The field is as lush and green as ever. The ushers look sharp in their bright orange jackets. Fans are once again strolling along Eutaw Street, enjoying Boog's barbecue and hoping for a good season.
But something's drastically different at Oriole Park this year, and not just on the playing field.
The sweeping view of downtown Baltimore that fans have enjoyed for the past 16 seasons has changed considerably, as a result of two large construction projects beyond the outfield.
Now missing from many vantage points is the quirky Bromo Seltzer Tower that could be seen beyond center field, with its crenellated top, round clock faces and warm blue glow at night.
New to the view are two large buildings that loom just beyond the left field grandstand, the Zenith tower, with its "APTS 4 LEASE" message spelled vertically in the windows, and the soon-to-open Hilton Baltimore Convention Center hotel, which occupies two city blocks just north of Oriole Park and Camden Station.
Neither escaped the notice of Katherine Mulligan, a 23-year-old nurse who lives in Federal Hill and works at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"You can't see the clock tower anymore" because it's blocked by the hotel, she groused during a break in Wednesday night's game against the Chicago White Sox, while sitting in the lower deck behind first base. "Big buildings around the harbor may be all right, but when you're talking about the line of vision from the stadium, that's too much."
"It's cool. It's cool," countered her friend, Robert Talanehzar, a 25-year-old Web site manager. "Baltimore has bad enough problems. I think any big building is good for this city."
A half-inning later, Talanehzar came up with a suggestion for making the hotel more palatable to his friend.
"I think they should paint it orange and black" after the O's team colors, he said of the hotel. "Then it would fit in."
Just as the Orioles are in the midst of a rebuilding program, so is downtown Baltimore. The change may not have dawned on many Orioles fans who've yet to visit the park this spring - the team has been last in the American League in attendance - but this past weekend's home stand against the Yankees was the season's busiest.
For some fans coming to Oriole Park for the first time this season, the new sights in and around Camden Yards have become as much a topic of discussion and debate as the new faces on the roster. The urban landscape changes can be particularly jarring to fans who had become spoiled by so many years without many.
Scheduled to open in August, the 20-story, 757-room hotel, designed by RTKL Associates of Baltimore, has already come in for some negative reaction - from out-of-town journalists to incensed letter-to-the-editor writers to everyday fans. "A cruel cubist joke" on a "previously perfect" ballpark, complained one Washington Post sports columnist.
Even Gov. Martin O'Malley, who approved funding for the city-owned hotel when he was Baltimore's mayor, asked about the yellow-and-blue surfaces on its upper levels when he went to check out the new scoreboards just before Opening Day. It's insulation material that will be covered by metal panels, he was told.
Such questioning is understandable. It underscores Baltimore's love affair with Oriole Park.
It was, after all, the original back-to-the-city ballpark, whose success triggered a nationwide movement of building baseball stadiums in American cities again. Its design was well-received largely because it was such a happy marriage of baseball and Baltimore.
The open end of the C-shaped seating bowl was oriented to provide a picture-postcard view of the downtown skyline from most seats. The view was possible because the two blocks north of the ballpark were owned by the city, used for surface parking, and thus contained no tall buildings to block the skyline in the distance.
That gave the ballpark the "breathing room" that enabled fans from their seats to catch glimpses not only of the Bromo Seltzer Tower but other local landmarks such as 10 Light St. (the former Maryland National Bank Building) and the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters. Those memorable views helped forge a strong connection between the ballpark and the city it's in.
At the same time, Oriole Park was constructed to be a catalyst for downtown development. The city-owned land wasn't meant to be parking lots forever. Elected officials have talked for decades about the need for a convention headquarters hotel next to the convention center, even before the ballpark was in the works.
For the hotel architects, the trick was designing a building that was large enough to serve as a full-fledged convention hotel but didn't "smother" the ballpark. It was a difficult assignment. While a tall, slender tower would have presented less of a wall between the ballpark and the center city, for example, the nearby flight pattern of emergency helicopters landing at Shock Trauma ruled that out. Shifting a midrise tower one block east could have blocked even more of the skyline and overwhelmed adjacent Camden Station.
The architects had to come up with a design that worked from the ballpark side and from other directions as well.
"There were so many stakeholders" to consider, said Dan Freed, lead designer of the project for RTKL. "We had to balance, as best we could, everyone's concerns."
Ultimately, the reaction to the hotel is about more than its size or shape. It's also about the way people have come to perceive Oriole Park and the city skyline from the stadium. Before, fans could focus on the game or look up and survey the city in the distance. There was a magical symbiosis between the two.
The hotel disrupts that relationship to some degree. It's neither here nor there. It's too far away from the ballpark to be perceived as part of it, and yet too close to be part of the distant skyline. It adds a third element to the equation: baseball and Baltimore and bedrooms. And that's before the guests check in and turn on the lights. (One can only imagine what people in the stands will see when they do.) All of which shows the difficult trade-offs inherent in creating large buildings for any urban setting as tight and cherished as Camden Yards.
Would Oriole Park have been better off had the hotel property not been developed? Possibly. Was that ever really an option? No.
The reality is that Baltimore's Hilton had to be designed to meet a variety of goals, not just please the baseball fans. For Baltimore's struggling convention center, it can't open soon enough. But for those who liked Oriole Park with more breathing space and sweeping skyline views, now it's a different ballgame.
Viewing an interloper
Baltimore's new Hilton won't open until August. But now that the baseball season is under way, it is possible to identify reasons why the hotel is getting the criticism it is from Orioles fans:
It's an interloper.
Since 1992, fans have grown accustomed to the old views of the city skyline. The hotel interferes with that familiar perspective.
Before last year, no nearby structure was taller than the B&O; Warehouse, which is eight stories high. The upper deck is about the same height. The hotel has two sections - a 14-story leg parallel to Eutaw Street and a 20-story leg parallel to Pratt Street. From certain angles, it dominates the view and appears to upstage the warehouse.
It's a skyline hog.
Before the Hilton appeared, individual buildings could be seen in the distance, and they added up to an attractive composition. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Because it rises 20 stories and takes up most of a city block, the hotel "fills up" more of the skyline than any other building visible from the seating bowl except for the warehouse. The hotel is a hulking presence that calls attention to itself rather than melding with the panorama.
The building materials are different.
The four-story base of the hotel is clad in the same red brick used for Oriole Park, as part of an effort to help it fit in at street level, but spectators can't see that from most seats at the Yard. The guest room towers are clad in metal panels in two colors, white and silver. The surface makes little reference to its brick-and-steel neighbor.
It doesn't say Baltimore.
The repetitive window pattern and cereal box massing of the guest room towers, while efficient for a hotel, aren't particularly distinctive. The long south wall that faces the ballpark is generic and monotonous. It could be in any number of cities. It's no wonder people miss seeing the quirkiness of the Bromo Seltzer Tower.