25 years later, Camden Yards still a marvel

Timeless ballpark has been transformative structure in baseball history

April 6th, 2017

A quarter-century ago, a plot of railyard land near Baltimore's Inner Harbor and just steps from the birthplace of Babe Ruth would become the canvas for a masterpiece of a ballpark that has indelibly influenced the state of the art.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards made its official debut on April 6, 1992, and 25 years later, it has proven to be a transformative structure in Major League Baseball. With its old-fashioned nuances and modern comforts tucked into a downtown setting with views galore, Baltimore's gem paved the way for a wave of urban ballparks, replacing cookie-cutter multipurpose facilities with intimate baseball-centric venues that enhanced the cities they call home.

That it would become so influential wasn't necessarily on the mind of Larry Lucchino, the longtime baseball executive who spearheaded the project for the Orioles. He recalls a time shortly before Baltimore's ballpark opened, when he visited Toronto's SkyDome, now Rogers Centre. As impressive as it was with its retractable roof and hotel, Lucchino knew that it was not what he and the O's were hoping to accomplish.

Justice: Camden Yards magical from Day 1

"We were just trying to build a great little ballpark," Lucchino said in an interview with MLB.com. "I remember when they built SkyDome, and I told [then-Blue Jays president] Paul Beeston, 'You guys are building the eighth wonder of the world, and we're just trying to build a nice little ballpark.'"

That "nice little ballpark" continues to be a landmark of the Baltimore landscape into the 21st century, and it has been as influential on baseball as pretty much anything that doesn't wear a glove or swing a bat.

A vision

"I've said often that I've had only one good, original idea in my 38 years in baseball, and that was for a traditional old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities -- and that's the phrase we used a million times," said Lucchino, who grew up in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates moved from quirky Forbes Field to stark Three Rivers Stadium. "I wanted the intimacy, the irregularity, the asymmetry of the dimensions and all that, because I liked that about Forbes Field and other older ballparks. It just seemed inevitable that someone should build a new ballpark that looked like the old ballparks."

From "Home of the Game: The Story of Camden Yards" by Thom Loverro, a detailed look at the ballpark's birth and early life:

"(Orioles owner) Edward Bennett Williams pushed the need for a new ballpark, Governor William Donald Schaefer battled for the Camden Yards location, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad campaigned to keep the B&O Warehouse, and Orioles vice president of planning and development Janet Marie Smith did research on ballparks of days past and how those touches could be implemented at Camden Yards.

The project doesn't happen without the efforts of those mentioned above and others, not the least of which is the preeminent stadium architectural firm HOK. And it certainly doesn't happen without Williams, the famous trial attorney who bought the Orioles in 1979 and immediately started looking for a ballpark idea. He put Lucchino, who served as general counsel for Williams' Washington Redskins of the NFL before joining the Orioles, on the case. Ultimately, Williams bought into the concept of the ballpark being smaller rather than larger, and putting it where it would do the most good -- in downtown Baltimore, not the suburbs. Williams was an invaluable supporter of the project until his death in August 1988."

The ballpark, Lucchino insists, also would not have become what it did without Smith, the architect who took the vision and made it a reality.

Lucchino's passion for those concepts was perhaps never more evident than when he received a preliminary architectural model that didn't hit the mark. He proceeded to literally break the mold.

"I tore some pieces off of it, and they said, 'Lucchino, do you have any idea how much these models cost?' I said, 'No, not really.' They said something like $75,000 or $100,000 or something like that," said Lucchino, who would leave the Orioles in 1993, ever so soon after Camden Yards became a reality. "I said, 'Oh, sorry, I didn't know that, but we still don't want these steps out here, we still don't want this walkway here, we still want a smaller, more irregular ballpark.' I'm sorry I damaged their model, but it was important to make a point."

A new reality

Memorial Stadium was a comfortable old chair with a view of some great moments in MLB and NFL history. Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, they all played their Orioles games at the neighborhood stadium in the northeastern part of Baltimore, where the O's won three World Series and six American League pennants. Johnny Unitas and Co. made football history there.

"Being a native Baltimorean and the son of two native Baltimoreans, I knew that what Lucchino was proposing was preposterous," said Charles Steinberg, who worked with Lucchino with the Orioles and since then as a top executive with the Padres and Red Sox (Steinberg has also worked for the Dodgers). "First of all, I didn't want a new stadium, because I loved the stadium I'd grown up in, Memorial Stadium. Like so many places around baseball, it was the only home I knew, and it was a house of happy memories."

Said MLB Network analyst Billy Ripken, who grew up in Maryland and went on to play for the O's alongside his Hall of Famer brother Cal Jr. and manager/coach/father Cal Sr.: "I remember when we closed Memorial Stadium in 1991 and I was thinking, 'Man, there's nothing really wrong with this ballpark.' And we go to Spring Training the next year and we're hearing about the good things going on up in Baltimore with Camden Yards, and when we got up there to have a few workouts before Opening Day, we started looking at this and going, 'This is really nice.'"

Construction took a little less than three years, as the old railroad yards were turned into a ballyard, home plate dug 16 feet below ground level opening up the sky to picture-postcard views. Seeing it for the first time really was believing.

"I remember vividly because we hadn't seen it," then-left fielder and leadoff hitter Brady Anderson said. "We were in Spring Training when it was still being completed. We got off the bus and went down the ramp, and we were all excited to get out to the field and take a look. So [Mike] Devereaux and I walked out together, came up the ramp and stood on the field on the home side on-deck circle, and he just looked at me and said, '[Wow], Brady.'

"We hadn't seen anything like it, and in a way there still isn't anything like it."

Grand opening

Rick Sutcliffe signed with the Orioles in a beer locker at the under-construction ballpark in December 1991, getting the pitch from old friend and then-O's manager Johnny Oates with a special incentive.

"He walked me out to the mound, and he said, 'You know, you're going to throw the first pitch in this ballpark.' It just hit me. You get goosebumps thinking about it," Sutcliffe said.

After a ceremonial first pitch by President George H.W. Bush, the 6-foot-7 right-hander Sutcliffe delivered that first pitch in Oriole Park at Camden Yards history with a ball to the Indians' Kenny Lofton. Sutcliffe can't tell you much about the first pitch or much of that first game, because he and some of his teammates had food poisoning. But he delivered the goods in a 2-0 shutout, outdueling Cleveland's Charles Nagy in a contest that lasted just two hours and two minutes.

Paul Sorrento remembers the first hit at Camden Yards very well, as he delivered a single to left-center field in the second inning for the first base knock in the new ballpark.

"I don't have too many highlights, so I remember that one," said Sorrento, who would also record the ballpark's first home run the next day. "It's still one of my favorite ballparks to visit. It's still awesome. There was a great atmosphere that day, and it's always been a great atmosphere there."

Nagy, who with the Indians moved into Cleveland's own gem just two years later when Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) opened, knew something special was in the air.

"It was a different feel," said Nagy, now the pitching coach for the Angels. "It was a newer ballpark with a nostalgic look to it with the big building in the background and everything. It started the trend of the other ballparks. Gone were the days of big oval stadium."

Hazy about the first pitch, Sutcliffe will always remember the last pitch of the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"You always want to strike the last guy out," Sutcliffe said. "I had a two-strike count on Sorrento, and my plan was to throw a fastball a foot off the plate and get him looking out and then get him to chase the slider at his back foot. That's how I was going to get him. I threw that fastball a foot outside and the umpire called strike three."

Says Sorrento with a smile: "I saw the replay of it. I guess it was a veteran call; let's keep it at that."

The Opening Day crowd went wild and the final pitch of the first day went down in history as a strike, the final moment in Camden Yards' magnificent debut. The Orioles would get off to a 12-2 start at their new home, all of it starting on a day to remember at a ballpark that wouldn't be forgotten.

"It was just kind of a perfect day for what I still consider the perfect ballpark," Sutcliffe said.

The game's stage

Camden Yards didn't take long to become a national phenomenon. By the summer of its second season, the spotlight was shone on the uniquely modern old-style ballpark with the All-Star Game -- and the Home Run Derby that preceded it. That's when Ken Griffey Jr. hit the warehouse on the fly, a feat that still eludes sluggers to this day. The All-Star Fan Fest was born there, and it was all part of a huge coming-out party for Baltimore's great little ballpark, impressing players and fans alike.

Camden Yards quickly became a hit at home, too, as the club saw the turnstile count surge to record levels.

"It fit for a town with a great baseball heritage, the tradition of Baltimore," says MLB.com columnist Richard Justice, who wrote for the Baltimore Sun at the time and was at the first game at Camden Yards. "You just felt like Frank could play there, Brooks could play there. It was Baltimore."

Cal Ripken Jr. eventually broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record at Camden Yards in 1995 in what is probably the most iconic moment at the park. He summed up Camden Yards in "Home of the Game":

"I was worried that when we went to Camden Yards, we would lose the old Orioles history, the feeling of playing in a place that was special for baseball," Ripken said. "But when we got on the field at Camden Yards and started playing there, it seemed like it was a place where baseball had been played before. Intellectually, you knew it was brand new and no baseball had been played there until we got there. But when you walked into the place, it was a ballpark. It represented so many things and brought up some deep feelings about the game."

Powerful influence

With its old-fashioned feel, fan-friendly sightlines and modern functionality, Oriole Park at Camden Yards inspired an entire generation of new ballparks across the Major League landscape. Some took the same approach of having a nostalgic venue downtown, while others tailored the blueprint for their own needs.

"Camden really was the first of its kind," said Anderson, now the vice president of baseball operations with the Orioles. "Camden was the first place that sort of combined everything -- technology, asymmetry in the outfield, things that were specific to that ballpark that make it not so mundane, great fan experience, Eutaw Street, the view, the warehouse, everything."

But "everything" could be something else somewhere else, and city after city followed Baltimore's lead. Cleveland's Jacobs Field and Denver's Coors Field opened soon after, and another wave came with Seattle's Safeco Field and San Francisco's AT&T Park. They were followed by PNC Park in Lucchino's hometown of Pittsburgh, another Lucchino-led project with Petco Park in San Diego and so on and so on and so on.

"For all the 20-plus Major League ballparks that are children of Camden Yards, you also have a remarkable number of Minor League ballparks that are also children of Camden Yards," Steinberg said. "Just because a city isn't one of the 30 Major League cities doesn't mean that a ballpark that's well-designed and well-located can't transform that city. Take a look at Charlotte, take a look at Durham, take a look at El Paso, take a look at Indianapolis."

25 and counting

For a place that always tried to look old-fashioned, Oriole Park at Camden Yards seems like it has hardly aged a day. With improvements and renovations that retain the same look and feel as the first day, it has done more than just stand the test of time. That figures, since it turned time on its head from the very beginning.

"I think [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos deserves a salute for the way he has believed in the ballpark and maintained it so beautifully for so many years," Lucchino said.

The club will be celebrating the 25th anniversary throughout this coming season with giveaways -- including a replica of the ballpark -- and other ways of showing its love for its venue. But the best way of showing love for the stadium has been keeping it very much like it was on April 6, 1992, when it opened -- modern at its core yet so very nostalgic.

"Even though you were in 1992, you felt like you were going back in time," Justice said of his first impression of Camden Yards. "You looked around and thought, 'This is the way it used to be, this is the way it ought to be.' The brick and the steel and the grass and the warehouse in the background, it was perfect."

The park is defying time to this day.

"It's like going to Disneyland," Jim Henneman, a longtime Baltimore sportswriter who now serves as an official scorer at Orioles games. "When I first saw Disneyland, it happened to be on its 17th birthday, and it looked like it had opened yesterday. That's what it has been like at Camden Yards."