Baltimore City Paper

A More Complex Legacy: Oriole Park is known as “the ballpark that forever changed baseball,” and its impact may well extend to local governing

Baltimore City Paper: Oriole Park is known as “the ballpark that forever changed baseball,” and its impact may well extend to local governing

A More Complex Legacy

Oriole Park is known as “the ballpark that forever changed baseball,” and its impact may well extend to local governing

by Brandon Weigel

Before a pitch was thrown, Oriole Park at Camden Yards was a national sensation.

The New York Times, surveying Baltimore's new ballpark a little under a month before it was to open, called it "a red-brick repository of the history, myths and memories of baseball." Loquacious political commentator and baseball fanatic George F. Will published a column on the eve of the first game labeling the stadium a serene setting for our national pastime.

Bricklayers work on Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1991. (Courtesy/Baltimore Sun)

"We make buildings, then they make us, and Oriole Park will make baseball fans by making the game's elegance and nuances as observable as they now are only in Wrigley Field, Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park, the parks built before the world went mad (World War I)."

Ever since the gates opened for the first time on April 6, 1992, the plaudits have continued rolling in. Just last year, the sports fan website Stadium Journey declared that taking in a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is, all these years later, the best fan experience in professional sports.

By this point, the legend and impact of the ballpark are well-known enough to serve as marketing material. Five years ago, when the Orioles were celebrating 20 years in their home, they toasted "the ballpark that forever changed baseball."

The team is not alone in thinking this, and there's ample evidence of Camden Yards' influence in all the baseball stadiums built after it. Citing Will again—say what you will about his politics, but his knowledge and devotion to the Great American Game are unquestioned—the opening of Camden Yards was the third most important thing to happen to baseball after World War II, behind the integration of the game by Jackie Robinson and the advent of free agency.

He's talking, implicitly, about its style and architecture, and the massive influence those things have had. But its mark on sports can also be seen in the way public money was used—in this case, a special lottery was started—to buy the land and construct the stadium. Over the last 25 years, more and more teams have built new homes using some of the concepts pioneered by Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and they've often come with their hat in their hand to do it.

A 1988 photo shows the proposed site for Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Courtesy/Baltimore Sun)

Prior to Camden Yards, stadiums were built with concrete, and they were big circular structures, often designed to accommodate both football and baseball. The outfield wall was perfectly rounded and symmetrical, and some of the playing fields had artificial turf instead of grass. These cookie cutter buildings were sometimes erected away from urban centers, in order to access interstates, or outside cities altogether.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards forged a new path by borrowing from an old one. With its large arched entryways, angled walls, brick facade, giant decorative scoreboard, large steel trusses, the looming Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Warehouse, and so many other features, the ballpark harkened back to some of its most celebrated baseball-only predecessors, like Wrigley Field in Chicago, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Such parks were studied before plans for Oriole Park at Camden Yards were drawn up.

But it's not a carbon copy of any of them—it has an aura and certain quirks that are all its own. Janet Marie Smith, an architect and urban planner who was hired by the Orioles to oversee the design and construction of Oriole Park, says the inspiration for many of the design choices came from something that was already here in Baltimore: the B&O Warehouse.

"Those were important touch points for us," she says of the celebrated historic stadiums in a phone interview, "but I would say that the decision to keep the warehouse really drove us to the dimensions that are at Camden Yards, to the configuration of the seating, configuration of the playing field, and the choice of materials we used. And it was all an effort to really make it Baltimore's park, not a replica of someone else's."

Many of the final displays and embellishments were left to David Ashton, a Mount Vernon graphic designer: the elegantly scripted B's flanking a batter on tickets and the ends of the seats; the Oriole bird weathervanes; the dapper ushers' uniforms; the sculptural numbers retired by the club on Eutaw Street; and the classic-looking Coca-Cola ad on the back of the scoreboard.

In an interview at his offices, he recalls how he merely tried to follow the idea of a modern old-fashioned ballpark championed by then-team president Larry Lucchino and Smith.

"I felt that when it was finished, no one would think that a designer had anything to do with it, that it just was natural," he says.

These retro components were mixed with elements that were state of the art at the time and still inform how stadiums are designed today, including a club level with luxury suites, spacious locker rooms, modern drainage on the field, bigger seats for fans, more food and drink concessions, and the latest in audio-visual presentation.

Just as important was its location, a rail yard and light industrial site just west of the Inner Harbor, making Oriole Park at Camden Yards an integral part of the urban fabric of downtown Baltimore.

"It was put in an urban center, in a neighborhood, with the ballpark's shape constricted in some way by downtown streets," says Greg Bader, vice president of communications and marketing for the Orioles. "And it really became a part of the community in that manner, where people would walk to the games downtown and make an entire afternoon or weekend of it."

Since the early 1970s, the Camden Yards area had been considered as a site for a new stadium or stadium complex to placate the Orioles and Colts; both teams had complaints about the conditions and location of Memorial Stadium and were reluctant to sign long-term leases as a result. After the Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984, there was a sense of urgency to keep the city's only other major-league team, then owned by Edward Bennett Williams, a well-connected D.C. lawyer. Given Williams' ties to the nation's capital, there was a lingering fear he, too, would bolt with a Baltimore sports franchise.

In the '80s, when an effort began in earnest to build a new home for the Orioles, including the formation of the Maryland Stadium Authority in 1986, Mayor William Donald Schaefer again championed the Camden Yards area, citing its easy access for suburbanites and D.C. residents, proximity to two forthcoming subway stops, and the ability to build out parking.

Mark Wasserman, the physical development coordinator under Schaefer who later became chief of staff when Schaefer won the Governor's Mansion, remembers how important it was for the city's gregarious champion to keep the ballclub in town.

"He didn't want to see the city lose part of the glue that makes it the center point for the region," says Wasserman over the phone. "I think he had a grasp of the economic development boost and the psychological value of having the city retain one of these cherished institutions, like a professional baseball franchise."

Schaefer's successor in City Hall, Kurt Schmoke, was at first a proponent of putting the ballpark in the county as a candidate, but he says after he won office and talked with planners and architects, he changed course.

"They said to look at some of the suburban stadiums, and what you saw was people driving there for the event, then driving away with no other spillover impact in the area," he recalls over the phone. "Whereas if you had the stadium downtown, you would have people coming in early, having meals in your restaurants, staying late, out-of-town guests—particularly in the league the Orioles were in, you have out-of-town guests from Boston, New York, possibly Philadelphia with interleague play—coming and staying in the hotels."

The addition of transit sweetened the deal. Schaefer helped push through a deal that constructed the light rail system that runs from Hunt Valley to Glen Burnie and has stops at the stadiums.

Several of the people City Paper spoke with say Camden Yards dovetailed with the urban renewal efforts—namely the National Aquarium, Maryland Science Center, and Harborplace—that had taken place downtown decades earlier under Schaefer, with an assist from developer James Rouse.

"Baltimore had already made a name for itself nationally as reinventing the downtown," says Smith. "This was just sort of another feather in their cap, really, to be able to say we're going to bring 3 million people a year, through sports, into the center city."

That 3 million figure was far from a short-term effect. More than 3 million people passed through the turnstiles from the opening up until the 2002 season (excepting 1994, which was shortened by a player strike).

Other municipalities took notice.

"Everybody wanted a Camden Yards, frankly. . . . And I think it's still true. People still want a Camden Yards," says Ashton, who would go on to work alongside Smith on stadium projects in other cities.

After the opening of Oriole Park and the rave reviews from baseball purists, civic boosters, architecture critics, and, most importantly, local fans, other teams were soon bringing their city's elected officials to show off what a new park could do for urban revitalization, Smith recalls.

Therein lies a trickier part of Oriole Park's legacy.

Since 1992, 20 of Major League Baseball's 30 teams have built new stadiums, many of which borrow architectural flourishes or design ideas from Camden Yards, and like Camden Yards, many of these facilities have been funded with some form of public subsidy from taxpayers. These deals are often sold with the prospect of new jobs and economic growth.

Studies show the investment almost never pays off. The building boom is to the point now where two baseball teams that opened stadiums after Baltimore, the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers, are once again on the move. The Braves just opened SunTrust Park, vacating Turner Field, a stadium built initially for the 1996 Summer Olympics, four years after Camden Yards opened, and later converted to baseball. And the Rangers are in the process of pushing to leave Globe Life Park in Arlington, built in 1994, for a new $1 billion stadium.

These public-backed deals extend to NFL stadiums and arenas too; a 2016 Fox Sports analysis showed taxpayers have forked out $7 billion dollars over the last 20 years to renovate or build new football stadiums, 46 percent of the costs. And just last month, NFL owners ratified a deal allowing the Raiders to leave Oakland for Las Vegas, lured away with a promise of $750 million in public money.

The Orioles take the field on opening day. (Gene Sweeney Jr./Courtesy Baltimore Sun)

In recent years, academics and experts have started pushing back against doling out millions of dollars to supplement the balance sheets of billion-dollar sports teams. "The Never-Ending Stadium Boondoggle," decries CityLab. "The outrageous rip-off of taxpayer-funded stadiums," laments The Week. "Publicly Financed Sports Stadiums Are A Game That Taxpayers Lose," warns Forbes.

Local governments need only look to Cincinnati and Glendale, Arizona for recent examples of how these stadium deals can become crushing mountains of debt. Or they could look to St. Louis, a city that lost its NFL team, the Rams, to Los Angeles after a deal for a new $1.1 billion stadium along the banks of the Mississippi River was deemed inadequate by the league. They're still on the hook for $144 million in debt and maintenance costs for the team's old home, the Dome at America's Center (née Edward Jones Dome), opened in 1995. (The Rams came full circle here, since St. Louis originally poached them from L.A.)

One of the authorities on publicly backed stadiums and chief critics is Roger Noll, a Stanford economist and the co-editor and co-author of an economic book studying the financing of stadiums, "Sports, Taxes, and Jobs: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums."

According to his findings, an arena, especially one with both an NHL and NBA team that, in a given year, is booked 250-300 nights a year between games, concerts, and other events, can pay off in the long run. But baseball stadiums and football stadiums are not used enough to justify the cost for local governments.

"If the subsidy is going to be hundreds of millions of dollars, you know, three or four hundred million dollars, then it's not worth it," he says over the phone. "You'll never get a return on that investment."

One chapter in "Sports, Taxes, and Jobs" included a study by two Johns Hopkins economists, Bruce W. Hamilton and Peter Kahn, released during the park's heyday in 1996, that concluded the state was spending $14 million annually for about $3 million yearly in job creation and tax revenues.

Noll would not go so far as to say Oriole Park at Camden Yards launched the citizen-financed building boom, he felt the wheels were in motion beforehand. But Neil deMause, the New York journalist and author of "Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit," says it kicked off a new wave of stadium building.

He pointed to comments made in 1998 by then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that the Yankees would need a new stadium to compete with the now-rich Orioles. (Orioles fans, let that sink in for a moment.)

"It's that kind of thing like, 'This is what you need in order to be successful as a team, as a city, as everything, is you need the next Camden Yards,'" says deMause, who still runs a site tied to his book that documents lucrative stadium deals.

Other stadiums were using public financing at the time, but the desire to replicate Camden Yards' success allowed team owners to point to the financial conditions as a model.

"Camden Yards definitely set the stage to where teams in other cities could say, 'Well, this is just standard business practice, of course you're gonna pay for it," he says.

Officials and some of the principal players who helped usher in the Camden Yards development still say it was good for Baltimore, even if they're familiar with the economic argument against it. Schmoke, who was mayor from 1987-1999, covering the stadium's planning, implementation, and success, is among them, saying it helped boost development downtown.

"It got a lot of businesspeople thinking positively about the area and willing to work with different levels of government to bring about more economic development in the area," he says. "I do think it was a catalyst for development, and it certainly helped to persuade the legislature to expand the convention center. That was in doubt for awhile. But I think those who developed hotels and those who supported the convention center saw in Camden Yards a successful development, public-private partnership, and decided to move ahead with their projects."

Michael Frenz, the executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state organization that oversees the Camden Yards complex, agrees: "I think that certainly the development of some of the areas around here would not have happened without Oriole Park being here." The authority released a report earlier this year that showed Orioles games in 2015 generated $320,595,000 in total spending, generating $22,271,000 in tax revenues for the state.

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, points to census figures showing the area just north of Camden Yards has grown 130 percent since 2000.

"At the end of the day, downtown is now a more populous place than it was before Camden Yards was built," he says. "For us, that's enough proof of the value of Camden Yards."

And, some of them argue, building a stadium is also an investment in the quality of life of a city.

"If we were just looking at facilities that provided an immediate financial return to a community, then we'd never build a museum," says Schmoke. "There's certain facilities that help unite your community, uplift the spirit of the community, provide a source of pride, and generally help improve the overall quality of life for the citizens.

"And sometimes that can't be measured in just the dollars-and-cents investment," he continues. "I never had a second doubt that Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the right thing to do for the community, and that overall it's helped Baltimore a great deal."

"It's a community asset that helps with a variety of things," says Frenz, of the Maryland Stadium Authority, "like a symphony. It helps with attracting business, helps with retaining business, and I think it's a quality of life issue for the people of the city and state."

Says Noll: "Indeed, there are lots of activities that can't exist without a public subsidy—museums, ballet companies. There's a whole bunch of stuff out there we subsidize with local government money because we feel that it's useful just to have it as a consumption good."

"What I object to," he continues, "is when people say to middle-class families, 'We're gonna tax you to recover $2,000 per household over the next 30 years, but you're gonna get rich because of it.' Because that's just not true."

The first night game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 8, 1992 (Jed Kirschbaum/Courtesy Baltimore Sun)

In spite of its influence, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is, in some important ways, an aberration. The costs of building stadiums has pushed past the billion-dollar mark as teams have tried to design self-contained little worlds that bring in more restaurants and shops, and things like batting cages and virtual reality, to generate more revenue. Other projects, like SunTrust Park and the forthcoming stadium for the Rams, are more lucrative for the rights to develop commercial and residential buildings adjacent to the park.

If you wanted to build Camden Yards today, it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 million. The stadium portion of SunTrust Park alone cost $672 million. The next most recent park, Marlins Park in Miami, opened in 2012, cost north of $630 million.

There are certain intangibles, too, those things George Will waxed poetically about in the '90s. While other stadiums opt for video boards that ring the stadium and boutiques, bars, and other distractions from the game itself, Oriole Park is still very much the classic ballpark it set out to be. Things have changed over the years, sure. Video boards have been upgraded, seats have been taken out to create room for stools and countertops and things like the Miller Lite Flite Deck, concession stands have been dressed up. But the bones of it are the same.

"I think there is a respect for tradition in this ballpark, from the entertainment side of things," says Bader, of the Orioles. "We certainly want to be relevant and be current, but at the same time there's certain lines we won't necessarily cross with our game entertainment. You won't see 30-second commercials on the video board running in-game. We like not having an on-site host, we like having our public address announcer doing the between-inning announcements.

"There's just certain things that kind of are respectful to the long-standing traditions of baseball."

Smith and Ashton were brought back before the 20th anniversary season to spruce up the place. The most noticeable changes were the bar added over the batter's eye in centerfield, the lowering of the out-of-town scoreboard to offer better views for fans in the standing-room only section, and the addition of bronze statues of the Orioles' six Hall of Famers in the picnic area beyond the bullpens. There were also graphics and banners added inside the concourse and in the stairwells embracing the team's storied past. It was a modernization that didn't use a heavy hand or change the character of this place.

"That was exactly the idea, was to not change the postcard view, but to make certain that it still functioned as new park," says Smith.

April 6, 1992—opening day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Kenneth K. Lam/Courtesy Baltimore Sun )

The Orioles' original lease is set to end in 2021, Frenz says, at which point the stadium will be paid off in full. The club has a five-year option to extend the lease, or they could begin negotiations for a new one.

"We don't know whether or not they'll choose to exercise it," says Frenz. "But presumably in the near future we'll start talking about negotiating a new lease, or perhaps the Orioles will give us an indication of whether or not they plan to exercise the option."

Frenz calls Oriole Park at Camden Yards a "100-year stadium" and points to the $120 million the Ravens are investing in M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore's teams are here to stay, and so are their homes.

But late in 2015, John Angelos, the Orioles' executive vice president and chief operating officer, and the son of majority owner Peter Angelos, dropped hints that major (and likely costly) renovations were being considered, including the addition of more party decks and the opening of the concourse.

Bader did not have any updates on the status of such plans (John Angelos was unable to schedule an interview with City Paper, according to a team spokeswoman), but he did say the club would consider any drastic changes as part of a master-planning process.

"Any improvements and enhancements that are made into the future will be done with the understanding that this ballpark is absolutely beloved by our fans and has a reputation nationally for being among the best, if not the best, park in baseball," he says. "So anything that ends up ultimately being done we anticipate would be done as part as part of a master planning process that would allow for any potential changes that we all felt would be an enhancement to the experience. The policies of this club have always been about the fans first."

Frenz is anticipating changes of some kind.

"Presumably when we negotiate a new lease with the Orioles, they will want—you know, again, you see this all over professional sports—they will want us to fund stadium improvements, to keep the stadium up to date," he says. The Maryland Stadium Authority would have to weigh issuing another round of bonds.

Noll is betting on it.

"Sometime in the next few years they're going to be telling the good people of Baltimore that they no longer can be competitive as a baseball team playing in this old, rundown facility," he says. "It doesn't mean that it would be completely torn down and started over, but it would be substantially renovated."

Ben Harrington, 10, of Annapolis (right) and Governor William Donald Schaefer (left) enjoy Opening Day 1992. (Kenneth K. Lam/Courtesy Baltimore Sun)

On Opening Day, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is packed once again, filled with a sea of orange: orange camo pants, orange jerseys, orange t-shirts, bundles of orange balloons on Eutaw Street, and an orange tutu worn by a little girl on her dad's shoulders.

More than 40,000 people from all across the region move in large packs through the concourse and to their seats. They come to watch baseball up close and in person, and they get to see Manny Machado home runs, Adam Jones running catches, and well-turned double plays against the backdrop of downtown Baltimore.

The crowds will thin over the next 80 home games, but this place will still be one of the best to watch professional baseball.

In spite of a raise in ticket prices last season, seeing an Orioles game remains below the Major League Baseball average. The team still allows fans to bring in food from outside the stadium, an element of affordability that is all but extinct in professional sports.

"They deserve a medal for that," says Noll with a laugh.

Twenty-five years on, Oriole Park at Camden Yards has done a few things to keep up with the times, but little about it has changed. And even though the team is reportedly mulling renovations and Noll thinks they are inevitable, little about it needs to change.

David Ashton holds the ticket he designed. (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is City Paper's web editor. When not writing and editing blogs about breaking news, Baltimore arts, or anything interesting that comes across his desk, he's covering music and culture for the paper or writing his columns on sports, The Undercard, and fast food, Fast Foodie. Before joining City Paper full-time in 2012, Weigel was an editorial aide for The Washington Post's Going Out Guide, where he wrote articles on music and D.C. culture. His work has also appeared in USA Today, SPIN, The Sun, Chicago Reader, Urbanite, and the Baltimore Business Journal.