Camden Yards, the stadium that changed baseball and Baltimore, turns 20

Innovative ballpark changed way stadiums were designed, played key role in keeping Orioles in town

March 31, 2012|By Peter Schmuck, The Baltimore Sun

Clearly, brick and steel age more gracefully than the rest of us, because Oriole Park is about to celebrate its 20th birthday on Opening Day Friday and who can believe it is already the 10th-oldest ballpark in the major leagues?

Time does fly, in this case seemingly faster than an Adam Jones line drive or a Jake Arrieta heater. The stadium that changed the way stadiums are built was an instant classic. Now, it's simply the grande dame of the post-modern era of sports architecture, but its continuing impact on both baseball and Baltimore cannot be overestimated.

"Building Camden Yards was one of the most important things that happened to baseball in the last 20 to 25 years," Major League Baseball commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig said. "It changed the whole dynamic. It led to all these wonderful stadiums and allowed us to finally market our sport to its potential -- particularly the last five years of terrific growth.

"It set it all off. It never would have happened without Camden Yards. But I don't think anybody could really have understood how dramatically it was going to change the face of baseball and the Orioles."

It also changed the cityscape of Baltimore -- vastly broadening the appeal of the Inner Harbor area -- and was the giant first step in the development of a multisport complex that is among the most admired in the world.

The only thing that has changed over the past two decades is the context in which it is viewed both inside and outside the Baltimore area. There were those who suspected at the time that it would shake the American sports landscape, but for the diverse cast of characters who planned and designed Oriole Park, the mission was to assure that the Orioles remained in Baltimore and the stadium became a unique, organic component of the rejuvenation of the downtown area.

"We did envision a traditional, old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities," said former Orioles president and CEO Larry Lucchino, who first proposed the concept of a ballpark that took baseball into the past and the future at the same time. "What we didn't know was that it would light a fire in the industry and cause other cities to seek similar ballparks, but that's exactly what it did do."

The impact on baseball architecture was almost immediate, and the impact on baseball economics would be dramatic.

Baseball author and political commentator George Will once called Oriole Park one of the three most important developments in baseball in the postwar era, along with Jackie Robinson's breaking the game's color barrier and the advent of free agency. Nothing that has happened over the past 20 years has caused him to change that opinion.

"It taught baseball to look backward," Will said. "We conservatives are always being told that you can't turn the clock back. Baseball did.

"We'd gone through the ghastly '60s and '70s period with those stadiums built for both baseball and football that were good for neither. You didn't know if you were in Pittsburgh, St. Louis or Philadelphia. You couldn't tell the difference."

There is plenty of credit to go around for what remains one of the architectural jewels of professional sports -- from architect Joe Spear and the large staff at HOK Sport (now known as Populace) to Orioles architectural consultant Janet Marie Smith to Maryland Stadium Authority chief Herb Belgrad and beyond. Even current Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who arrived on the scene after the ballpark opened, deserves some for heavily promoting "Camden-ization" as the answer to Major League Baseball's economic ills.

But clearly, the two biggest players in the drive to re-establish Baltimore as a major sports town and enhance the appeal of the Inner Harbor as a tourist destination were late mayor and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer and -- ironically -- the current president of the Boston Red Sox.

"I've said this over and over," Lucchino said. "I had one original idea in my whole baseball career. It was to build a traditional ballpark for the Baltimore Orioles with modern amenities and conveniences so we could have the revenue to compete with the best teams in baseball."

Why there? Why then?

The architectural considerations aside, it is widely accepted that Camden Yards was truly conceived March 29, 1984, when Baltimore sports fans woke up to the staggering realization that their beloved Colts had skipped town in the middle of the night.

The Orioles, then owned by Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, were itching to move to a location that would be more accessible to fans in the D.C. area. Schaefer, clearly shaken by the departure of the Colts, initially pondered a major renovation of Memorial Stadium but soon shifted focus to building a multipurpose stadium closer to downtown that would satisfy the Orioles and help the city acquire an NFL expansion franchise.

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