Field of Dreams

A look back at Camden Yards—its start, its intricacies, and how it became a legend in the landscape.
By Jess Mayhugh - April 2012

Field of Dreams

A look back at Camden Yards—its start, its intricacies, and how it became a legend in the landscape.
By Jess Mayhugh - April 2012

Every Orioles fan describes April 6, 1992 as a beautiful day. Perhaps they’re referring to the ideal weather, or maybe it was more about the excitement in the air. This was opening day for the city’s new ballpark, something fans had been anticipating for years.

The crowd came to the downtown gem in droves that day, riding the shiny new Light Rail or walking en masse through the Inner Harbor—much different scenery than the Waverly houses that surrounded Memorial Stadium a few miles north. Turning the corner onto Eutaw Street, many got a glimpse of the Yard for the first time: the sprawling B&O Warehouse, the steel-and-brick trusses like ballparks of a bygone era, the lively concessions on the open Eutaw corridor.

After marveling, fans eventually made it to their slatted green seats, which preserved the old Orioles logo but provided considerably more legroom than Memorial, and took in the game. Rick Sutcliffe, a veteran pitcher who had signed as a free agent in the winter, threw a shutout against the Cleveland Indians, and the Orioles won 2-0 in a swift game-time of just over two hours. Satisfied Orioles fans, facing none of the feared traffic jams, made it home safe.

Anyone who attended that game probably finds it hard to believe that it was 20 years ago. Yes, there have been a number of monumental seasons and a fair share of not-so-monumental ones since then, but Oriole Park at Camden Yards still feels timeless.

“It is one thing to get something shiny and new and to be excited at first,” says Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “But, what is it like 20 years from then? All this time later, it still doesn’t feel old and dated.”

Naturally, that’s a testament to many things—the original design and forethought, the updates over the years, and the relentlessness of the fan base that, even after 14 losing seasons, still considers Camden Yards the ultimate silver lining.

Of course the Camden Yards story begins many years before 1992’s promising debut. In fact, its real origin can be traced back to the ripple effect that started when Bob Irsay moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of a snowy March 1984 night.

“When the Colts left so unceremoniously, that was a moment frozen in time in Governor Schaefer’s memory,” says Alan Rifkin, Governor William Donald Schaefer’s chief counsel when the stadium talks got started. “He never wandered from a desire to try and make amends and attract an NFL franchise back to Baltimore.”

At that point, Schaefer asked his good friend and local business executive Hank Butta to put together a panel to study ways to lure the NFL back to Baltimore—particularly how to modernize Memorial Stadium, by then three decades old and lacking the revenue-producing amenities of many newer parks. The Orioles had been interested in a new stadium for a while and, when they got wind of this, saw the panel as an opportunity to also address the future success and stability of the franchise.

“At some point the Butta commission asked us to look at renovations of Memorial Stadium, which, of course, was a stadium for both football and baseball,” says Joe Spear, principal architect of Camden Yards with the firm HOK Sport, now called Populous. “We did a three-month study and said, in the end, we’d have a solid ‘B’ stadium if we left it multi-purpose. The Orioles stunned Schaefer and Butta by saying they’d only sign a one-year lease.”

It was the Orioles president at the time, Larry Lucchino, who was most adamant about building a new, baseball-only stadium. Schaefer liked the idea but was also nervous about the political ramifications of asking the state to fund two stadiums. What he needed was the backing of then-Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams.

“We stopped at the Camden Yards construction site. And, right there, I proposed.”—George Will

“I had several conversations with Williams in the early to mid ’80s and we talked about the best baseball teams in America,” Lucchino says. “I tried to tell him they all played in baseball facilities—Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers. That would be the only way for the Orioles to achieve that status.”

Somewhere along the way, it became commonplace for baseball and football teams to share a stadium, despite the fact that the two games are inherently different.

“We went through this ghastly period from the late-’60s right up until Camden Yards where people decided to build multi-purpose stadiums,” says Washington Post columnist and baseball aficionado George F. Will. “I guess people did it to save money, but I don’t think they really had a theory.”

Once Schaefer was elected governor in 1987, the stadium issue was vaulted to the top of the agenda, coming to a head during the legislative session that year. With only two weeks left in the session, Orioles owner Williams, despite having chemotherapy treatments hours earlier, gave a rousing testimony for the state to fund two stadiums.

After a seven-hour filibuster, the bill passed by a narrow margin. Now questions arose about where the new ballpark would be located and what form it would take.

The Butta commission recommended three different sites—Laurel, Camden Station, and on the existing grounds of Memorial Stadium. Governor Schaefer was adamant that the stadium stay in Baltimore, so his preference was Camden.

“He recognized that there was some great value in locating the stadium the furthest point south in the city, particularly since the Washington Senators had relocated,” Rifkin says. “Camden was an old, rundown area, but it had great infrastructure.”

Once the location was selected, HOK Sport worked with RTKL on a master plan for the ballpark, and Lucchino got a letter from urban planner Janet Marie Smith, who said she was interested in working on the project. Lucchino felt that Smith’s background in planning city parks was an important asset to this new stadium.

“My best off-season acquisition was Janet Marie Smith,” he says. “We did something unusual in that we all agreed on a minimum requirements document and, whenever the lease was signed, that document would be attached to it. In it, we talked about all the features, amenities, and character. We wanted a traditional, old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times.”

Some factors that were important to the Orioles were keeping the iconic B&O Warehouse, situating seats close to the game, and having an asymmetrical field.

“Multi-purpose stadiums were round, making the angle between first and third base 90 degrees,” says architect Spear. “But if you look at the geometry of Fenway or Wrigley, it’s an 83-degree angle, which puts spectators closer to the action on the field.”

Another important factor was lowering the playing field and pushing the upper deck back to further reinforce that intimate feel.

“By pushing the upper deck back, the building itself reads as a short building, which was more appropriate in scale with the houses of Ridgley’s Delight,” says Smith, referring to the residential neighborhood adjacent to the stadium. “Eutaw Street was another good planning principle as it blended the stadium right into the community.”

The warehouse was another integral part of the design, but was a point of contention. Columnists called it an ugly “pile of bricks” that should be torn down, but Lucchino advocated for it to stay up, which, many now agree, contributes mightily to Camden Yards’s signature look.

“Camden Yards really made you feel like you were in a much more intimate space,” says Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr., who played half of his career in Camden Yards. “The enormity of that warehouse made everything else seem a little smaller.”

By the time 1991 rolled around, construction was well underway, with one major decision still not made: the ballpark’s name. A meeting was held with Schaefer, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad, and Orioles owner Eli S. Jacobs, who bought the team in 1989 after Williams passed away. The four most popular contenders were Camden Yards, Babe Ruth Park, Memorial Stadium, and Oriole Park.

“There was a huge argument over the name of the ballpark,” recalls Ken Rosenthal, a baseball insider for MLB Network, who worked at The Sun for 13 years. “Schaefer wanted Camden Yards and Jacobs wanted Oriole Park. I wrote a column saying, ‘Let Schaefer name it!’ Eventually, they compromised. But, think of what most people call it now. I think Schaefer won that one.”

While the new stadium made headlines, there was also the looming reality of bidding farewell to Memorial Stadium. Yes, Memorial was too antiquated, and it needed more premium seating to be a contender in the league. But this was the home to the Orioles glory days, pennant races, and the human vacuum cleaner, Brooks Robinson.

“My first thought was, ‘We don’t need a new stadium. What’s wrong with this place?’” Ripken says. “I was scared we’d lose the rich history of Orioles baseball.”

Everybody seemed to have similar sentiments about the 33rd Street stadium.

“We all grew up there,” says Boog Powell, famed Orioles first baseman, who now sells his barbecued fare at Camden Yards. “My kids were born in Union Memorial. It was very much a part of our lives, and it was like our old friend who was gone.”

“It smelled like an old high-school gym, but I loved it,” says Showalter who remembers it during his time with the Yankees.

“I liked Memorial Stadium,” says Orioles fan Mike Mullen, who has been a season-ticket holder since 1984. “It was like blue collar, it was more my kind. I felt like I was going to a neighborhood pub.”

And while many Orioles felt a loss, there was also some excitement on the horizon that couldn’t be ignored.

“Memorial was right in the neighborhood and it was very charming,” says Frank Robinson, revered Orioles player and manager. “A lot of people I knew were sad to leave, so was I, but you had to keep up with the times. As it went along, it got older, and the modern ballparks made it look more antiquated. You have to put those memories in a treasure chest and move on. We were excited to see something new.”

George Will was so excited about the prospect of a new park that he decided to make a memory before it even opened.

“My wife and I were on our way to Memorial Stadium, and we stopped at the Camden Yards construction site,” Will says. “There was a cinderblock where home plate is now, a big flatbed truck where the dugout is. And, right there, I proposed.”

Others saw the new park as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and maybe even improve their stats.

“The crowd was always so into it at Memorial Stadium,” says former Orioles power hitter and centerfielder Brady Anderson. “I was shocked when I played my first game there and got a standing ovation for doing a sacrifice bunt. But, when we went off to a new stadium, I was happy because my career hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. It was like a fresh start for me.”

“I think Cal had the money quote at the time, ‘You feel like you’ve been here before.’” —Ken Rosenthal

Fans wanted Camden Yards to be a fresh start for the team, too. After being the worst team in baseball in 1988 and having the “Why Not” season of 1989, the Orioles were hoping the ballpark might spark a reinvigoration. That Orioles Magic seemed possible again as the players first laid their eyes on the stadium.

“We hadn’t seen it yet because of spring training,” Anderson recalls. “And I remember [outfielder] Mike Devereaux and I walked out together. We didn’t say anything for about 15 to 20 seconds. And he just looked at me and said, ‘Damn, Brady.’ We were so speechless at how impressive it was.”

A lot of press, players, and executives saw the inside for the first time at an MVP ceremony for Ripken in November 1991.

“We did a toast with milk in champagne glasses, it was kind of hokey,” says sports writer Rosenthal. “But that was the first time it was open to see and it took your breath away. I think Cal had the money quote at the time, ‘You feel like you’ve been here before.’”

And then, naturally, came the warm-weather win of opening day. True, there had been a dress rehearsal of sorts with an exhibition game with the New York Mets the previous Friday, and fans had gotten to preview the ballpark in a walk-through a week before, but this was the big debut.

Even the people who had been living and breathing Camden Yards were excited to see the park come to fruition and, in many ways, saw something new that first day, too.

“The one thing we couldn’t test was how does it play? What if all these wind studies and sun angles are all wrong?” Smith says. “I think the combination of seeing nine complete innings coupled with the fact that there weren’t ridiculous traffic jams was a huge relief. Schaefer was right all along—that downtown would work. He’d always say, ‘Sure, go ahead and have your studies, but I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.’”

Just like Smith and her cohorts envisioned, Camden Yards was a different kind of ballpark, with modern amenities and luxury boxes, which, in turn, drew a slightly different crowd.

Long-time beer vendor Clancy Haskett, who has been slinging suds for 38 years, said he noticed a difference.

“First of all the beer used to be much cheaper,” he says. “In the mid-’80s it was around $2 and I could sell until the end of the game. People at Memorial were a little bit more crazy. Things are calmed a bit at Camden. It’s more families, kids asking for autographs. And, of course, those beer prices went up.”

“Anytime you leave one of those older parks, and this goes for all cities, there’s a different crowd,” Rosenthal says. “The crowd at Camden Yards wasn’t the Wild Bill Hagy crowd. It was an affluent group of people. You lose something in the switch—atmosphere, personality. But so much good came out of the park. It was such a tourist attraction and a big deal for so many years.”

A Camden Yards ticket was a hard one to get at first. The hype of the stadium was the initial seller, but then big games and playoff runs added to the thrill. The ballpark’s popularity brought the 1993 All-Star Game to Baltimore, which was a spectacle in itself. The 100-degree July night saw the culmination of a week of activities, like tents and live music in the Inner Harbor.

That game was responsible for “one of the most harmless controversies,” says Rosenthal, as Blue Jays coach Cito Gaston never put in Orioles pitcher and fan favorite Mike Mussina, even though Mussina was warmed up and waiting for the call in the bullpen. For the rest of the season, T-shirts proclaiming “Cito Sucks” could be spotted at many Camden Yards games.

Arguably the most unforgettable game to be played in Camden Yards was on September 6, 1995, when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game record.

“That was the most memorable night of my career,” Rosenthal says. “I’ve covered Olympics, Super Bowls, but that night was perfect. The anticipation was building all summer and we had no idea what to expect. But when you have the President, Vice President, and Joe DiMaggio all at the game, you knew it would be big.”

When the game became official after the California Angels’ half of the fifth, the numbered banners on the warehouse unfurled from 2,130 to 2,131, and everyone in the ballpark exploded into a standing ovation that lasted more than 22 minutes. After some prodding from fellow players Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla, Ripken did a now-famous lap around the field.

“I would have preferred the focus was on us playing for the pennant,” Ripken says with characteristic modesty. “But we were out of contention so the focus was on the streak. I didn’t want to mess with the flow of the game, but the ovation kept going on, and Raffy and Bobby said, ‘You’re going to have to take a lap around.’ I did, and I started seeing people who I’ve seen there for years. It was a 50,000-strong celebration that turned one-on-one. Obviously my favorite baseball moment was catching the last out of the World Series, but that was my favorite personal moment on the field.”

Ripken’s accomplishment, in retrospect, feels like the catalyst for an amazing next couple of seasons. In both ’96 and ’97, the Orioles had a taste of the playoffs, courtesy of a wildcard finish and division title, ending up falling in the ALCS both years.

“In those two years, I couldn’t have been more proud,” Ripken says. “We always felt like we had an advantage at Camden Yards. It was our place. Talking about that rich Orioles history at Memorial? Well, this was a realization it was continuing.”

Brady Anderson had some of the best games of his career during that time, hitting 50 home runs in 1996.

“I played with Hall-of-Famers and great teammates. It was also a great time for me personally,” he says. “When I watch baseball highlights, I try not to reflect too much on the past, but that is one time I would love to duplicate over and over again.”

No one could have possibly known it then, but 1997 was the last year the Orioles had a winning season. Since then, there have been sporadic bright spots, but overall disappointment in the team’s play. However, Camden Yards as a stadium has remained an ongoing source of civic pride.

Much of that probably has to do with the details and upgrades that make Camden Yards the stadium that it is. There is, of course, the ever-important grass on the field, a departure from the artificial turf craze of the ’60s and ’70s.

“What’s kind of amazing is how little we’ve had to update the grounds system here since it opened,” says head groundskeeper Nicole Sherry. “This was really innovative stuff. It’s real grass, a rarity in those days, on top of 12 inches of sand. When it rains, it’s like pouring water on a beach.”

There are also the recognizable faces at the ballpark, which, for a long time, included umpires’ attendant, the late Ernie Tyler. Tyler began as an usher in the team’s very first season in 1954 and strung together 3,769 consecutive games over 48 years, giving Ripken a run for his money.

“He worked his day job everyday, then would come to the ballpark,” says Tyler’s son, Jim, a clubhouse manager at the Orioles. “He was there so long that umpires would look forward to coming to Baltimore just to see their old friend Ernie.”

Another familiar face is vendor Haskett, who earned the nickname Fancy Clancy because of his over-the-top tricks while pouring beer. Haskett first got his job selling sodas at Memorial Stadium when he was 15.

“You’ve got to have personality with this job,” he says. “I talk to every single sale, I don’t care if I know them or I don’t. You have to treat everyone like family. I remember I went down to Aruba, and I was in the casino when I heard, ‘Hey, Baltimore!’ All the way down there and someone knows me from the stadium.”

Another vendor who gets a lot of recognition is Powell, who has been selling his pit-beef sandwiches and talking to fans at Boog’s BBQ since Camden Yards opened.

“When three million people come by your business every year, that doesn’t hurt,” he says. “Plus, I love the fans. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me with an old photo and ask me about a certain game. I’m very fortunate to be at the ballpark after all these years. And I don’t have to worry about striking out.”

Concession-stand owners like Powell know that fans’ tastes over 20 years tend to change. And officials at the stadium authority and Orioles understand that, too.

“A lot of our concessions, retail, and restaurants seem aged and dated,” says Smith, who is now the Orioles VP of planning and development. “We’re in need of a new look, as well as the fact that people’s taste in foods has changed. They want more local and fresh items that are unique to Baltimore.”

The concession company Delaware North, which replaced Aramark at the park in 2011, acknowledges this and has recently added local items like Gino’s burgers, Pollock Johnny and Stuggy’s hot dogs, crab cakes, and a Little Italy meatball sub.

In addition, the Orioles added the Miller Lite Flite Deck in right field a few years ago for a more social environment, and a new outdoor deck and bar on the rooftop of the wall in centerfield will be added this season.

“When it opened in ’92, these weren’t amenities that many ballparks had,” says Greg Bader, Orioles director of communications. “We want to make it contemporary.”

Other changes over the years have been the installation of new seats, the addition of HD scoreboards, and refurbishing the brick siding and roof on the warehouse.

This season, the right-field wall will be lowered four feet, and the Orioles will be installing new sculptures in the bullpen area to honor the team’s Hall-of-Fame players.

“That is the ultimate thing a ballclub can do to honor you,” says Frank Robinson, who will be at Camden Yards for his statue’s dedication on April 28. “If the Orioles can commemorate these experiences, then I’ll always feel connected to that stadium.”

As beloved as Camden Yards is in Baltimore, its most powerful impact has, perhaps, been felt nationally. Since 1992, a retro ballpark with modern amenities was imitated over and over again.

“From the start, we loved the idea of Camden Yards,” says Lucchino, who is now the president of the Red Sox. “But we didn’t know it would light a fire across the baseball world and its progeny would end up in a dozen-and-a-half towns and cities.”

Suddenly, the concept of multipurpose stadiums plummeted in popularity and HOK Sport was regarded as the go-to firm for ballparks. People started using the phrase “just like Camden Yards.”

“We won a lot more arguments after Baltimore,” Joe Spear says. “It established us as the guys who knew what we were doing.”

Retro-classic stadiums that fit into the downtown landscape started popping up everywhere, like Turner Field in Atlanta, Jacobs Field in Cleveland, and AT&T Park in San Francisco. Even when Fenway was getting renovated, the Red Sox looked back to Camden Yards for inspiration, creating the ultimate full circle.

“The thing we’re most proud of is how many ballparks have emulated Camden Yards,” Smith says. “I think the fact that they’ve gone into downtowns and urban settings is the most important victory for America. And, 20 years later, not a single ballpark has been built with concrete.”

“We always felt like we had an advantage at Camden Yards. It was our place." —Cal Ripken, Jr.

Another powerful effect Camden Yards had was to prove that ballparks can be about more than just a three-hour game.

“Now ballparks give fans a chance to do more than just go to the game and then back to the suburbs,” Frank Robinson says. “Now it’s a way to experience a city.”

Maybe the well-regarded ballpark’s most crucial contribution is how it has buoyed the Orioles in tough times.

“While the stadium is a nice place to go either way, it’s really the team and the game that brings crowds,” Rosenthal says. “But, if the stadium wasn’t as nice, the team might be in real trouble.”

Indeed, Camden Yards can take at least partial credit for the fans being such a persistent bunch, that they’re still crowding the annual FanFest in January, selling out opening day, and remaining optimistic at least into the summer.

“I think some of it is history. There have always been a lot of really good baseball fans in Baltimore,” Powell says. “And they’re dying for a winner. Every year, it’s always hope springs eternal.”

But for some, like fan Mike Mullen, who is renewing his season-ticket package yet again this year, things are a bit simpler.

“I run a tab with Clancy,” he says. “There’s a cool girl in the right field flag court, and I always go out of my way to buy a beer from her. It’s a whole day, and it’s like they want you there, like you’re one of the family.”

Despite woes on the field, fans like Mullen come back again every year in what almost feels like a religious fanaticism. And even after the crowds leave and the vendors clear out, there is something about the building itself—perhaps what Lucchino, the architects, and even Schaefer intended—that feels spiritual.

“Every time we come off a road trip,” Showalter says, “At 2 or 3 a.m., I just sit in the dugout for a couple minutes and think. It’s almost ethereal. It’s like a cathedral.”

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