Camden Yards: Still a jewel at 25

Sports writers Peter Schmuck and Childs Walker take a look at Camden Yards as the Orioles and fans celebrate the ball parks 25th anniversary. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

Cal Ripken Jr. was skeptical.


So as the chief torchbearer for the Oriole Way prepared to lace his spikes for the 1992 season, he was not exactly eager to move to the new downtown ballpark with a warehouse looming in right field. Until the team actually arrived from spring training, that is.

"You immediately forgot about Memorial Stadium," Ripken said, remembering the first day he walked into his new baseball home. "Camden Yards already felt like sacred ground, and nothing had been played there. It had a presence and a feel. It almost felt like there was some sort of baseball history, even though none had been made. I guess that's the beauty of the design."


The iron shortstop was hardly alone that spring. The baseball world showered the Orioles and Baltimore with praise for finding the ideal blend of old and new in ballpark design. A town that had spent eight years lamenting the loss of its NFL team suddenly stood at the vanguard of a trend that would sweep American sports.

Twenty-five years later, Camden Yards is still widely celebrated as one of the nation's indelible sporting grounds.

"It's a special place that was so far ahead of its time," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who's about to begin his eighth season there. "By embracing the past, it became the ballpark of the future."

There's a strong argument that Camden Yards — more than Manny Machado or Peter Angelos or Showalter or even Ripken — has been the most important character in the recent history of the Orioles.


It reshaped downtown Baltimore, made the Orioles one of the hottest tickets in professional sports for a time, served as a marketing anchor when the franchise was devoid of stars and shaped the way the team was built during its eventual resurgence.

Talk to a casual fan from somewhere else about Baltimore baseball and praise for Camden Yards usually flows within a few sentences. The Orioles haven't made a World Series in the last quarter-century and for 14 straight seasons, they couldn't even muster a winning record. So when it came to taking pride in anything baseball-related, the ballpark was what the city had. It was both an import and export phenomenon — attracting fans from all over the world and serving as inspiration when others cities contemplated what their ballparks could be.

"It is iconic in the sports industry," said Baltimore-based investment banker John Moag, who has helped engineer team sales and venue deals all over the world. "That building truly did change the way we think about the fan experience and the role of architecture in sports."

The old and the new

For Orioles fans who grew up at Memorial Stadium, Camden Yards will always carry a whiff of the new — resplendent and attention-grabbing in a way the old joint never aspired to be. Which is perhaps why it feels so strange to recognize that the downtown jewel has entered middle age.

It's not Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, but Camden Yards is the 10th-oldest stadium in the league now, parent to a whole generation of parks conceived in its image. Some of those children — Turner Field in Atlanta and Globe Life Park in Arlington — have been or are about to be recycled.

On its best nights — Sept. 6, 1995 ,when Ripken passed Lou Gehrig to become baseball's Iron Man, or Oct. 7, 2012, when a sellout crowd waited in the rain for the Orioles' first home playoff game in 15 years — the ballpark has taken on the spirit of a giant revival tent.

But Camden Yards has been around long enough to serve as an avatar of Baltimore's pain as well as its joy. In 2015, the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox before an empty seating bowl because of safety concerns related to the civil unrest around Freddie Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody.

An entire generation of Baltimoreans has now grown up with the Orioles and Ravens locked into downtown stadiums.

It's easy to forget that Camden Yards was born of a far more tumultuous period in the city's sporting history.

When the Colts fled Baltimore for Indianapolis on March 29, 1984, they left the town in a deep crisis of confidence.

Fans clung to the Orioles as their last connection to big-time sports, but the team was in decline on the field. And since owner Edward Bennett Williams was a Washingtonian, they lived with perpetual dread that the Orioles could one day follow the Colts out of Baltimore.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer capitalized on that unease to push for the new downtown ballpark Williams had long coveted.

The achievement

The design process was a fascinating drama unto itself — a rolling three-pronged debate among the Orioles, the Maryland Stadium Authority and a team of architects led by the firm HOK.

The Orioles — represented by owner Eli Jacobs, team president Larry Lucchino and vice president of stadium affairs Janet Marie Smith — pushed relentlessly for an old-style park. The stadium authority — represented by chairman Herb Belgrad and director Bruce Hoffman — tried to execute that vision while maintaining fiscal sanity. The architects, led by Joe Spear of HOK, did their best to satisfy both.

But consensus did not come easily, even on major issues such as the fate of the B&O Warehouse, which the Orioles actually wanted to demolish for a time.

In 1997, the Orioles became the sixth team in baseball history to go wire to wire in first place. Looking back at some of the highs and lows of the club's last playoff season before 2012.

As hard as he pushed for the Orioles' vision, Lucchino recalled having little notion that he was establishing a new paradigm for ballparks around the sport.

"Our goal was to build a nice little ballpark," he said. "We weren't trying to build the eighth wonder of the world, as they had done in SkyDome [now Toronto's Rogers Centre]. We weren't trying to build just another stadium, as they did with the White Sox. We wanted to build something that was distinctive and fit both with the city and with our sense of what the essence of baseball was — these traditional, old-fashioned, irregular, intimate ballparks."

After the tumult of its creation, Camden Yards was the rare achievement recognized as a classic from day one.

The downtown setting, the asymmetrical dimensions, the incorporation of existing buildings, the emphasis on exposed steel over concrete, the grass field — all are now expected features of the parks that have overtaken baseball since 1992.

So it's easy to forget how radical a departure Camden Yards represented from the prevailing trends in ballpark design.

"This is a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture 50 years of wretched stadium design, and of restoring the joyous possibility that a ballpark might actually enhance the experience of watching the game of baseball," wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

And he had only seen the plans for Camden Yards at the time.

When the actual building opened in April 1992, fans, journalists and players responded with genuine euphoria.


"I remember it vividly," said Fox Sports baseball analyst Ken Rosenthal, then a columnist for The Evening Sun. "We were all blown away."


He had frequently driven by the ballpark when it was under construction, pointing out features to his wife.

"But then, when it opened, it was like, 'Wow — Technicolor,'" Rosenthal recalled. "I've never had that feeling again. And it wasn't just the first year. The feeling lasted for a while. It was the place to be."

"Awe," Moag recalled, when asked what he felt the first time he walked into the ballpark. "Losing the Colts had been such a kick in the gut to the community, and so many of us had carried that with us. But when this building opened, it was a brand new era. Downtown Baltimore felt cool."

The Orioles gave their new home a proper christening on Opening Day, April 6, 1992. Newly signed ace Rick Sutcliffe pitched a 2-0 shutout against the Cleveland Indians before a crowd of 44,568.

The Orioles had flushed the toilets, fired the kitchen stoves and held an exhibition game on the field in the days leading to April 6. But the success of the ballpark did not feel completely real until they actually played a game before a packed house on Opening Day.

"I'm not prone to hugging my boss," Smith said. "But I remember a spontaneous moment of joy with Larry Lucchino where we both said, 'It plays! It plays!' We had been under so much pressure with the clock, the budget, the politics. The eye of the world was on us, and we had really asked for that."

Packed houses became the norm for the better part of the next decade, peaking at 3.71 million in 1997, when the Orioles led the American League East wire to wire.

The 'game-changer'

The effects carried well beyond the team.

Moag became chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, and as he worked to lure the NFL back to town, the ballpark became a key recruiting tool.

"Every owner I courted came and sat in our suite at Camden Yards," he recalled. "And everyone who did that came away incredibly impressed."

So in a sense, the success of Camden Yards begat the Ravens as well.

Meanwhile, a whole generation of baseball-specific parks sprouted in its wake, from Cleveland to Seattle to Pittsburgh to San Francisco.

"It was a game-changer," said Andy MacPhail, a Minnesota Twins executive at the time who would become the Orioles' president of baseball operations in 2007. "It changed the way stadiums were built. Imitation is the sincerest forms of flattery and there are a lot of Camden Yards — to some degree — replicas and it has really withstood the test of time."

As a pure baseball space, Camden Yards is somewhat misunderstood. Though it has certainly favored home-run hitters over time, its narrow power alleys make doubles and triples harder to come by. It's no Coors Field East as measured by overall run scoring.

But the Orioles have embraced the nature of the ballpark in recent seasons, building teams dominated by bruising power hitters such as Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo.

"I don't know if that was the plan going in or kind of the way it shaped up, but ever since I've been here we've had a lot of power in the lineup," Davis said. "It's definitely a hitter's park most of the time. I will say that over the years, when it's cooler, earlier in the season and sometimes late in the season, the ball doesn't travel quite as well, but I still think it's a hitter-friendly park. When it's warm outside and it's in the middle of summertime, I don't think there's a better place to hit."

Nor many better places to watch a game, according to the surveys of ballparks released every summer.

In 2016, for example, the magazine Stadium Journey ranked the fan experience at Camden Yards best in baseball. The website Thrillist ranked Camden Yards the third-best ballpark in the sport.

Rosenthal has traveled to every ballpark in the country in his Fox role, and said Camden Yards still ranks among the elite, right behind the historic troika of Wrigley, Fenway and Dodger Stadium.

"You talk to people and they'll often say, 'I really want to see Camden Yards one day.' It still has that cachet," he said. "I still feel it when I go back there. It's one of the special ballparks."

The future

The Orioles and the stadium authority have generally received high marks for keeping the ballpark among the best in the sport, modernizing it with new video screens and a popular open-air bar behind the center-field wall, among other touches.

"It's not really showing its age," Showalter said. "It seems to be getting better. You don't realize they've replaced the seats. They've done something with the concessions stands. The suites have been kept up to date. We replaced the whole field this year. Nobody really notices, but if you don't do those things it deteriorates. Not many of them can stand the test of time."

With the team's lease set to expire in 2021, the future of Camden Yards is likely to become a popular subject in a few years. The Orioles have given every indication they expect to play there for the next quarter-century and beyond, but they will likely use their impending lease renewal as an opportunity to push the state for substantial updates.

Those could include everything from creating a larger footprint to accommodate a fan village outside the ballpark to carving out space for social gathering spots along the concourses. Such changes could mean slightly reduced seating capacity, but they would jibe with current trends in stadium design.

Regardless, the mission will likely remain the same as it was in 1992: Combine the old and the new to create a space unbound by time.



Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.