A Special Place: Oriole Park At Camden Yards At 20
One man's love-hate relationship with the ballpark that forever changed the game
By Michael Anft
The Orioles' Opening Day game against the Minnesota Twins April 6 takes place 20 years to the day since the Birds played their first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In honor of this momentous milestone, Michael Anft shares his memories -- the good, the bad and the never ugly -- from the past two decades of Baltimore baseball at OPACY.
Here's something you'll hear at least 20 million times this year: Oriole Park at Camden Yards is turning 20 years old. Celebrating the birthday of a building, even a scene-stealing edifice such as OPACY, seems weird, doesn't it? Do people even do that for their houses? Is a mere two decades enough time to make a big deal out of it all?
Well, for the Orioles, the big plans for the ballpark this season -- new statues of the team's six Hall of Famers and a new, fan-friendly area out beyond the center-field wall -- make perfect sense. From a business perspective, there are plenty of reasons for folks in the Warehouse to indulge in short-term nostalgia, to stoke the stadium for more heat, as the ballclub continues its 14 years of sub-.500 "rebuilding."
Camden Yards is the smiling face of a sad franchise, one that likely would have had a hard time surviving without it. During its early years, OPACY held the record (at the time) for the longest consecutive streak of sellouts in baseball history. In 1997, the Orioles' last playoff year, the stadium and the team drew nearly 3.75 million people.
The team, and not the state that funded its construction (or the rank and file that bought its earmarked-for-the-stadium lottery tickets) or the city where it was built, made a lot of money at the place, and from it. It was as big a draw as any player on the team (including, yes, Cal Ripken), an outfit that has made the playoffs during only 10 percent of its 20 years there. The ballpark itself became the Orioles' ticket to ride early on.
Bandwagon jumpers hopped on right after it opened, before the Orioles were good enough even to sniff a pennant. People came to soak in a manufactured simulation of retro-authentic ballpark ambience, something the unpretentious and venerable Memorial Stadium didn't stretch to achieve, and something that didn't exist in the real world except at the genuinely ancient Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.
Memorial was the Popeye of post-World War II ballparks, tucked into a working class neighborhood, encased in the city's bedrock and squarely in its geographical heart. It was what it lovably was. Camden Yards, groomed to fit into an aged downtown and beam like a precocious child, was Richie Rich unfolded into his anachronistic bow tie and suit.
Buyers of pricier tickets, who had rarely set foot in Memorial Stadium, made up a new Chardonnay-and-crab cake guard at Camden Yards. They often arrived during the third inning, bought something, then left around the sixth to do something else. What's worse, they walked out as if this were normal behavior, with a Caesarian air that said they had done all there was to be done. Many of us asked ourselves: "Weren't ballparks supposed to be for ball fans?"
As you may be able to suss out, I was no big fan of OPACY during its successful years (that is, during the years before attendance tumbled; the place pulls in about half of what it did during its heyday). Its novelty and downtown location might have added up to an extra-base hit, marketing-wise, but despite 25 years as a diehard O's guy, I wasn't buying. Call me contrarian, change-averse, bitter. (You'd probably be right.)
Sure, I could appreciate the view from behind home plate that framed downtown as a place of skyscrapers, possibility and a cure for indigestion. But I was a stranger in a strange land. There was no Wild Bill Hagy. There were too few groups of excitable students. There was a depressing paucity of people filling in scorecards or yelling at umpires.
It was a bowl full of nothing, a sold-out sellout. After visiting a few times in 1992 and 1995, I threw in the towel, taking my kids to minor league games in Aberdeen and Frederick, places they loved and that I could afford.
Through the years, Camden Yards became a magnet for tourists from other towns -- folks who (often obnoxiously) rooted for other teams. They often turned Oriole Park at Camden Yards into a Yankees or Red Sox Park at Camden Yards.
"Those first five or six seasons were unbelievable," said Pat Liberto, who opened Camden Pub on Pratt Street two years before Camden Yards' gates swung open for the first time. Along with Pickles Pub and Sliders, Liberto's joint has hung on through Baltimore baseball's boom and bust. "Since then, we've relied more on people from other cities. They've been really good for business."
As a provincial who vividly recalled the glory years of the Orioles franchise, I saw Camden Yards as a symbol of all that was wrong with the world: subsidizing rich owners at the public's expense, pricing games out of the reach of real fans, allowing interlopers to kill the home-field advantage, and valuing place and marketing instead of product.
>> Article continues on Page 2
Issue 171: March 2012