In September 1989, Larry Lucchino, president of the Baltimore Orioles, visited Toronto's gleaming new SkyDome. He walked across the artificial turf, gazed at the retractable roof, gawked at the hotel that rises above centerfield and blinked at the monstrous video screen. Awestruck, he smiled and said, "They built the eighth wonder of the world. We're just building a nice little ballpark."
That nice little ballpark—Oriole Park at Camden Yards—made its official debut on Monday afternoon, Opening Day, when the Orioles shut out the Cleveland Indians 2-0. And Lucchino was right: It's no SkyDome. It's better—more magnificent in an understated, baseball-only, real-grass, open-air, quirky, cozy, comfortable, cool sort of way.
It's a real ballpark built into a real downtown of a real city. The famous Bro-mo Seltzer clock, a Baltimore landmark, stares in from atop the old gray tower beyond left centerfield. Looming immediately behind the rightfield wall is the enormous red-brick B&O Warehouse, so integral to the stadium that it has instantly joined Fenway Park's Green Monster and Wrigley Field's ivy-covered walls as the game's most distinctive and distinguished architectural features.
The restored 94-year-old warehouse (it has been touted as the longest building on the East Coast) features a pub, a restaurant and a souvenir shop on its ground floor. Upstairs are the Orioles' executive offices. Says Lucchino, "Rick Vaughn [the club's director of public relations] never even had a window at Memorial Stadium [the Orioles' home from 1954 through '91]. Now he looks out his window, sees this field and says he thinks he's gone to heaven."
Some 45,000 Oriole fans were thinking the same thing on Monday, as were many of the Baltimore players. "How can you not love this place?" said first baseman Randy Milligan.
The splendor of Oriole Park is in its character and in its details. It is built of brick and steel, not of concrete like the flying saucers that landed in too many major league cities starting about 25 years ago. Sunlight pours in not only from above, but, as at Wrigley, through openings between the upper and lower decks as well. The park combines elements from the best ballparks of the early 1900s—Fenway, Wrigley, Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, Crosley Field, Forbes Field—with the high-tech amenities of the 1990s: The spectacular JumboTRON video board stands above Wrigley-style centerfield bleachers and is topped by a wonderful, old-fashioned clock and two ornithological weather vanes—orioles, of course.
Oriole Park is built on the site of a saloon once owned by the father of Babe Ruth. The lefthanded Bambino would have loved these dimensions: 333 feet to leftfield, 410 to left center, 400 to center and a tantalizing 318 to right, with angled, hidden corners. The short rightfield porch is guarded by a 25-foot-high wall that's decorated with advertising (the last park to have ads in the field of play was Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, which closed in 1970) and holds the out-of-town scoreboard. Beyond the wall is the B&O warehouse standing 460 feet from home plate. Baltimore designated hitter Sam Horn spent his first batting practice in the park trying to dent the warehouse (to hit a window on one of the upper levels would take about a 480-foot shot). He failed, but he certainly won't be the last to try. "The first ball that hits it better not come off me," says O's lefthander Mike Flanagan. "If somebody hits one that far off me, my feelings will really be hurt."
This is a ballpark full of feelings, the strangest being the one you get while watching a game. As you squint in the sunlight, there is a sense that you've already seen a thousand games in this place. "You get the feeling this wasn't the first game played here," said Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken after the exhibition opener last Friday. Indeed, it's as if this ballpark comes equipped with memories.
"We went to Chicago [the new Comiskey Park] last year and it's...just a stadium." says Milligan. "It's just like in the National League. They just have stadiums. This is a ballpark. It's got the Mini Monster in right-field. It's got the tricky corners in the outfield. The Warehouse. Who can hit the Warehouse? Fans love that stuff."
Oriole Park at Camden Yards was designed by the architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK) of Kansas City, Mo. The total cost of the project was $106.5 million; it was financed by a Maryland state lottery. In seeking to capture that old-time feeling, HOK listened to a number of Oriole people, the most influential voices being those of team owner Eli Jacobs, who grew up watching games at Fenway, and Janet Marie Smith, the club's vice-president for planning and development, who nurtured the project from the time the first blueprints were drawn in December 1988.