Architecture's Bridge to Ballpark Memories


As we Orioles fans contemplate our good fortune at Memoria Stadium tomorrow, we should be grateful for the lucky bounce that will also guarantee our continued baseball pleasure at Camden Yards next year.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

In their first shaky season in the big leagues, Houston baseball fans poured into the first domed stadium in April, 1965 to watch President Lyndon Johnson throw out the first pitch. But a structure which Houston parvenu Judge Roy Mark Hofheinz promised would create a perfectly controlled environment and "grandeur . . . for the bleacher fan and the country club member" had skylights which nearly blinded its outfielders.

A $20,000 coat of acrylic paint diffused the sunlight, but wilted, then killed off the Tifway Bermuda grass imported from Georgia. Judge Hofheinz ordered the dead grass to be painted green. When this, too, failed to yield a permanent solution, a three-eights-inch carpet called "Astroturf" replaced the grass in 1966.

One can appreciate the frustration of Houston fans, one of whom, writer Larry McMurtry, said the Astrodome looked like "the working end of a gigantic roll-on deodorant."

Houstonians and their comrades-in-suffering under domes in Minneapolis, Seattle and Toronto continue to pay the awful price which has inspired the rebirth of the old-time ballpark tradition in Baltimore. Instead of domes which require engineers to compute the hazards of rapid body heat build up, the visionaries at Camden Yards are putting scale models into wind tunnels and water tanks to replicate the flight of a batted ball between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. with a prevailing wind blowing from the northwest, from 51 hit directions and five "launch angles."

Instead of the mind-numbing hum of scrubbers and filters keeping the air perfectly cooled to 72 degrees, Baltimore's lucky fans who brave the sunshine, fresh air and cool breezes will be treated to reduced foul ball territory (meaning fewer foul-ball outs and more exciting moments) and back-to-back bullpens three feet above field level so we can see who is warming up.

The ballpark at Camden Yards promises to bring full circle the uneven march toward architectural enhancement of baseball's pleasures. Manufactured nostalgia. A refurbished B&O; train station and warehouse -- landmarks preserved and integrated into a design which will instantly identify this place as Baltimore's place for baseball.

A gently sloped upper deck, roomy seats, adequate parking facilities, soothing green steel beams instead of massive concrete -- all will contribute to unmediated baseball pleasure for fans and players.

But a fan is tethered to a ballpark in a hundred ways through the years, making the prospect of a forced exit a bit unsettling.

The second of two daughters in a family with no sons, I was a Colts and Orioles fan from the start, finding sports to be a wonderful way to share an afternoon with my father. His soul seemed bonded more to football than baseball; I have vivid memories of him pounding the walls in despair at our Rockfield Avenue house when Johnny Unitas fumbled a rain-slick football on the ten-yard line, with a minute to go in a 1966 game against Green Bay, costing the Colts the Western Conference title. The primal chant, "Kill, Bubba, Kill," still echoes whenever I'm in the upper deck at the stadium.

My lifelong passion for baseball emerged in 1966, when Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Paul Blair were my teen-age heroes. I attended my first World Series game that year. The rush of anticipation jogging up the ramp at Memorial Stadium was rewarded with Frank Robinson's solo home run off Don Drysdale in the fourth inning, clinching the series, 4-0, against the Dodgers on October 9.

A 1967 graduate of Western High School (the last year of Western's downtown campus), I remember leaning out of the windows overlooking Howard and Centre streets with my friends during the World Series parade. Baseball's offerings and coming of age in a downtown, urban setting happily merged when I was seventeen.

For the last 25 years, my baseball connections have been richer and more complicated. I now live and practice law in Washington, but attend as many as 30 home games and listen always, with humble and riveted gratitude, to Jon Miller's exceptional radio tutorials.

Even when I'm not in Baltimore -- at spring training in Florida, an Orioles road game in Detroit, the heartbreaking season closer in Toronto in 1989 or a charming Carolina League All Star game in Durham Park -- each new chapter in my baseball education provokes a ready comparison to this familiar place.

For baseball fans in Baltimore, 1991 will be an embarrassment of riches. We will be treated to a season of reinforced memories -- the sounds, smells, tastes and touching images of the familiar horseshoe: 309 feet to the foul poles; Mark Belanger, the "Blade," vacuuming up balls in two dimensions; Brooks Robinson on a permanent horizontal plane; Eddie Murray's booming shots; Jim Palmer's stylish grace and endless press conferences about his injured ulnar nerve. Martinez to Murray, once. Martinez to Murray, twice. Martinez to Murray, three times!

Meanwhile, on the south side of town, a worthy descendant of Fenway, Wrigley, Shibe Park, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds will come to focus. Grandstands, ramps, bleachers, flagpoles and light stanchions will soon fill out its form and etch their mark on Baltimore's landscape. It seems like Camden Yards will have the qualities of "ballpark-ness" which are as indefinable as what makes Boog Powell "beery" or Mike Boddicker wholesome.

But if there is for you, as there is for me, a much needed pause in the frenzy of this anticipated good fortune, if you wonder why we presume to declare obsolescent, then physically remove ourselves, from a commodious sponsor of generations of good times and memories, think of the move from 33rd Street to Camden Yards as a journey across time, a bridge connecting memories from the ballparks of our childhood to the first broken window at the B&O; warehouse.

After all, some of baseball's greatest moments were dictated by the unique architectural features of the ballpark.

Picture Cookie Lavagetto's pinch-hit double off the right field wall at Ebbets Field in 1947, Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning homer in 1960 sailing into the trees over Yogi Berra's head at Forbes Field, or Carlton Fisk's 12th-inning homer off the left field foul pole at Fenway in game six of the 1975 World Series. Cubs left fielder Andy Pafko's search in the ivy vines for Roy Cullenbine's hit in the 1945 World Series had to be at Wrigley Field. And Ernie Lombardi's stand-up triple at the Polo Grounds in 1946 would be an unimaginable feat for the slow-footed Giants catcher, but was accomplished when the ball rolled behind the odd stairway leading to the clubhouses in center field.

A sport which produces $451,000 for a 1910 baseball card of Honus Wagner, a sport in which the greatest living lead-off man, Rickey Henderson, bellyaches over his $3 million-a-year contract, a long way from John McGraw's 1890s Orioles and baseball's 19th century pastoral roots.

Sadly, too, the last quarter-century of stadium development has not distinguished the architect's role in hosting baseball's timeless virtues. Domes, applause signs and Astroturf create a synthetic environment that is counterfeit to the core, prompting Philip Bess, a Chicago architect, to preface a 1985 anthology on American ballparks, "Green Cathedrals," by saying, "Architects, politicians and developers are currently afflicted within a multi-purpose domed stadium fetish that is slow poison to the joy of baseball."

Camden Yards will disprove this thesis. Fittingly, a baseball town which delivers Babe Ruth, one of the sport's larger-than-life talents, will have an instantly mythologized center field built on the site of a saloon once owned by Babe Ruth's father. And beginning tomorrow, and for one more season, Memorial Stadium and the Orioles will once again fill up my senses and refill my heart.

Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

The attachments shaped by the love of baseball are, I suppose, much the same for men and women. An afternoon or evening at the ballpark produces not only grist for debate about dozens of tactical decisions and opportunities, it contributes to a lifelong study of a great sport: when to pinch-hit, hit-and-run, call in a reliever or attempt a double steal.

It also generates a season-long cycle of banter and laughter, providing the best way to relax and connect to family and friends. Best of all, baseball invites the most special relationship an adult can have with a child; many children I have taken to games now proudly call themselves "baseball obsessives."

But a woman's connection to a baseball team is inevitably different from a man's. The whole range of a boy's fantasies dreamed, then --ed -- of hitting like Williams or Mantle, scorching around the bases like Jackie Robinson or Lou Brock, pitching a masterpiece in the World Series like Don Larsen or Bob Gibson, is out of fantasy's reach for a young girl.

But a woman with a soul for baseball has compensating fantasies. Challenging yourself to become a credible student of the game in the usual all-male audience. An imagined love affair with Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio. Exploring the erotic potential on a steamy August night of a luxury hotel suite overlooking center field at the SkyDome in Toronto (the only virtue of the SkyDome). Finding a team that will let me advance the first gate-crashing "Garter-Belt Promotion Night." Finding a man who is more fun than a grand slam (maybe) or a triple (impossible). . . .

-- R.A.M.

Roslyn Mazer, a partner in the WaShington law firm Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin, writes occasionally about baseball.

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