Future of Camden Yards depends on continued evolution

In 1912, when Fenway Park opened as the home of the Boston Red Sox, fans went to a baseball game because they wanted to watch a baseball game.

One hundred years later, stadiums are much more complicated places, filled with fans hoping for a variety of experiences. Some seek a hip place to socialize, others work out important business deals. Parents have taken to going to the park in search of entertainment for their kids — though not necessarily on the field — and even child care, while foodies might buy a ticket to try a new restaurant or concession stand. Some still go for the baseball.

Camden Yards should welcome a capacity crowd on Opening Day, and the horde will have its first chance to explore renovations meant to make the 20-year-old stadium more usable for today's fans.

Whether a 10-year-old boy who enters the stadium Friday will go to the same location to watch pro baseball when he's 90 is difficult to even fathom. There's no reason to believe that Camden Yards would not last, structurally, until its 100th year. Whether it can be adapted to fit the constantly changing demands from fans and the one never-changing priority for an owner — revenue generation — are the more important questions.

"Nobody is going to try to look forward 50 or 25 or even 10 years to what a stadium is going to look like or how it is going to be used," said Dr. Mark Rosentraub, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan. "The key is being able to change every five years in the way that the fans and the business demand you change. It happens that quickly."

As the Orioles sought to update Camden Yards, they heeded Rosentraub's advice. A new plaza in center field and restaurant/brew pub in the warehouse reflect the success that more recently built stadiums — including those in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia — have had in attracting fans not necessarily interested in paying close attention to the game.

Janet Marie Smith, the team's vice president for planning and development, said the team — and its owner, Peter Angelos — remain committed to spending the money necessary to keep the park current.

"There's no question that the patina of time has served Camden Yards well," she said. "But Mr. Angelos was careful to say that, as the stadium turned 20, we needed to keep it fresh. That's something that he is constantly thinking of."

Joe Mock worked in a building on the 200 block of Pratt Street while Camden Yards was being built. He watched as a crowded industrial space wedged between several neighborhoods gave way to a majestic stadium, but he didn't realize he had a front-row seat to what would become a revolution.

"To say it was trend setting is a great understatement," Mock said. "It re-wrote the book. It really changed everything."

Camden Yards launched a new era in stadium construction that helped revitalize Mock's love for stadiums (he'd photographed all the ones he visited as a kid). In 1997, he started his own website — baseballparks.com — offering reviews of the ballparks he visited, and he has since written a book and worked on multiple television projects related to the subject. Mock, who moved to Texas in 2000, has been to every major league stadium, including the new Marlins Park in Miami, every spring training facility and all but four of the facilities where affiliated minor league teams play.

While he's seen the influence of Baltimore's stadium in parks across the country, he believes Camden Yards will survive because of what sets it apart and makes it so closely associated with the city.

"There's very little doubt that Camden Yards has what it takes to survive the way Fenway and Wrigley have," Mock said. Wrigley, the home of the Chicago Cubs, turns 98 this year. "You get the same feeling of it being truly a part of — as well as reflection of — the city. As long as there's a commitment to funneling money into the stadium, both for upkeep and to stay fresh with new ideas, it can last."

His one concern for the future of Camden Yards stems, ironically, from what made it unique when it was built: its placement downtown may limit the ability for nearby development that could generate additional revenue. The St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore-based Cordish Companies have planned to develop a "Ballpark Village" adjacent to the new Busch Stadium. Though the project stagnated during the economic downturn it has still inspired imitators, and several of the new spring training facilities Mock visited recently were situated on large plots of land where restaurants, condos and shops are expected to sprout.

"One of the reasons Camden Yards changed baseball architecture forever is that it showed that the park itself can generate revenue," Mock said. "Before, owners made a little bit of money on programs and souvenirs and food. But this showed that it could really drive the experience for fans and return some money. And now owners are taking that a bit further with real estate nearby."

Said Rosentraub: "Most teams see themselves in the real estate business now, and with Camden Yards being in the corner it's in, you have to ask how much more opportunity there is."

Don Fry, head of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he believes there is ample area for development nearby and pointed to a proposed new arena — which the GBC is pushing — and the possibility of a casino being built a few blocks away.

"You really have an area that represents the spine of the city," he said. "That's going to be this vibrant, totally thriving area around the ballpark and it's going to make a lot of money."

Smith remembers community meetings in the late 1980s when concerned citizens railed against the very idea of a new stadium; Memorial Stadium had been rebuilt in 1949.

But the multi-purpose stadiums — and the "cookie-cutter" subset of such — were doomed to fail, Smith said, because they simply tried to do too much. The seats could never be configured to provide the proper sightlines for both football and baseball. And as the way fans hoped to experience game days for football and baseball evolved, owners found it difficult to renovate stadiums in a reasonable way.

Camden Yards and the parks it helped inspire should have more "elasticity," Smith said, because the focus is narrowed.

"They really are living, breathing things, these stadiums," said Smith, who played an important role in changes made to Turner Field in Atlanta and Fenway between her stints with the Orioles. "And reaching our 20th year seemed like a significant point — just as when you reach that point in your life. We feel like now we can reflect on our history more. We're old enough to celebrate."

The Orioles will erect six statues honoring the five players and one manager whose uniform numbers have been retired, and they have decorated the concourse with previous team logos. That they'll need to continue these sort of aesthetic upgrades is a given. The team also worked to improve concession areas because food preparation methods and fan tastes have evolved.

Other future changes aren't so easy to envision. Technology will change the way fans experience games, as scoreboards become even larger and more elaborate. Rosentraub sees a day when teams will make special accommodations to help fans follow their fantasy teams, and some clubs are already allowing patrons to order food via phone or tablet and have it delivered to their seats.

Luxury suites — the high-revenue-generating areas that pushed many owners to fight for new stadiums — are being rethought, as well. Many teams are contemplating using those areas for child care, Rosentraub said, or gearing them toward the whole family; mom and dad could watch the game while the kids have space to play nearby. Other suites will be redesigned to better host events.

"People will come for a party," he said. "The baseball game will be secondary."

Having just recently finished a major overhaul of the Orioles' spring training facility in addition to the tweaks of Camden Yards, Smith said there were no major projects planned. A spokesman for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns the stadium, said that it was not that agency's job to speculate on future land use.

But Joe Spear, one of the original architects of Camden Yards, felt all along that the stadium would last for exactly as long as the people of the city wanted it to.

"If you do something that's perfect for Baltimore in Baltimore," he said, "it's going to live forever because people will love it and take care of it."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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