A New-Fangled, Old-Style Ballpark

IF you crossed Fenway Park with a Hyatt Regency hotel, you'd get something resembling Baltimore's spanking new baseball stadium - Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Like Boston's Fenway, built in 1912, Camden has eccentric touches to gladden a baseball purist's heart. It's got real grass, intimate confines, and a quirky outfield that could drive rightfielders into selling insurance.

Like a Hyatt, it has paneled rooms with views, upscale restaurants, and waitresses selling pastries in the lobby.

"Coming here is like coming from the slums to a palace," says Orioles outfielder David Segui. "If we play half as good as this place looks we'll be pretty good this year."

The new park's accent on luxury reflects a trend in stadium economics that started in the 1970s. Camden's 72 skyboxes (yours for a mere $55,000-$95,000 per season), plus 5,000 waitress-served "club-level seats" in the second deck, will be a cash cow for the Orioles' management.

But don't bother the admiring Orioles fans with economics. It's not luxury that will draw record numbers of them to Camden Yards this season, but something that taps into baseball's emotional appeal. With a weathered brick exterior, green-slat seats, and old-time scoreboard ads, the stadium has been consciously designed to remind a lot of people of the time they went to their first ball game with their dad.

"Everyone has those childhood memories," says Joe Spear, senior vice-president of the Kansas City firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum that designed Camden Yards. "A lot of people have very powerful emotions about the game, and maybe what we've done here is touch that a little bit."

The stadium's unique look is likely to set the standard for a number of new parks either under construction or in the planning stage.

During the 1970s and '80s, new stadiums were typically huge, multi-use ziggurats set in the center of a vast expanse of asphalt. They dominated their surroundings instead of harmonizing with them.

But over the years, fans have not developed the same warm feelings for the Astrodome, say, that they have for the classic parks of the past: Tiger Stadium, Wrigley Field, and the old Comiskey Park.

Take Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, a stadium viewed by millions of current and former New Yorkers through a haze of nostalgia. Ebbets fit its neighborhood so closely that home runs over the right field screen bounced onto the tarmac of an Esso gas station.

At Camden Yards, home runs over the right field wall will land on Eutaw Street, "which has been in that spot for 200 years," notes Orioles play-by-play announcer Jon Miller. If it's really crushed, a right-field homer might reach the restored B&O railroad freight terminal that hangs over Camden like an aged stage set.

The B&O terminal now houses restaurants and the Orioles' corporate offices. Lest diners get a fly in their soup, all windows reachable from the field have been armored with ball-proof glass.

Camden Yards even has its own baseball history. Babe Ruth's childhood home was a small row house two blocks away. One of his father's five bars was located in what is now right-center field.

With all this past surrounding it, Camden Yards has been designed to fit in with its inner-city surroundings, say its designers.

"We wanted to build a stadium that fit the Baltimore area, that blended well with the surrounding residential areas, that didn't overpower them in scale," says Ben Barnert, project architect of the stadium.

Its outfield is tailored to the size of the stadium lot. For example, a shot hit down the line in right only needs to travel 319 feet to reach the fence. Unlike most baseball parks, the deepest part of the field isn't straightaway center. It's the left-center power alley, at 410 feet.

At the corner, in far right field, there's even a little jog where a racing outfielder could momentarily disappear from the catcher's view.

ORIOLES players say as yet they have no home-field advantage, because they haven't had time to learn the new field's quirks. Former Oriole pitching great Jim Palmer, now a broadcaster, says that in a larger sense it takes several years to shape a team to fit a particular field.

If Oriole manager John Oates discovers the ball doesn't jump out of the park, he may opt to stack his ball club with speedy players, notes Palmer. If Camden turns out to be a cozy haven for sluggers, as seems more likely, the Orioles will instead look for sultans of smash.

"If the ball does carry to right field, which it seems to," says Palmer, "you might come up with a few more left-handed hitters."

Or you might not. The Minnesota Twins' Metrodome looks like it would be a haven for left-handed hitters, yet the Twins won the World Series last year with a righty-dominated lineup, notes Palmer.

However the Orioles do this year, their stadium is still almost guaranteed to be a fan favorite. A Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development study figures the new ballpark will draw about 20 percent more people than the old Memorial Stadium did.

"I think what they're creating here is not so much nostalgia as bringing baseball back to its roots, to the optimum viewing of a baseball game: fans close to the field and a ballpark that's an inner-city ballpark that adds to the whole fabric of the city," says radio announcer Jon Miller.

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