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Not a dome or Port Covington stadium, Camden Yards hosts 25th home opener

It could have been under a dome or located at Port Covington. Instead, Camden Yards hosts home opener No. 25.

The Orioles don't play in a dome, and don't call it a stadium.

It's a ballpark.

Despite all the alternate plans — proposals for a dome, a multipurpose stadium to attract a football team back to town, handfuls of alternate sites — Baltimore ended up with a baseball-specific ballpark on a former industrial site.

"It's fascinating. Back in the '60s, when that was all the rage … everyone was trying to get one," said Janet Marie Smith, who served as the vice president of planning and design for the Orioles during the development and construction of Camden Yards. "Who knows why that didn't come about [in Baltimore]. How lucky for all of us."

The Orioles host their 25th home opener at the seemingly timeless Oriole Park at Camden Yards today.

Rick Sutcliffe, who pitched a shutout against the Cleveland Indians in the first game at 333 W. Camden Street, is old enough to be Chris Tillman's dad. The Orioles' starting pitcher today was about to turn 4 years old when the ballpark opened in 1992.

But it's hard to imagine baseball in Baltimore at any other location or under any other circumstances.

Say, beneath a dome.

Or with center fielder Adam Jones standing on a faded patch of grass that would double as the end zone for the Ravens.

Or if the backdrop of the Warehouse were replaced with a view of the elevated stretch of Interstate 95 hovering above Port Covington.

Yes, Eutaw Street could have been replaced by the shores of the middle branch of the Patapsco River.

At that location — now the proposed site of a Kevin Plank-led development project — a multipurpose stadium was proposed, surrounded by a sea of parking spaces.

Other early renderings proposed the demolition of the Warehouse to enable the construction of a larger, multipurpose stadium on the current Camden Yards site. More than one design proposed a domed facility. Another showed a baseball-only park oriented more directly north than the current version.

Alternate locations were considered — from the Memorial Stadium site to Baltimore County, and from the opposite side of the Warehouse to closer to Washington.

But a late-'80s study by stadium planners Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum/Sports Facilities Group — known simply as HOK — found, in part: "The Camden Yards Site also creates the opportunity for fan linkage to existing and future downtown Baltimore attractions."

Fortunately for Baltimore — its baseball fans and the city's businesses and residents — the Orioles nest was created at Camden Yards.

Smith, now the senior vice president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers after successful stints advising other clubs on stadium projects, was early in her career when the Orioles hired her. She credited former club president Larry Lucchino with having the vision for the old-style ballpark that blended into the city's landscape. And she said her background as an urban planner was likely what landed her the job.

The vision of the Orioles, the Maryland Stadium Authority and then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer was a game-changer for other cities looking to develop entertainment complexes.

"It demonstrated that sports could be used as an urban-revitalization tool," Smith said.

Since it opened, the ballpark has hosted a papal mass, concerts and an All-Star Game. Sixteen postseason games — the first on Oct. 1, 1996, and the most recent in 2014 — have been played there. Most notably, perhaps, it was the site of Cal Ripken Jr.'s record-setting 2,131st consecutive game played.

Ripken, though, wasn't so sure about Camden Yards entering the early spring of 1992.

"After playing 10 years at Memorial Stadium, I didn't like the idea of a new ballpark and I wasn't initially excited about Camden Yards," Ripken said. "That changed the minute I stepped onto the field. The way the ballpark was built right into the landscape of the city made it feel like it had been there forever. It really set the standard of all the other parks that have come since then and is such a source of pride for our city."

Ripken later would end his streak at the ballpark, and he played his final game there in 2001.

The ballpark didn't just replace an ugly site mere blocks from the Inner Harbor. It also revitalized the surrounding neighborhood.

Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago feel as if they were built into the fabric of the city, in part because they had to be. They were erected on "funky blocks," Smith said, and the necessity of asymmetry gave the facilities character.

Camden Yards offered the same opportunity: Demolish the Warehouse and build a "perfect circle"-type facility, or leave the landmark in place and build the ballpark around it.

"The Warehouse became the real reference point, from the creation of Eutaw Street to the brickwork and shape of the [ballpark], the shape of the grandstand and the playing field," Smith said.

She was tasked, in part, with overseeing how the ballpark melded into the street and towering brick structure that would be stationed beyond the outfield walls.

Her other role as vice president of planning and development was making the facility work for a company: the Orioles.

What did the grounds crew need? The ticket office staff? What was the right number of bleacher seats?

The Orioles built a ballpark that ushered most fans in from center field — a complete 180 from most stadiums built before its time.

"We were turning that on its head," Smith said.

"We really worked hard to make the outfield come alive. So when you pass through that turnstile at Camden and Eutaw, you felt like you arrived," she added. "It turned out to be such a successful experience, just a few years later, teams wanted to create an outfield experience. I kind of laughed. We did it out of necessity. We were trying to make lemonade out of this lemon. But it was such a successful experiment."

Camden Yards was a success beyond its footprint, too.

Smith and others behind the decision-making process in the late 1980s, before the site was cleared for baseball, envisioned a complex.

Even the hotel looming above the left-field seats — if you can look beyond its aesthetic shortcomings — was part of that vision.

It wasn't just about building a ballpark, but also about using public funding in the best interest of the public.

"We felt this civic responsibility about Camden Yards, and I think that's part of the reason why it was so well received," Smith said.

Suddenly, downtown Baltimore wasn't just the Inner Harbor and the block or so that surrounded it. It had expanded a few blocks west, to an area where you couldn't even see the water.

At 25 years old, the ballpark is already beyond the halfway mark of the life span of its predecessor. Memorial Stadium was demolished in 2001, a decade after its final season. Camden Yards already has been remodeled, although subtly.

The Orioles and the stadium authority have worked to keep the ballpark up to date, adding high-definition video boards, a center-field bar atop the batter's-eye wall, and a statue park beyond the bullpens in recent years.

Michael J. Frenz, executive director of the stadium authority, said: "Oriole Park at Camden Yards was rated by Stadium Journey as the No. 1 overall stadium experience in North America for the second straight year — we intend to continue to work with the O's to improve the condition of the ballpark and enhance the fan experience."

In the years since the first Opening Day at Camden Yards, two-thirds of baseball's franchises have built new ballparks. And a majority of the 20 newest parks in baseball have taken the lead from Camden Yards: None were built with football in mind, and only two carry the "stadium" moniker.

Camden Yards "was held out as a model for that era of ballparks," Smith said. "It was very much a civic building, and one that Baltimore and the state of Maryland take great pride in."

sjwelsh@baltsun.com

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