When a gleaming new stadium called SkyDome opened in Toronto in September 1989, Larry Lucchino, then the president of the Baltimore Orioles, walked across the artificial turf, gazed at the retractable roof, gawked at the hotel that rises above center field and stared at the monstrous video screen that seemed the size of a football field. Awestruck, he said, "They built the eighth wonder of the world. We're just building a nice little ballpark."
That nice little ballpark -- Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- is now 20 years old. And Lucchino was right: It's no SkyDome (now called Rogers Centre). It is better, in its own way, than any ballpark, magnificent in its understated, comfortable, cool sort of way. It has become a Baltimore icon because it remains true to what it was when it opened April 6, 1992: a real ballpark built into the real downtown of a real city.
"It was the first park that had the retro look with all the modern amenities," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "It has never tried to be something that it's not. There was nothing fake about it. There are no hills in center field. They didn't copy anyone. As soon as you walk in, it had that cathedral feeling. You thought immediately, 'This place will stand the test of time.' Anyone can build something new, anyone can buy something new. This was a park that you thought other teams would copy. And that's exactly what has happened."
Since Camden Yards opened, 21 new ballparks have been built in the majors. Many of them are gorgeous, marvelous and wonderful, including Pittsburgh's PNC Park, San Francisco's AT&T Park and Seattle's Safeco Field. Many have borrowed from Camden Yards, but none has duplicated it. It is an original in every way. The grandest feature of Oriole Park is the enormous red-brick, 114-year-old B&O Warehouse, which looms immediately behind the right-field wall, and instantly joined Fenway Park's Green Monster and Wrigley Field's ivy-covered walls as one of the game's most distinctive and distinguished architectural features; it stands nearly 500 feet from home plate, and no player has hit it in the air in a game.
"The Warehouse, and everything about that park, made it an unbelievable experience to play there," said Dodgers infielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who played parts of seven seasons with the Orioles. "When 48,000 people were in there, there was nothing like it. It's just a beautiful place to watch a game. Other places are great, but Camden Yards set the standard."
Showalter said, "Some have captured some of that feel, some haven't … Washington, Cincinnati, those parks won't stand the test of time. When you step in Camden Yards, you got the feeling that this was a ballpark that would be welcome in any era in baseball history."
Oriole Park is built on the site of a saloon once owned by the father of Babe Ruth. It was designed by the HOK architectural firm of Kansas City, Mo. The total cost of the project was $110 million, and it was financed by a Maryland state lottery. Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president/planning and development, nurtured the project from the time the first blueprints were drawn in December 1988. It was fitting that the new age of the retro-park was celebrated in Baltimore, a provincial, blue-collar, crabcakes-and-beer town with thick roots and a thicker accent. It is a neighborhood town, a brick town, which is why the ballpark was built of brick and steel, not of concrete like the flying saucers that landed in too many major league cities almost 50 years ago. Indeed, SkyDome would look ridiculous in downtown Baltimore. Only a ballpark like Oriole Park would match that area.
"No team had willingly gone into a downtown area since Ebbets Field was built [in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1913]," Smith said. "There were fretful moments when business leaders asked, 'How do you know it will last?' A lot of money was being spent by the state of Maryland. It was replacing a ballpark [Memorial Stadium] that was only 35 years old. So we tried to design a park that would span the test of time, no matter the measure."
There were so many people responsible for the ballpark being built, including a former mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, who spearheaded the revitalization of the harbor area in downtown Baltimore. Oriole Park is one of the centerpieces of that urban renewal.
"Larry [Lucchino, who grew up in Pittsburgh as a Pirates fan] told us, 'Don't build me the Disneyland version of Forbes Field, build me a ballpark with the character of Forbes Field,"' Smith said. "We wanted to build a ballpark that had longevity, with Wrigley and Fenway as the model. Larry asked, 'Why does the highest attendance come from the two smallest ballparks?' We asked, 'How can we create that appeal?' Twenty years is a benchmark, and we still feel it is a timely answer to what ballparks are supposed to look like."
No one has a better appreciation for a ballpark than Showalter, with his great attention to detail.
"It is very fan-friendly, but they have done a great job keeping it modern," he said. "It's all about the fans. It's about enhancing the love of the game and of the Orioles for the fans. But it enhances the game without being the focal point. It's the kind of place that parents will pass their tickets down to their kids. It's the functionality that gets our [in-uniform personnel] attention; everything is where it is supposed to be. They've never messed with the integrity of the park. It has such an attention to detail without anyone noticing."
They brought home plate from the Orioles' previous home, Memorial Stadium, to Camden Yards. They also brought the right-field foul pole; it stands in the flag court where the flags of every team in the American League flies, and are raised daily in descending order of the standings. In 2001, the Orioles replaced the left-field foul pole with the one from Memorial Stadium. On the sides of the seats, there is the Orioles logo from the 1890s with the initials BCB for Baltimore Baseball Club. Local legend has it that the ballplayer in the center of the insignia is Wee Willie Keeler, the star player in Baltimore from 1894 to 1898; his image is reversed on some seats -- making him a right-handed hitter -- so all face home plate. Brass baseball plates are embedded into the Eutaw Street sidewalk, marking the spots where every home run cleared the right-field wall. These plates contain the home run hitter's name, his team's logo, the distance the ball traveled and the date of the home run.
After the Orioles played the first exhibition game at Camden Yards, three days before the official opener in 1992, then-Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, a Baltimore guy that embodied the grittiness of the Orioles, their fans and their town, said, "You just get the feeling this wasn't the first game played here." It was if the ballpark came equipped with lasting memories.
The first game was played on April 6, 1992. Rick Sutcliffe was the Orioles' starting pitcher. He had been recruited by then-Orioles manager Johnny Oates to sign with the team, in part with the intention of pitching the first game in the new park. "When Johnny Oates told me I'd be starting the opener, something happened," Sutcliffe said. "There was a tingle. There was an excitement. Before that start, I went out and sat in the seats, to see what it was like. I sat down the left-field line and noticed that all the seats were pointed at the pitcher's mound, which is where I would be pitching the first game. Then I went and stood on the mound and I looked beyond the first-base dugout and there was an opening in the park, and right then, I thought of Wrigley. I thought of all the great old ballparks."
Charles Nagy was a young pitcher for the Indians that day. He started against Sutcliffe. "I made sure I took in the whole experience on my way to the ballpark that day, and when I got the park hours before the game, I went on the field to soak it all in," he said. "It was very exciting. When Jacobs Field [in Cleveland] was built, I saw a lot of Camden Yards in it. I was special to be a part of the opening of a great new ballpark. I just wish we'd won."
The Orioles won that day, 2-0, in a crisp, oldfangled 2 hours and 2 minutes. It seemed like old times, in more ways than one. Many memories since been built at Camden Yards, none bigger than that unforgettable night -- Sept. 6, 1995 -- when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games played. Anyone that was there that night will tell you it was an emotional an evening as they've ever spent at a baseball game.
Sadly, since the Orioles last made the playoffs in 1997, they have recorded 14 straight losing seasons. In Baltimore, the love of the Orioles isn't what it was; they have become a clear second to the Ravens in town. A ballpark that often sold out in the mid-1990s now houses 9,000 some nights. But on any night, it's a great ballpark in which to watch a game.
"It hasn't changed at all," Sutcliffe said. "It's still as good as any park in baseball. That park wasn't built for the Orioles, it was built for Orioles fans. What an experience that was, pitching in that park. How blessed am I? I've played my home games at Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field and Camden Yards. Each one is great and different in its own right."
It remains a great park because the Orioles keep improving it. "[Orioles owner] Peter Angelos said, 'Just because the ballpark is 20 years old, we can't rest our laurels,'" Smith said. "We want to remain relevant for decades to come. We want to keep it appealing. We want to keep it fresh."
Before the 2011 season, seats in certain parts of the park were torn out to create more leg room, reducing the seating capacity from 48,290 to 45,438. This year, all the concession stands have been upgraded. Another restaurant has been added. And, most important, the Orioles, starting April 28, will celebrate their glorious history by unveiling, one by one, six bronze statues of their living Hall of Famers: Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray. Those statues will stand in the Eutaw Street area of the ballpark, which is accessible to fans, even on non-game days.
"We wanted to celebrate our history more," Smith said, "but in 1992, our history wasn't our history yet. Frank was in uniform [he was Oriole manager from 1988 to '91], and Eddie and Cal were still playing."
Someday, Camden Yards will be a historic venue, not just in Baltimore, but for all of baseball. Fifty years from now, when Camden Yards is 70 years old and still spectacularly beautiful, it will be viewed as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are today, as an iconic ballpark, a must-see for all baseball fans. It will be remembered as the ballpark that, in 1992, changed the way ballparks were built, it changed the way that we watch the game.
"Someone once said that art is the creation of something that previously wasn't there, but something that the future will make necessary," Showalter said. "That is Camden Yards."