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Camden Yards: Still A Field Of Dreams 20 Seasons Later?

August 15, 2011

By Matt Palmer
Justin Dellinger was 13 when he awoke on the morning of April 6, 1992. The Prince George's County native was heading north with his father to Baltimore to see the first regular-season game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"My dad made it known that it was completely appropriate to miss the entire day of school for Opening Day," Dellinger said. "I was excited to see the new stadium but I actually did not have a ticket. My dad's friend only had two tickets and our plan was to buy one outside of the stadium."

The Dellingers were able to get a seat at face value, even though the game was the hottest ticket in Maryland. Soon, they were among the 44,568 fans filing into the stadium.

"The ballpark was beautiful," Dellinger recalled. "The atmosphere was electric."

Inside, one of the stadium's key designers, Ben Barnert, stood on a bridge above Eutaw Street between the 1,016-foot B&O Warehouse and the club level.

"I was just kind of watching Eutaw fill with people and seeing the expressions on their faces as they entered the ballpark for the first time," Barnert said. "It was very emotional and very exciting."

The opening of the first park in the style that many describe as retro was a national event. President George H.W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a contest that featured a complete-game effort by Rick Sutcliffe during a 2-0 win against the Indians.
Orioles players were caught up in the moment.

"It was something special," recalled Mike Devereaux, the Orioles' center fielder during the 1992 season. "All the morning shows were there. They knew it was something unique. It was the start of a new era, not only in Baltimore but in stadiums and how they were going to be designed from there on out."

Since those first fans entered the park in 1992, more than 50 million have followed. During the stadium's first 11 seasons, even during the strike-shortened 1994 season, at least 2.5 million fans attended games there. Excluding 1994, the team drew at least three million fans per season until 2002.

A year after its debut, the park hosted the All-Star Game. Cal Ripken Jr. tied and broke the all-time consecutive games streak there in 1995. The team hosted playoff games in 1996 and 1997, a season in which the Orioles went wire-to-wire in the American League East division.

For more than a decade, Oriole Park was Maryland's "It Place."

"I never played in that stadium when it wasn't sold out," said Devereaux, who played in the stadium for another three years during two different stints.

Twenty seasons after it opened, Oriole Park at Camden Yards remains one of the most beloved stadiums in all of sports. Baseball cities across the country have built stadiums strikingly similar to Baltimore's gem. Few have replicated the magic.
Building a Dream 

Thanks to political wrangling by then-Governor William Donald Schaefer inside the state's legislature, the Orioles are still in Baltimore.

The late statesman announced at a game in Memorial Stadium on May 2, 1988, that former Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams and the Maryland Stadium Authority had entered into an agreement for a 15-year lease for a new baseball-only venue.

Interviews with designers began in earnest and one firm stood out above the rest -- Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Better known as HOK, the firm had designed a minor league stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., that drew raves.

Ben Barnert and Oriole Park's eventual lead architect, Joe Spear, were ready for the next level.

Oriole Park was always meant to buck a trend of aesthetically-dead, multi-purpose stadiums that had opened in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

The Chicago White Sox opened the baseball-only Comiskey Field (now U.S. Cellular Field) in 1991 to mixed reviews. Although Oriole Park would eventually have 48,000-plus seats (which have since been reduced to more than 45,000), the focus was on intimacy.

"It was clear that being bigger didn't necessarily mean you had larger attendance," said Janet Marie Smith, who worked as the Orioles' vice president of planning and development from 1989 to 1994, and has since returned to the role.

One of the key people in the development of the stadium project through its opening, Smith credited Schaefer's love of Baltimore and his desire to bring people to downtown for making Camden Yards a reality. She said he made the gut decision for the Oriole Park location, near a former train center.

"He probably tossed all those studies out and said, 'This is the place,' " Smith said.
Oriole Park's planning success came down to location, size and commitment.

"Those stars all aligned very neatly to give HOK the opportunity to do something really magical," Smith said.

Most of the signature flourishes that have come to define the park were there in HOK's pitch session. The opportunity to work in an industrial area that was close to the city's celebrated Inner Harbor was attractive to lead architect Spear and Barnert.

The Camden Yards location presented a debate: should the B&O Warehouse stay or go? Some thought it was an eyesore that would block views to the Inner Harbor water. Barnert said his firm saw classic inspiration.

"It's kind of the instant recognition factor that you get," Barnert said. "If you're watching a ball game and you see the ivy-covered outfield wall, you know where you're at. If you see the Green Monster, you know where you're at. We viewed it as, ‘OK, you're going to see the warehouse and you're going to know you're in Baltimore’ without even seeing the teams on the field. That was a pretty cool thing."

The former train center would once again see packed MARC and MTA light rail trains just outside. Inside would house stores, restaurants, gathering areas and, most importantly, the team's offices.

Construction began during the summer of 1989 and ended 33 months later.
For those who worked on the stadium, it became a calling card and a symbol of many different talented people coming together to create a masterpiece.

"It was a great team effort, both during the design and construction of the project, too," Barnert said. "It was just a fun project and a great group of individuals to work with."
The Oriole players visited the $110 million stadium project, which was being built 16 feet below street level, during construction. They hit pitches where the all-grass field would be and imagined home runs soaring out of the park.

The Orioles emotionally said goodbye to Memorial Stadium during the fall of 1991. Early in 1992, the team assembled at Camden Yards once again.

Devereaux said he looked at his teammates days before and asked, "How is this going to be finished in six weeks?"
The Answer

Leading up to the regular season, the Orioles were brought back to Camden Yards for a final preview.

"I remember Brady Anderson and I just had our jaws dropping when we hit the field," Devereaux said. "A few of the lights were on. It actually did bring a tear to my eye because this was going to be our home, where we were going to play."

Upon opening, Oriole Park became a pilgrimage site for baseball fans looking to see a stadium that recalled a bygone era. Fans rubbed elbows with former Oriole great Boog Powell at his barbeque stand on Eutaw Street. There wasn't a bad seat in the place, some said.

The stadium's open view of the skyline of Baltimore provided a window into landmarks such as the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower for national television audiences. The city couldn't have asked for better advertisement than Oriole Park.

"The hotels and the restaurants had a real uptick in the early days," Smith said. "That was very much a part of the city's fathers' hope, which was that they weren't just saving the Orioles, but that they were causing other businesses to see a real rise in their financial well-being as a result of the Orioles' presence."

The team steadily improved throughout the early 1990s and Oriole Park created bonds among the players.

"It was a place we liked to be," Devereaux said. "We hung out there. We spent more time at the park than anywhere else."

Devereaux and Anderson came to define how someone played the grass, warning track and walls of the stadium. During the inaugural Camden Yards season, Devereaux memorably leapt over the fence of left-center field to take a homer away from the Blue Jays’ Joe Carter.

Devereaux relished the advantage and that catch, saying, "When a ball was hit, we thought, 'Oh, I'm going to get this one.' It was fun."

On April 9, 1992, Devereaux also hit team's first home run there.
Source of Pride

Smith returned to the Orioles in 2009 and has been involved in renovations to Oriole Park. She said there was a delicate balance in tooling with what some call perfection, and a focus on honoring the team's past with new additions.

"Coming back to Camden Yards, I don't feel slavish to the decisions we made then, but I do remember why we made them," she said. "What a blessing it is to be back here and to update it."

Devereaux, now a field instructor for the Orioles' Single-A affiliate Frederick Keys, attended a 2011 Orioles game behind home plate with some of his players. The crowd gave him a standing ovation when he was shown on the center field video screen.

"I had a couple of my players from Frederick there and they were thinking, 'What in the world is going on here?’ " Devereaux said. "They had no idea about me being there and the connection that the fans and players like myself had. It brought tears to my eyes."
Young Dustin Dellinger, now a member of The Oriole Advocates, had his Opening Day ticket signed by Future Hall of Famer Ripken. He sees an empty stadium now on most nights when he goes to games, but dreams of a return to the magic of that special day in 1992.

"I miss the packed stadium," Dellinger said, "and the energy that everyone put into every pitch."

Issue 164: August 2011