Keeping up with Camden Yards before opener

April 08, 2010|By Candus Thomson | candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Even a gem needs polishing every once in a while.

All winter, crews swarmed Camden Yards, ripping out aging seats, pouring concrete, digging trenches and replacing water-damaged walkways in a $10 million maintenance blitz. Working against the clock and snowstorms that came one after another, workers and ballpark officials nevertheless expect to have the last piece in place before the gates swing wide on Opening Day Friday.

"Nothing that we're doing is a radical change to the aesthetics of the ballpark. None of it is particularly sexy. But it has to be done," says Michael Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

With major renovations and upgrades still a year or two away, officials say it's important to keep up appearances and ensure fan safety.

Hailed as an architectural breakthrough when it opened in 1992 and imitated in other cities, Camden Yards has been visited by more than 52 million fans, who have left their own marks on every surface and amenity. The elements battered and weakened some of the toughest surfaces. Stuff has worn out.

"Given the age of the ballpark, it's not outside the norm, not unusual," says Frenz.

In its role as landlord, the MSA tries to maintain cordial relations with the Orioles, its oldest and largest tenant at Camden Yards. So what a layman might call improvements or upgrades, the landlord and tenant agree is simply maintenance and upkeep.

"It's two totally different things," says Orioles spokesman Greg Bader. "This is very significant maintenance. A lot of things were done this off-season that some people may not notice, and that's OK."

Things you may notice: the 17,561 seats in the lower bowl, from foul pole to foul pole, have higher backs, deeper seats and individual cup holders; the plaza at Gate C has been resurfaced; hundreds of toilets have been replaced; birds of a different species -- pigeons -- can no longer roost over the heads of upper deck patrons.

Things you probably won't: new trench drains to divert rainwater from the dugouts; $9 million in energy-saving equipment and technology; repairs to the roofs of the batting cages to keep players and equipment dry.

Next year, the MSA hopes to replace all 29,626 seats in the outfield and upper deck and put a new roof on the B&O warehouse and clean up the famous brick facade.

But all of those items are merely a prelude to a much bigger to-do list.

Over the next year, the Orioles and MSA will map out a battle plan to modernize Camden Yards while maintaining the "retro" feel. Two years ago, the ballpark got a $9 million video board upgrade and sound system, but that doesn't hide the fact that only 10 major league fields are older than Baltimore's diamond.

"It's critical to maintain the traditional ballpark aesthetic, but we also need to provide high-caliber services and amenities," says Bader. "The ballpark will remain special because of our reverence for the past and because we allow it to breathe and grow."

The Orioles and MSA have some practice at this. For example, American Seating Co., which created the cast-iron end pieces on each row of seats, used the original molds for the replacement ends.

And it's not a coincidence that last fall the Orioles rehired architect Janet Marie Smith, who was vice president of planning and development during the design and construction of Camden Yards, which The New Yorker called, "the most influential ballpark of modern times." Preserving historic treasures is her specialty, from the $150 million renovation of Fenway Park to the $160 million renovation of the 100-year-old Rose Bowl.

And there are other signs that landlord and tenant are preparing to move ahead. Late last year, the MSA asked for proposals to renovate the club level suites. The Orioles recently extended their food and retail contract with Aramark Corp., but only for a season.

But there is reason for caution, for upgrades come in many shapes and sizes and not all of them have happy endings.

A $48 million project in the 1970s to improve the original Yankee Stadium brought howls of protest. While sight lines were improved and obstructions removed, the trademark art deco frieze facade that circled the roof was reduced to an outfield afterthought, like a doily hanging off an ugly end table.

In their never-ending quest to squeeze additional revenue from the oldest and smallest ballpark in the majors, Red Sox management sandwiched a massive glassed-in seating area behind home plate in 1989 only to reverse course seven years later and return to open-air seating. In 2002, they added 250 " Green Monster" seats above left field and two years later, they added seats atop the right field roof.

Mike Gesker, author of The Orioles Encyclopedia, wants the team and MSA to take a ballpark Hippocratic Oath to do no harm to Camden Yards.

"If they do major things, that would be foolish. It's such a template for other ballparks. It's a destination," Gesker says. "If they cater to the people who can afford the $75 and $100 tickets, shame on them. If they're going to do something to help families struggling to get there and buy their kids a hot dog, to make their experience better, good.

"I think if you ask 20 fans, 'What do the Orioles need most,' 19 of them wouldn't say we need a hot tub in the outfield. I think they'd want to see a commitment to the team on the field."

Bader says the Orioles conduct surveys at every home game to gauge what upgrades fans desire in food and services.

"We're very conservative in our changes because of how special the ballpark is and how our fans feels about it," says Bader.

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