I know I could have cleared the fence." Powell could do it now, too, even though he turned 54 on his last birthday.

During the Yankees' earlier visit to Baltimore, first baseman Tino Martinez took a changeup to left, the opposite field, and finished his swing with only one hand on the bat. The ball carried into the seats for a home run. Pitcher Ben McDonald referred to numerous balls hit in Baltimore as "Camden Yards home runs," which meant they were more than somewhat tainted.

What the Orioles may need, especially in left field, is a small screen or Plexiglas barrier atop the existing fence. This would make hitters drive the ball with more authority and add to the legitimacy of left-field home runs. The Orioles' pitching staff would sign a petition endorsing the idea. It's up to the team's management, including owner Peter Angelos, general manager Pat Gillick and field manager Davey Johnson, if they want to try it.

This also would render another favorable change, one that's certainly needed, in that it would prevent spectators from interfering with batted balls. Fans, on occasion, reach down from the stands and fight the left fielder for balls he's attempting to catch. The condition makes for one of the most difficult calls an umpire is compelled to make. Also consider the team involvements and the conditions of carrying on an equitable pennant race.

During the last series with the Boston Red Sox, a line drive by Luis Polonia was ruled a home run after Reggie Jefferson endeavored to make a catch on which the ball was taken away. So, add either a three- or four-foot wire screen to the wall that's already there or install the type of Plexiglas used in hockey arenas.

It wouldn't impair the sight lines or in any way interfere with the clarity of viewing play. This is a subject worthy of discussion between now and the start of next season because nothing can be done to alter the field once the schedule has commenced.

Jim Palmer, who pitched in enough baseball parks and has played sufficient golf to be a qualified judge of distances, doesn't believe the numbers listed on the fences are accurate. He's right. The foul lines are correct, 333 to left, 318 to right, but DTC the other posted numbers are questionable.

Dr. Charles Steinberg, a longtime Orioles employee and the club's public relations director in 1994 before shipping out to San Diego to join the Padres, and this reporter measured the distances and found discrepancies. By our individual measurements, the 364 to left-center is either 352 or 354; right-center, instead of being 373, is either 362 or 363, and center field, labeled 4l0, is either 397 or 400.

Why the ambiguity? Because Steinberg walked with a measuring wheel and we later followed with the same device, borrowed from a prominent contractor, to check the readings and vice versa. The exact routes could not be tracked because of the human factor involved.

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