The perfect diamond

The Baltimore Sun

When Camden Yards hosted its first home opener 15 years ago, many already regarded it as a triumph for Baltimore and the Orioles.

"Field of Dreams Comes True in Baltimore," gushed the headline in The New York Times.

Less obvious was that the park - with its brick exterior, exposed metalwork, city backdrop and incorporation of existing architecture - would become the template for a generation of baseball stadiums.

Today, with a more modern park featuring concrete and glass rising up along the Anacostia waterfront in Washington, that wave might be over. But for lovers of baseball and architecture, Camden Yards has kept much of its allure.

"Over the 15 years, I feel the park really has held up well," said Timonium resident John Ross, a season-ticket holder for more than 20 years. "But I can't say the same about the team."

The park's creators hoped such sentiments about the stadium would endure.

"I really do feel that the patina of time has served Camden Yards well," said Janet Marie Smith, who helped oversee the park's design and construction for the Orioles. "We were anxious to design something timeless and of the ages. That's very hard to do, but I believe that it's just as wonderful a place to be, maybe more so, than the day it opened."

Little has changed at the park in 15 years. A new warning track has been installed this year, and a new video board is on its way, but that's about the extent of it.

An ESPN.com survey last year ranked Camden Yards the third-best park in baseball behind its conceptual heirs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. National columnists who deride the Orioles often hasten to add that Camden Yards remains a grand place to catch a game.

Architects praise the park for reminding us of the delightful symbiosis between old stadiums and city neighborhoods.

"The overriding influence that Camden Yards has had is the understanding that putting these facilities in downtown is a great thing for any city," said Ron Turner, a Los Angeles architect who has consulted on designs for Milwaukee's Miller Park, Seattle's Safeco Field and Arizona's Chase Field.

The idea for Camden Yards seemed simple: hark back to the brick and metalwork that distinguished old ballparks, tailor the configuration to Baltimore's downtown and fill it with all the shopping and food amenities that a family could want on a night out.

But that cocktail proved so potent that stadium builders in other cities almost had to follow the blueprint for more than a decade.

"What has been a pleasant surprise is that Camden Yards was the first page in another chapter on ballparks," Smith said. "I don't think that's something you can possibly expect in real time."

The stadium drew rave reviews and huge crowds from Day One and inspired the notion that new ballparks could translate to big revenue increases for their occupants.

The formula worked in Cleveland, San Francisco and Seattle, but the effects were more temporary for Milwaukee; Detroit; Arlington, Texas; and Denver.

"Camden Yards changed the nature of the discussion about baseball parks, and mainly for the better," said Philip Bess, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and author of City Baseball Magic: Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense about Cities and Baseball Parks. "But at the same time, Camden Yards, rather than the best features of the ballparks that formed the basis for Camden Yards, became the paradigm for new construction."

Neoclassicism

Camden Yards feels less gimmicky than many of the parks that followed. There's a deliberate neoclassicism at work, but the park's configuration was determined by the space in which it was plopped. The brick warehouse was already in place.

"We tried not to be cute about it," Smith said. "I cringe a little bit when people throw around the term 'retro.' It wasn't meant to be retro. We were attempting a serious study of the way older parks meshed with their neighborhoods and surroundings."

Some imitators are so crammed with features stolen from the parks of yore that they feel like the creations of greedy children who just couldn't say no to that last bit of candy. And those features aren't determined by the neighborhoods around them.

"The older [parks] were site-constrained, and new ones are program-driven and not nearly so constrained," Bess said. "That's why the eccentricities for new parks are a little artificial, because there's no real reason to have them."

Turner noted that new stadiums in New York will virtually copy significant features from Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field, and he's not a fan of such direct imitation.

"That didn't happen at Camden Yards," he said. "I applaud that design. It doesn't replicate anything. But in the time since then, we should have evolved rather than have to copy Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field. It's not a good thing for our society. ... It doesn't elevate anyone's understanding about architecture, which is what we should do."

Even critics who believe the retro craze went overboard say that the parks of the past 15 years - the children of Camden Yards - are better than those that preceded them.

Many remember the 1960s and 1970s as dark times for ballpark design. From New York to Pittsburgh to Texas, concrete ovals containing symmetrical fields rose above blank landscapes situated next to highway on-ramps. Only the garish colors of the seats seemed to distinguish one multipurpose stadium from the next. That generation is almost extinct, with only soon-to-be-abandoned Shea Stadium in New York and the more widely praised Kauff- man Stadium in Kansas City and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles holding on.

When the time came to design a downtown park for Baltimore, the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority turned to Kansas City-based HOK, the busiest stadium designers in the country. That hardly portended a revolution, because HOK was known more for the sameness of its buildings than for aesthetic verve. The park that the firm had just designed for the Chicago White Sox would open to poor reviews.

But then-Orioles team president Larry Lucchino and his lieutenant, Smith, insisted on something more.

"Larry Lucchino wanted to build a park that would change the course of the river of pre-cast concrete that had been poured into American Stadium architecture," wrote Peter Richmond in Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream. "Larry Lucchino wanted to build a palace that would put the Orioles at baseball's epicenter."

Interestingly, Lucchino, along with most of the architects on the project, wanted to demolish the warehouse that would become the park's most distinctive feature. A model by graduate student Eric Moss sparked the idea of a stadium incorporating the warehouse. Stadium authority chairman Herbert Belgrad seized on the notion.

The overall effect - from the walk in on Eutaw Street to the brick and steel everywhere to the skyline looming over the outfield - worked powerfully.

"When I walked into the place, I was amazed," remembered Ross, the longtime fan from Timonium. "It smelled new. It was painted new like a new car, but it looked old."

The park hasn't required major cosmetic improvements over the years.

The field has a new warning track this year. Last year brought the addition of a 12-inch-wide steel and Kevlar mesh fin on the outside edge of both foul poles to help umpires with fair-foul calls. In 2004, groundskeepers hacked down the ivy that had grown in center field since 1992 because it was strangling itself. The year before, the club unveiled a new monument to veterans with the lettering from Memorial Stadium as its centerpiece. The field features less foul ground behind home plate and a new drainage system.

Slight changes

But one alteration that every fan will someday notice - a new video board - is near and will serve as a reminder that Camden Yards is no longer a stadium infant. The Sony JumboTron was considered cutting-edge when the park opened, but the Orioles and their landlord, the stadium authority, agree that the board is on its last legs.

The club wants a bigger scoreboard and video screen with a high-definition picture. The authority, as long as it is footing the bill, would like to slot a sharper screen into the existing space. The issue is headed for arbitration, but regardless of the result, a change could come before next season.

The crowds have changed as well.

The ballpark is no longer such a potent draw that it can overcome the foibles of its occupant. As recently as 2000, a losing Orioles team ranked in the top five in baseball in attendance. But the club's ninth straight losing season in 2006 drew an average of 26,583, the lowest ever at Camden Yards.

It's unclear whether the park's architectural influence will persist. Washington deliberately turned away from the brick and green-steel look that has characterized the retro wave. The Nationals' stadium, set to open next year, will feature local touches, such as cherry trees planted in a plaza behind the outfield and light-colored concrete meant to evoke the limestone of federal monuments. But it won't pilfer beloved features from classic parks.

"Within the architectural community, there is a bias away from retro because the so-called 'starchitects' have little interest in things traditional," Bess said.

But what seems unlikely to go away, he added, is the emphasis on the ballpark as downtown entertainment center.

"Camden Yards is the first example of that," Bess said. "It wasn't the most important thing. It started out as a wholesome thing. But it also became the beginnings of a ballpark design where the ballpark became a commodity. I'm not saying that Camden Yards is the cause of that, but it's what I see as the future. You'll have ballparks that, whether they're ultra-modern or ultra-archaic, they'll all be seen as sales devices."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
82°