Oriole Park at Camden Yards may have set the standard for a new generation of traditional, intimate ballparks, but the number of imitators is rising rapidly.
Nearly a dozen cities are building or talking about building open-air, natural-grass, baseball-only parks that will boast much of the same good-natured quirkiness that made Oriole Park such a hit, according to a panel of baseball experts who gath- ered there yesterday for a discussion on ballpark design.
Several of the experts suggested ways that owners of the next wave of ballparks could improve on Oriole Park, such as moving the upper deck seats closer to the field.
But all agreed that Oriole Park, designed by HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, Mo., was the best new major-league ballpark in more than a generation.
"Camden Yards is becoming the standard for others," said Philip Bess, a Chicago-based architect and ballpark design expert. "I have a great deal of admiration for the Orioles and the care that they took in soliciting fan input -- and the results they came up with."
"It's terrific," agreed John Pastier, a Los Angeles-based critic, consultant and ballpark aficionado.
"When you look at this park, yes, appreciate it for its qualities," he told the audience of more than 150. "Don't assume that these qualities are going to be perpetuated or improved on, as far as seating proximity [in future ballparks].
Ballparks are under construction and due to open next year in Cleveland and in Arlington, Texas, and Coors Field is scheduled to open in Denver in 1995.
All have been touted as intimate, baseball-only, open-air facilities with real grass, modern fan amenities, and enough nooks and crannies to keep the game interesting. The ballparks in Denver and Cleveland will be close to the central business district, aiding economic development efforts in those cities. All three will have the look of a vintage ballpark.
Other cities planning or discussing new ballparks include Milwaukee, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, where Yankees owner George Steinbrenner recently disclosed that he was studying plans to move his team from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx to Manhattan.
Entitled "Build it Right and They Will Come," the seminar was co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the Orioles in cooperation with Major League Baseball.
Pastier described the 1990s as "the most interesting period in ballpark design in 80 years."
The last time so many parks were built, he said, was between 1909 and 1916. "That was when the wooden ballparks were replaced al- most wholesale by fireproof concrete and steel ballparks."
Pastier said he believes one of the most encouraging trends is the back-to-the-city movement. "The ballpark should generate collateral activity," he said. "It should become part of the city."
But he and other speakers warned that designers must do more than copy from the past -- or from each other -- if they want their buildings to be distinctive.
"If it were just a menagerie of characteristics that you love, it would be like borrowing someone else's scrapbook and living through memories vicariously," said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles vice president for stadium planning and development. "It has to have its own personality."
"This is an easy business, baseball," said Texas Rangers president J. Thomas Schieffer, who is coordinating plans for the ballpark in Arlington. "All you have to do is give people what they want. . . What we've tried to do is build a park for baseball purists.
"What you don't want to do is put the Green Monster in left field and ivy on the walls," Schieffer said, referring to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, respectively. "You don't want to repeat what others have already done. If you do, you'll wind up with Main Street in Disneyland."
Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson drew the most applause when he offered a suggestion for some existing ballparks.
"I think they should tear out the AstroTurf and make it all grass fields," he said. "Then it would be fair for everyone."