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A very good ballpark, saved from terminal cutesyness


ORIOLE Park at Camden Yards has gotten more publicity this spring than Yankee Stadium and Dyersville's Field of Dreams rolled into one; which, incidentally, is what some say it is. And more.

It is, to hear various columnists, announcers and architectural critics tell it, baseball's equivalent of Cher -- something at once old and new, beautiful and funky, frivolous and down-to-earth. As a matter of fact, not even Cher got the reviews Camden Yards gets.

A friend, a baseball fan by inclination and a skeptic by profession, wrote me, saying: "How can it be a classic ballpark if it doesn't have the smell of stale beer and urine and dead cigarettes permeating its concrete walkways? And if it has all those things, how can it be so wholesome and appealing? I am confused. You live near Baltimore. You know baseball parks. Please report."

So, I report:

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a nice ballpark. The giddiness it TTC has inspired, however, is due mainly to two factors:

* With a couple of exceptions, the other parks built in the past 50 years are truly dreadful places, often paved with a fuzzy kind of asphalt known as "turf." Some of them even have roofs. It is not difficult to be well thought-of when your competition is the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

* Otherwise somber writers, especially political writers, tend to get giddy when writing about baseball. I don't know what it is -- it doesn't happen with basketball or football -- but when the subject turns to baseball they go all mushy on the page. This is particularly true when the subject is narrowed to ballparks. I've done it myself.

The truth is, old baseball parks tend to be overly romanticized. I grew up going to Briggs (now "Tiger") Stadium in Detroit, one of the acknowledged icons of the game.

It, too, is a nice place to watch a ball game, when you can see it. There are 52,000 seats in Briggs Stadium, and 51,000 of them are behind posts. I know; I've sat in all of them. Still, it's an interesting-looking old place, filled with the ghosts of Tiger teams of the past 75 years. I remember seeing my first game there 45 years ago and there's nothing an architect can do to reproduce that memory.

The Camden Yards architects did try. The right field wall brings forth a faint echo of the famous right field wall at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Center field has a wall they're going to cover with ivy, like Wrigley Field in Chicago. The playing field itself is very close to the stands and its dimensions are eccentric, as were those of the old parks, squeezed as they were onto oddly-shaped city blocks.

And yet . . . and yet, there's something artificial about it. As one sports columnist put it, it's a little like one of those Stutz Bearcat kit cars or a kerosene lamp with an electric light inside; something out of Main Street-USA at Disney World.

What saves it from terminal cutesyness is the vast, renovated warehouse that looms behind the right field wall. It is real, it is beautiful and it gives the park an authenticity it would otherwise lack, a link to Baltimore's architectural heritage.

Basically, it's a very good ballpark. All it needs is 30 or 40 years to get the memories and smells right.

I do have a personal complaint about the place, however.

My seats.

I sent away for the best season tickets I could get as soon as they were made available. They seated me in the very top deck, up by the right field foul pole. (Such is the influence of Washington columnists in Baltimore.)

I didn't make a big deal out of it. I was assured that the ballpark had no bad seats. I went to my first game just before the Orioles left on a nine-game road trip. They were bad seats.

Not totally bad, of course. I could see everything but the batter, the pitcher and the first baseman. There is this little raised extension of the railing they have at the end of each aisle to keep people from falling out of the stands. It is in my direct line of vision and no one else's.

The next time I order tickets from a ballpark, I'm going to disguise my voice so they won't recognize me and put me behind something.

Donald Kaul is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.

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