As soon as the gates opened at noon Friday, Peter Hudak raced up the stairs to the new rooftop deck behind the center-field wall of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The Columbia resident held a standing-room-only ticket, and his plan all along was to secure one of the precious stools that offer a fresh, stunning view of the 20-year-old park. He brought to his perch a bag of Doritos, a bottle of Dr Pepper and an absolute determination to hold his seat, which appeared to be coveted by hundreds of other patrons.
"It's amazing," Hudak said of the rooftop bar and lounge, which was a hit on Opening Day. "This is better than a good number of seats around the park."
The Orioles opened their season with a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins before a sellout crowd of 46,773. But after enduring 14 straight losing seasons, many fans said they come out more for the splendor of Camden Yards than for the team that has disappointed them for too long.
The new amenities — which include the rooftop deck, a redesigned flag court with clearer views behind the right-field scoreboard and a sprawling brewpub named after former catcher Rick Dempsey — only enhanced the feeling that Camden Yards is the star of this town's baseball show.
"That's why I come," said Hudak. "I still root for the team, but if it wasn't for the park, I wouldn't be out here as much."
The Orioles understand this as well as anyone. They have built their marketing campaign for 2012 around the 20th anniversary of a park that revolutionized American baseball architecture. From the banners hanging over downtown streets to the commercials on local television, the ballpark and its history are front and center, far more than any individual player.
"I don't think you can overstate how important the park is," said club spokesman Greg Bader. "We certainly need to improve on the field. That should be the expectation of fans. But we hope no one is depriving themselves of the opportunity to come out to the park."
Bader called this year's additions to Camden Yards — funded by the Orioles, the Maryland Stadium Authority and concessionaire Delaware North — "by far the most visible" in the park's history. "They're the types of changes that will impact all the fans coming to the game," he said.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the efforts to keep Camden Yards on the cutting edge are not lost on him or his players.
"The ballpark is a cathedral," he said before Friday's opener. "Can you imagine anybody every saying we need a new ballpark or where are we going to put a new park?"
Reminders of the park's history were everywhere, with a broadcast of the first Opening Day at Camden Yards blaring on the video board during batting practice and Rick Sutcliffe, who started that game for the Orioles, tossing out Friday's ceremonial first pitch.
David Winyall of Columbia said he spent the first Opening Day at Camden Yards standing outside the gate, begging for a ticket. No one would sell him one, even though the game fell on his birthday.
Winyall made it inside this year, enjoying batting practice from the revamped flag court along Eutaw Street. The club lowered the right-field scoreboard by four feet and replaced a stone wall that blocked shorter fans' views with waist-level iron railings.
"It favors short people so we're against it," joked the 6-foot-4 Winyall. "No, it's great. You're right up on the field." While admitting he's no fan of embattled Orioles owner Peter Angelos, Winyall said, "at least he makes the Maryland Stadium Authority take care of the park."
The roof deck in center drew even more raves. The space features a rectangular open-air bar with flat-screen televisions, orange couches shaded by umbrellas and stools that offer a panoramic view of the field.
"We have seats, but I think we might just stay up here," said Jen Myers of Pasadena. "The view is breathtaking."
The deck was open on a first-come, first-serve basis Friday, and fans jammed the space shortly after the gates opened. But Bader said the club would keep open the possibility of selling tickets for the deck later in the season.
"It's beautiful up here," said Mike Andrus of Bel Air, who brought his wife and two sons to Opening Day. "It's really comfortable and casual, just a great place to hang out."
Andrus expects another tough year for the Orioles. His sons, 14 and 11, have never even seen a winning season. "I don't want to be a grandfather before it happens," Andrus said.
But no matter what, he said, the splendor of Camden Yards keeps his family coming out a few times a year. "That's the attraction," said Andrus, wearing an Orioles-themed Hawaiian shirt.
"If the stadium wasn't this nice," said his wife, Allison, "we probably wouldn't care at all."
Brett White of White Marsh mustered a little more optimism about his favorite team. The 97-mph fastballs of Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta and the Gold Glove of catcher Matt Wieters had him dreaming of a winning record.
But that was just conjecture. The roof deck was real-life "awesome."
"It should be the team that gets people out here," White said. "But right now, it's probably more people loving the park. I take it for granted, but every time we come, we want to come back because of the park. I think that's why everybody always comes back."
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