When the Orioles open their season Friday, it's a safe bet that while many in attendance will be rooting for the home team (and some for the visitors, alas), all will appreciate the venue. Oriole Park at Camden Yards has remained one of the great showplaces of Major League Baseball even 20 years after its first opening day game.
Yet even today, some naysayers still question whether the public investment in Camden Yards was worthwhile. Economists point out that the direct financial return on stadiums is not particularly good — a criticism heard two decades ago, as well, by the way — and that some alternative public investment of $110 million might have served downtown better.
But such disapproval lacks context. Without Camden Yards, there was a good chance that the Orioles might have left Baltimore entirely — if not to a location in the suburbs perhaps out of state. Edward Bennett Williams made no secret of his desire to make the team more accessible to fans from Washington. There was no direct threat to leave, but then the organization never had to make one — Baltimoreans were all too aware of that possibility of losing a sports franchise since the beloved Colts left town in 1984.
Still, the controversial project required considerable advocacy from one of Baltimore's most influential politicians at the peak of his powers. William Donald Schaefer, having won his first gubernatorial election by a landslide, made a downtown Orioles stadium his top priority and won General Assembly approval for the project during his first year in office.
Fortunately, the governor left the design of the ballpark to others (as his own taste reportedly ran to fountains and fireworks in the outfield), and Camden Yards became a trendsetter, a baseball-only park designed to be old-fashioned but filled with modern amenities. It is a style that other cities have copied over and over again with great success.
Say what you will about the Orioles performance on the field over the last decade, Oriole Park at Camden Yards has never really lost its sheen. It made possible the nearby M&T Bank Stadium and the arrival of the Baltimore Ravens, a source of great pride to this city. Together, the Orioles and Ravens show Baltimore remains a first-tier city and not merely some rest stop between D.C. and Philadelphia.
That's not to diminish the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity Oriole Park has provided the downtown. Combined with other hotel, meeting and entertainment venues, the downtown tourism scene continues to thrive and now extends to Inner Harbor East and beyond. But there are distinct intangible benefits, too, from those nightly mentions on ESPN to the business deals consummated in skyboxes and the warehouse.
While we will admit we sometimes miss the more raucous and blue-collar sensibility of Memorial Stadium, Camden Yards is infinitely better. And it's a project that the Maryland Stadium Authority, the various state and local politicians involved, and Orioles management could easily have screwed up. They might have preferred a shapeless, all-purpose facility to cut costs, rejected the brick-and-steel look as too backward-looking, torn down the warehouse or, worst of all, chosen a different site entirely. But they didn't do any of the above. This was a public-private partnership that worked for all involved, a lesson in effective economic development.
We wish the Orioles well this season. Fans recognize that 2012 represents yet another rebuilding year and perhaps another last-place finish in a highly competitive division. But the miracle of baseball is that even the best teams lose 60 games or more each season. Camden Yards will see its share of great, competitive contests.
And best of all, those home games will be played in a ballpark that remains among the finest places to watch baseball on the planet. To take a seat in Camden Yards and witness the perfect field of green set against the warehouse and city skyline remains an undeniable thrill for the most jaded of visitors, the perfect antidote to the daily grind, and a great asset to this city.