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LEFT OUT ON THE CORNER Orioles on hot seat looking at angry fans' point of view

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Out in left-field land, Orioles fans are restless.

They forked over $13 each for their field-level box seats. They invited mothers and brothers, friends and clients to join them. They envisioned spending the first year at the new Camden Yards ballpark on top of the action, as immersed in the game as if they'd been standing in Leo Gomez's spikes.

But now it's August. The ballpark's inaugural season is nearly over. And fans who've spent the season looking on from one of the park's least desirable locations are complaining that they caught most of this season out of the corner of one eye.

The grumbling is loudest among ticket buyers in sections 68, 69, 70 and 71 -- areas in the ballpark's left-field elbow. From those sections, fans have fabulous, uncompromised sightlines of the bright-yellow foul pole and of Brady Anderson's socks. But many have complained their view of home plate, where most of the action takes place, is virtually non-existent.

Fans have griped about the orientation of their seats, which point to the outfield, not the infield. Others have told of bending, leaning, straining in their seats to catch a glimpse of home plate, only to find their views blocked by other fans who are bending, leaning and straining.

For months, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Orioles have been trying to decide what, if anything, they can do to improve the situation for the fans who regularly sit in the left-field seats. Though no decisions have been made, the outline of a plan for next season is beginning to take shape.

Team spokesman Rick Vaughn said this week that the Orioles intend to take a "pro-active approach" in dealing with the disputed seats.

Between now and the beginning of next season, the team will contact ticket holders who have seats in the imperfect sections. "If they want to move, we are going to try to relocate them," he said.

The Orioles also are "seriously considering" changing some ticket prices, said Vaughn, who declined to specify which seats would be affected or what the discounts might be.

"We think that's fair. If season-ticket holders aren't happy with their seats, we're going to be sensitive, as we have been all along," he said.

For now, the Orioles and the stadium authority apparently have ruled out a more extreme and expensive measure -- replacing the seats with experimental models that angle toward the infield.

Orioles officials have contacted American Seating Corp. of Grand Rapids, Mich., makers of the roughly 48,000 ballpark chairs, to discuss prototypes equipped with special arm rests and end standards. The seats are being considered for use in Cleveland's Gateway Park, which is scheduled to open in 1994.

Janet Marie Smith, an Orioles vice president, said team officials were concerned the new seats would create as many problems as they might solve. One drawback: Because of the angling, fans in the new seats would be looking into the shirt collar of the fan seated to their immediate right.

"We have continued to talk to American Seating about whether they can come up with some ingenious scheme that would orient seats to the infield without having to look at your neighbor's back," Smith said. "So far, there's been no grand solution."

Why build a state-of-the-art stadium and equip it with about 1,000 seats that you wouldn't wish on a Toronto Blue Jays fan?

The answer is not simple, or, probably, comforting to the fans who have spent this season with their heads cocked toward home plate. But those who participated in the ballpark's design -- including, the Orioles, stadium authority and HOK Sports Facilities Group -- say the controversial seats were no mistake.

Rather, they say, the decision to orient more than a thousand seats away from the action -- in both the right- and left-field grandstands -- was necessary to create the intimate, old-fashioned ballpark favored by all the parties.

"We could have built another kind of ballpark, with every seat facing the pitcher's mound, said stadium authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad. "But you only achieve that by moving the whole structure farther from the field. We thought this was the right decision. I wouldn't change it."

The Orioles and stadium authority weren't always so convinced. When the ballpark planning began in earnest in 1988, neither was certain which design would best fit the baseball team and blend with its urban surroundings. In the memorandum of agreement, the lease document in which the Orioles committed to playing in the downtown stadium for 15 years, the two sides did not take a firm position on the seat issue, but agreed that the decision where to point chairs ultimately would be made by the team.

"If the Orioles desire, all seats will be oriented toward the pitcher's mound and, to the extent practicable, have views of the entire field, unobstructed by the structure and the surrounding patrons," the document says.

The Orioles chose not to enforce the term. Some disgruntled fans might regret that, but team officials don't, even after months of complaints about stiff necks and inferior views.

"If you'd translated that language [of the memorandum] literally, the ballpark would have been a boomerang," Smith said, referring to the more circular shape the ballpark likely would have taken.

"We wanted to minimize foul territory. We wanted the seats closer to the field," Smith said. "Now, you have people in left field sitting 40 to 50 feet away. It would have been 80 to 90 feet."

The ballpark's sharp angles and quirky dimensions have helped many more views than they've hindered, Smith said. In particular, she cited lower-reserved sections beyond the 333-foot marker down the left-field line. From those $8 seats, fans in the first row literally can reach out and touch the 7-foot, outfield wall. But had the planners pulled the third-base grandstand farther from the foul line, Smith said, ballpark geometry would have altered to lift them 24 feet above the wall.

"It would have meant that many sections would have been farther removed from the playing field in height and distance," she said.

The seat controversy has come as a mild surprise to at least one stadium planner -- chief architect Joe Spear, who pointed out that Baltimore's is not the only acclaimed ballpark with seats that do not point into the pitcher's eye.

"There are similar conditions at Fenway Park [in Boston]. The old Comiskey Park had very similar viewing angles. There didn't seem to be this amount of criticism," Spear said.

Spear said he didn't take the criticism personally. If anything, the architect seemed complimented by the debate.

"This is the maiden voyage of a cruise ship," he said. "If this is the biggest issue we have to deal with, I think everyone has done a commendable job."

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