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Commentary: Camden Yards diminished by tenant

I got my first look at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on a cold afternoon a few weeks before the 1992 season opened during a tour of the brand-new stadium.

I remember marveling at the sight, thinking it was a dramatic improvement over Memorial Stadium in every respect. Great sight lines. Comfortable. An architectural triumph. Easy to get to.

Well, every respect but one. Memories.

As Friday's 20th anniversary of the first game played at Camden Yards nears, not much has changed.

It remains a wonderful ballpark. The retro feel, which was in such stark contrast to the cookie-cutter stadiums of the 1970s and the ultra-modern SkyDome of a few years earlier, inspired not-quite-as-good renditions in Colorado, Cleveland, Atlanta and elsewhere.

But the place has housed shockingly few memorable or important actual baseball games. It's probably the nicest park in baseball history never to host a World Series.

Oh, there have been some historic nights. No one who witnessed Cal Ripken tying and then breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak in 1995 will ever forget it. But imagine if Ripken had come along four years earlier and set the mark in Memorial Stadium. Or if he had left Baltimore as a free agent. Sadly, there'd be little from the past 20 years at Camden Yards to celebrate.

When our staff set about picking the most memorable moments and games from the past 20 years, nearly all the top ones had absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of a game.

And that makes sense. The Orioles, arguably Major League Baseball's best franchise over their final 25 seasons at Memorial Stadium, have had losing seasons in 15 of their 20 seasons since moving into Oriole Park, and haven't made the playoffs since 1997.

Forget about a postseason game, there hasn't even been a September game with postseason implications for the home team since '97.

So our "20 For 20" has lots of Ripken ceremonies, All-Star festivities, and other milestone moments - not to mention a historic 30-3 beatdown and succumbing to the only no-hitter in the history of the park - but precious few games noteworthy for the home team producing an important win.

Some would argue the Orioles' biggest win at Camden Yards came last September when they played spoiler to the Boston Red Sox on the final day of the season. It was their 69th victory, fourth-worst in baseball.

To me, that one ranks behind the 14-13 win over the Mariners in 1996 secured on Chris Hoiles' two-out, ninth-inning grand slam, as well as Mike Mussina's 3-1 win over Randy Johnson and Seattle that clinched the 1997 AL Division Series and set off the first and only champagne celebration in the home clubhouse at Camden Yards.

But the fact that I'm going back to the Clinton years to find an important win says it all.

The Camden Yards-era Orioles have been mostly a losing team. A last-place team, in fact, for most of the past decade. And the ballpark that was once called "Crammed-In Yards" as Baltimore fans packed the place night after night, now is usually half-full and regularly taken over by fans of opposing teams.

For most Orioles fans 40 and older, Memorial Stadium continues to hold a special spot, not because of the sight lines or seats or smell but because of the memories made there, including World Series-clinching wins in 1966 and 1970 and numerous huge, late-season games from pennant races won (1979) and lost (1982).

Yes, Camden Yards is a wonderful ballpark. But it has been diminished by its tenant.

Back in 1992, Ripken didn't see Camden Yards quite the way I had at first viewing.

He called it "a pretty sterile feeling" when he first laid eyes on the ballpark, because he felt the character of a park is built through the games played there.

He was absolutely right. And fans can only hope Camden Yards will acquire a bit more of that character over the next 20 years.

Bob Blubaugh is the Times' sports editor. His column appears every Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7895 or bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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