Last week, amid the buzz over another opening day and the celebration of Camden Yards' 20th birthday, I reported a story on the future of baseball parks. Though the topic was assigned to me, it had special resonance because I essentially grew up in a minor league baseball stadium that evolved, year by year, into a park that has inspired many current trends.
My first, and perhaps still fondest, memory of what was then Reading Municipal-Memorial Stadium is of essentially standing in the bullpen during a game -- there was a low fence out there, but you could just hang over it and talk to the players -- when one of the Reading Phillies' pitchers blurted, "Hold on, gotta run" before dashing onto the field to partake in a benches-clearing brawl. He returned with cuts and bruises on his fist, and as the players replayed their role in the fight, I learned every curse word.
Back then, the stadium probably sat 2,000 people, all on bleachers situated behind and around home plate. They'd been there, in some form or another, since the field opened in 1951. Beyond that, there was no "stadium," per se. It was like a high school field, in as far as the place's purpose was purely to host baseball games.
Now, First Energy Stadium seats 9,000. It's got several picnic areas, at least two bars serving up special brews, a pool in right field and a broad courtyard featuring delux seafood on the weekends. It long ago became a complex where people gather to hang out rather than purely a place to observe Phillies' Double-A prospects.
The opening of Camden Yards in 1992 certainly helped push Reading Phillies management to continue changing the stadium. As Joe Mock, the force behind the fabulous baseballparks.com, said in my story, Camden Yards proved to baseball owners that the stadium itself could become a source of revenue. That idea wasn't new to minor league proprietors, who couldn't sell established stars and didn't always have top-flight prospects to rely on. They'd been peddling the experience for years. But the Camden Yards model certainly validated and emboldened them.
(Seems like a good time to note that Populus -- then a part of HOK -- had started the retro ballpark trend with a minor league facility in Buffalo that was completed in 1988, and then expanded it for Baltimore.)
My family took a trip to Camden Yards the first season it opened, thanks to my mother staying awake well past midnight to enter our names in a lottery when tickets first went on sale. Honestly, I don't remember many details of our trip to Oriole Park. The crowd certainly felt overwhelming, but the stadium felt warm and, well, right. To that point I'd only ever been to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Once, while on a trip with some Little League teammates, our second basemen turned and vomited on the seats. This really was the only proper reaction to watching an event at that venue.
A few summers after our trip to Baltimore, I began working at Reading's baseball stadium. My first job was to fill the ketchup dispensers when they were empty. I'd go on to have several duties there over the next eight seasons, from picking up all the trash left under the seats after a game to writing about the young players dreaming of their shot at the Major League. I interviewed Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins and Scott Rolen and Marlon Byrd and Ryan Howard and Nick Punto and dozens of other players, but also spent memorable 16- and 17-hour days working with some of my closest friends (my best friend met his wife there; she worked in the pizza stand.) Not to sound like a character out of Bull Durham, but the rhythm of a baseball season -- experienced through life at the ballpark -- is, to me, the rhythm of summer.
The conclusion of my story on Camden Yards' future was, essentially, that it will last as long as it loved and cared for. That seems trite, I know, but since no one can predict how stadiums will evolve, that's probably the only reasonable answer. A sports management professor from Michigan told me that a stadium needs to be refreshed every five years, and it certainly seems like Peter Angelos has been willing to spend the money needed in that area. Technology could change the way parks are used, though it's difficult to see a way in which that would have a drastic impact on the physical layout of the stadium. The one real risk identified in my story is the lack of land near the stadium; owners are going to continue looking for revenue streams, and real estate near the ballpark has proved fruitful. Angelos and his family have thought about a few projects in the vicinity of Camden Yards -- a restaurant was once a possibility -- and there may be opportunity there in the future.
As for the park itself, the most recent tweaks seemed to have worked. As for what's next, a couple of sources told me there's some interest in opening the concourse to the playing field so that you'd always be able to see the field. That's how many of the newer stadiums are set up, and it would address one of Camden Yards' few weaknesses; being in the concourse often feels too separated from the crowd. But that's going to be a very expensive project.
You, the fans, are the ones using the stadium. What changes would you make? How can Camden Yards get better?Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun