Camden Yards' day at park becomes a national pastime

Oriole Park: Its mix of old and new touched all the bases with fans, setting off a home run of baseball construction.

December 16, 2003|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

It was never Larry Lucchino's intention to change the way baseball stadiums were built.

It never entered his mind that the old-style brick ballpark, a short walk from the Inner Harbor, in the shadows of the historic B&O warehouse, with glorious views of the Baltimore skyline, would become the impetus for baseball's building boom and the measuring stick by which all new stadiums were judged.

"We just wanted to build a great little ballpark for Baltimore," said Lucchino, then president of the Orioles and now president and chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox.

"We knew that we had a concept in mind that we liked," he said. "We had no idea that the baseball world would embrace it.

"I do think that's what has happened. I think the evidence is clear from the progeny that developed from Camden Yards throughout the '90s and really into the turn of the century."

When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in April 1992, it changed more than the way professional sports teams designed their stadiums. It completed the transformation of the Orioles from small-market team to regional franchise and attracted a different kind of fan - the "wine-and-cheese" crowd.

Urban setting

Howard Decker, chief curator of the National Building Museum in Washington, said that Camden Yards helped fans realize again "that baseball is essentially an urban sport. It's about cities.

"The game is shaped by the stadiums, and the stadiums are shaped by their surroundings," said Decker, 54, who grew up attending games at Wrigley Field in Chicago. "Camden Yards helped baseball fans and architects and urban designers - and municipal leaders - realize that this was a very attractive alternative to the stadium in the middle of a sea of cars.

"It had huge impact in helping us to realize that the old-style stadiums that our parents and grandparents grew up with really represented something of extraordinary value."

Counting the two stadiums that are scheduled to open in April 2004 - Petco Park in San Diego and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia - 14 of the 30 major league teams have or will have stadiums that were built after Camden Yards opened. Eighteen of the NFL's 32 teams have new or essentially rebuilt stadiums since 1992. And all those 32 buildings were constructed for just one sport.

"All across the nation in the '70s, people were building multipurpose stadiums, and most often they were circular, because that was the best compromise geometry for baseball and football," said Joe Spear, senior vice president of Kansas City, Mo.-based HOK Sport + Venue + Event and the architect responsible for designing Camden Yards.

"I think what the Orioles were effective in was saying, `This is baseball. It's not football. The ballpark should be intimate.' It should be a ballpark, that was one of Larry's catchphrases. In fact, he wouldn't let us say the word `stadium' when we talked about this project."

Spear said everything fans saw in Camden Yards touched them, and reminded them of the classic ballparks - Ebbets Field, Fenway Park, Wrigley.

And that's what led to the baseball park building boom.

"It had all the right stuff," Spear said. "A lot of the parks that were done in the '60s and '70s had the artificial turf, and it just seems sterile somehow. Camden Yards has a natural grass playing field. It has a view of the skyline. It has the icon of the warehouse. It has the asymmetrical field. It just resonates. It was what the fans had been looking for. It changed everyone else's expectations about what a ballpark should be."

The Orioles began looking at the possibility of a new ballpark immediately after Edward Bennett Williams, a Washington attorney, bought the team in 1979. That "was always part of his vision for a larger, more regional Orioles," Lucchino said.

Williams called Lucchino back from a vacation in August of that year and had him get on a helicopter to scout potential stadium locations in Baltimore and the corridor between Baltimore and Washington. Eventually, 32 possible sites were identified. Six years later, the final decision came down to 200 acres in Lansdowne or 85 acres in the downtown section of the city.

When then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer called Williams and told him he favored the Camden Yards location because it would be the crown on Baltimore's downtown redevelopment effort, Williams took no more than 10 minutes to discuss the decision with Lucchino and call the governor back.

"He hung up the phone and said to me, `Building a ballpark halfway between Baltimore and Washington is like building a house halfway between your wife and girlfriend. You can't do that. You've got to make a commitment. Let's do the Camden Yards things for all the reasons the governor was talking about,'" Lucchino recalled.

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