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Oriole Park at 30: Lots of memories

Oriole Park at Camden Yards 2019

When the Baltimore Orioles open the home season today at Oriole Park, there will be plenty of folks looking back to how the groundbreaking ballpark came to be 30 years ago and how initially plenty of locals opposed the project.

In a way the story of the opening of Oriole Park on April 6, 1992, was like the opening of every new Major League Baseball ballpark over the last 30 years. Plenty of baseball fans didn’t see the need for a new ballpark–hey, all Memorial Stadium needs is some TLC, but there’s really no need to abandon the place where my earliest baseball memories were made–and in proposing what became known as the first retro ballpark in Major League Baseball, the Orioles were making a big bet on an unproven formula. With the urban location, the incorporation of existing buildings into the site plan, and the total lack of local parking, plenty of locals were opposing the project.

But with the architecture firm Populous–then operating as HOK Sport–and the Orioles design team, led by Janet Marie Smith with Larry Lucchino overseeing, fully committed to the retro style, the opening of Oriole Park represented a fundamental rethinking in the design and construction of a modern MLB ballpark. That retro style had been implemented at Pilot Field, home of the Buffalo Bisons (Triple-A; International League), which opened to wide acclaim in 1988. That ballpark, also designed by HOK Sport, still stands as Sahlen Field and was home to the Toronto Blue Jays for parts of the 2020 and 2021 seasons when COVID-19 restrictions kept the Jays from playing in Canada.

What made Oriole Park so unique? First, it was the first modern ballpark designed to be totally integrated into its surroundings. Instead of building a new ballpark in suburban Lansdowne, which was first proposed, city officials pushed for a new downtown ballpark, built on a site that incorporated the iconic but long disused B&O warehouse and make it an integral part of the ballpark design, forming an urban framework for Oriole Park. (It is somewhat a misnomer that MLB teams abandoned urban ballparks in this era: the Minnesota Twins moved from the suburbs to a downtown ballpark with the opening of Metrodome in 1982, and Toronto’s SkyDome opened in 1989 in a downtown location.) The downtown location was not popular, however, so Mayor William Donald Schaefer needed to both work with the state on a funding framework for the ballpark and then fight off a proposed referendum on the project, which the Orioles likely would lose. From Baltimore Magazine:

That said, the back and forth over the warehouse continued for several years. Among the warehouse detractors, notably, was John Steadman, the longtime Evening Sun columnist. “That warehouse offers absolutely nothing, and it destroys the vista of downtown Baltimore,” Steadman wrote. “And if you buy the best seat in the house, next to the Baltimore dugout, you’re going to spend nine innings staring out at a brick wall that reminds me of the Maryland state penitentiary.”

Steadman was wrong, obviously. The warehouse brought in almost everything we value about Camden Yards, and probably now take for granted. For starters, the warehouse, like the train tracks out front, runs north and south. By coincidence, the ideal direction for a third-base line is north and south because it means the sun, crossing east to west, never shines directly in the eyes of batters or outfielders. That also meant that the warehouse could sit perpendicular to the first-base line, and its massive backdrop, as Moss imagined, would create a sense of authentic intimacy.

And it meant Eutaw Street, with the Bromo-Seltzer Tower in view to the north, could be gated at each end on game day, and left open on non-game days to further establish a genuine connection to its immediate environs.

In the end, the warehouse ended up used for a variety of ballpark functions, such as team offices and a commissary, and helps fuel the feeling that Oriole Park has been there forever. The warehouse brickwork ended up being a core feature of the MLB retro style, along with plenty of exposed ironwork and supports, as well as older-style seating instead of the plastic buckets found in so many new ballparks at that time.

And, of course, there was the inevitable happy accident along the way. During the planning stages, it was pointed out by a local, elderly resident that a saloon owned by Babe Ruth’s father, George Ruth Sr., was located between second base and center field. The ballpark wasn’t designed with that orientation in mind–but in the end it’s the perfect story to tie Oriole Park to Baltimore baseball history.

RELATED STORIES: Prepping for 2022: Oriole Park, Baltimore Orioles

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