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Orioles Building Ballpark, Not Stadium

WASHINGTON POST

Eli Jacobs, the majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was a frequent visitor to Boston’s Fenway Park and Braves Field in his youth. Jacobs liked those parks a lot better than the concrete edifices that sprouted in the 1960s and ‘70s, so when the time came to propose a design for his team’s new stadium, he knew what he did--and didn’t--want.

There was surprisingly little disagreement among others involved in the decision-making process. So when the Orioles open their 1992 season, they expect to be playing in a modern ballpark built for them by the State of Maryland according to an old-fashioned concept.

“I can’t wait,” Jacobs said. “I wish we could have designed an Ebbets Field without pillars, but I think what we have is even better, the best of the old combined with the best of the new. I think the fans will learn to love it for the same reasons we loved the old ballparks.”

If nothing else, fans likely will love the relief from the traffic jams around Memorial Stadium, with freeways, trains and the subway all converging on the Camden Yards site in downtown Baltimore. Demolition work at the stadium site has already begun.

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From an aesthetic point of view, the park breaks new ground by blending in with its surroundings, an extension of the nearby Inner Harbor that has architects from coast to coast excited by its possibilities.

Since it is a baseball-only facility, the Orioles’ park will have most of the 46,800 seats between the foul lines, with a limited foul territory that enables fans to be close to the action, unlike at some wide-angled new stadia.

“We refer to it as ‘the ballpark,’ not a stadium. We try not to use the S-word,” said Larry Lucchino, the Orioles’ president.

The games will be played on grass--prescription athletic turf for quick drainage--under the sky and with a view of Baltimore’s skyline beyond left and center fields.

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Past the right-field wall and 460 feet from home plate is a structure unique to major-league baseball. It is the old B&O; Railroad warehouse, which will be preserved as club offices, a museum and facilities for group entertainment.

“When you talk about kids and baseball, a recurring theme is broken windows,” said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles’ vice president for planning and development. “We want somebody to hit a home run and break a window. We’re thinking how to display on the warehouse wall where a home run ball has landed.”

Both Jacobs, an amateur architect, and Smith, a professional, fought off attempts to use concrete in the construction. Instead, the park, as designed by HOK of Kansas City, will be built of steel trusses that can be painted to add color to the scene, rather than the mausoleum effect of unrelieved concrete, as in Seattle’s Kingdome.

Designers also expect a sense of brightness from arched brick facades reminiscent of the old parks. Representatives of the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority visited some stadia and examined photographs of others that had been demolished. The new park most closely resembles old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, longtime home of the Pacific Coast League Angels.

“It’s been a fascinating exercise for us,” Smith said. “We studied the old ballparks to see what made them special. One thing was the use of steel, not concrete. Most of them were intimate, with a tight foul territory. You can’t have that in a multipurpose stadium.

“Another thing was the image of a civic building, blending into the existing architecture, rather than a distinct stadium. Often scoreboards were in the field of play and we have one in the right-field wall. They had different dimensions too, and with the way our seating bowl is designed around the left outfield, we have a deeper field in left-center (410 feet) than in straightaway center (396).”

The slope of the upper deck will be a gentle 31 degrees, the same as Wrigley Field in Chicago. By comparison, Memorial Stadium has a slope of 33 degrees, while new parks such as Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Stadium and Toronto’s SkyDome are a more acute 37 degrees.

A lot of the oldtime parks were uncomfortable, so there has been no attempt to retain the seating dimensions. Leg room will vary from 32 to 33 inches, compared with 24-26 at Memorial Stadium, and seats will be 19 to 21 inches wide, compared with 16-19.

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On the mezzanine level, the new park will contain private boxes and club seats, so that the wealthy can watch in luxury. Such treatment is a fact of life in all new facilities and a major reason for the replacement of older stadia and indoor sports buildings that are otherwise satisfactory.

“We visited Wrigley Field in Chicago, Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami and the Kansas City stadiums and we picked up ideas in each of those places,” said Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. “We were in unanimous agreement that we liked Wrigley. At Joe Robbie, we saw club lounges and luxury seating that we wanted to incorporate. In the end, we came up with state of art facilities and amenities as well as a traditional stadium.”

Of course all these niceties are not without their price. The original cost estimate for the stadium has risen from $78.4 million to $105 million, in part because of the customizing. “When we got the estimate initially, it was for a stadium we could have placed anywhere out on a highway,” Belgrad said.

The $105 million is “not only our current estimate, but we have committed to the governor that this is a firm figure,” Belgrad said. If costs go up in any area as work progresses, cuts will be made in another area to keep the overall cost from rising, Belgrad said.

Bill Brown, a producer for Home Team Sports, can attest to the state-of-the-art accommodations.

“They seem to have thought of everything,” Brown said. “For TV, they have a studio planned right in the park and there will be 37 camera locations. In most parks, you have no more than six locations.”

Some Baltimoreans probably are unhappy because their new park will be so different from the 21st century Toronto SkyDome, which opened last season to rave reviews. The initial critiques from the architectural front would indicate there is no reason for an inferiority complex.

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic of The New York Times, called the Skydome “a concrete whale” and said Baltimore’s ballpark “is a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture 50 years of wretched stadium design.”

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Lucchino chuckled at that review and said: “Ours is a different flavor of ice cream. Both can be good. They like theirs and we like ours.”

Not everyone in Baltimore has been so enthusiastic. Opposition has been voiced in the adjacent homesteading neighborhoods of Otterbein and Ridgely’s Delight, with some concerned about parking in the already busy downtown area.

Belgrad assures that parking won’t be a problem with 5,000 on-site spaces (compared with about 3,500 at Memorial Stadium) and space for 250 buses. Belgrad notes spaces at Camden Yards will be regular, easy-exit parking, not the bumper-to-bumper parking employed at Memorial Stadium, and points out the abundance of garages in the immediate vicinity.

There is another potential source of controversy for the stadium: what to name it. Although all parties are determined to avoid a commercial tie like Buffalo’s Rich Stadium or Foxboro’s Schaefer Stadium, they have differing ideas on what would be suitable.

Among the leading thoughts so far are Orioles Park, Babe Ruth Park and Camden Yards Park. Since Babe Ruth’s birthplace is only two blocks away, that label would seem ideal, but Belgrad pointed out, “Babe Ruth was a Yankee.”


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