As Orioles Park at Camden Yards turns 30, a look back at how it all began
Larry Lucchino walked into the Williams & Connolly law office in Washington on a Saturday morning, fresh from a conversation with Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth at spring training. In his hand he carried a brochure advertising the Yugo, a one-size-fits-all economy car, and in his mind he had a point to make.
That conversation with Ueberroth in the late 1980s had left a sour taste in his mouth. Then the Orioles president, Lucchino listened to Ueberroth’s thoughts on the future of MLB ballparks and how they should have a standardized shape and size. But Lucchino came away from it repulsed by the idea of Baltimore building a stadium devoid of quirks and character — just another concrete behemoth that could be in any city.
So in he walked with that car brochure and threw it down on the table filled with Orioles officials and members from the Maryland Stadium Authority.
“We don’t drive Yugos,” Lucchino said. “We’re not looking to play in one.”
The implications of such a plan were against Lucchino’s nature. He had grown up in Pittsburgh, attending Pirates games at Forbes Field before it was demolished, replaced by the multipurpose Three Rivers Stadium shared with the Steelers.
Pittsburgh lost that trade, Lucchino thought, giving up a neighborhood ballpark with a unique outfield configuration for a bowl. He hoped to reverse that trend, not so much for baseball at large, but at least for Baltimore.
To do so, it took a collaborative effort from several parties, beginning with the drive of Janet Marie Smith, then the Orioles’ vice president of planning and development. And it continued with a governor hellbent on a downtown location, a creative transit authority representative, contractors who slept overnight in sleeping bags, a graphic designer whose experience didn’t expand past street signs, and a blacksmith in rural Pennsylvania who’d never worked with stainless steel.
It all came together to create Oriole Park at Camden Yards — a stadium that looked about as far from a Yugo, or a standardized ballpark, as Lucchino could’ve hoped for.
Thirty years later, Camden Yards still has the aura that captivated players, fans and workers alike when it first opened in 1992. It inspired a new generation of ballparks, harking to an old-fashioned feel with modern amenities.
The years have passed and adjustments have been made. But to those who worked to turn a vision for what a stadium could be into a reality, the pride has never faded.
“It’s like seeing one of your children grow up,” Smith said.
A major acquisition: Lucchino saw the stack of rejection letters the Orioles’ vice president of personnel planned to send out when one with Smith’s name on it jumped out at him. He was drowning in Camden Yards plans, trying to guide operations at Memorial Stadium while also planning construction for the new downtown ballpark.
He knew Smith could offer valuable help with that development, taking over much of the day-to-day decision-making required for Camden Yards. So he plucked her letter from the pile, called her in for an interview and met with her in his office.
“Before you sit down,” Lucchino said to Smith, “just tell me which league has the designated hitter.”
“‘I’m offended by the question,’” Lucchino recalled Smith replying. “I wouldn’t have asked a male that question. But in the late ‘80s, I was prepared to ask a woman that question. Her response was terrific and combative, and it led to a very productive relationship.”
Some of the vision for what Camden Yards could be was already in place by the time Smith arrived in 1989. The location had been selected. Lucchino’s hopes for an old-fashioned feel were accepted. But Smith’s addition proved to be the most important offseason acquisition the Orioles made, Lucchino said, 30 years after he almost drove her out of his office with his question.
What was a vague idea for how to proceed with construction solidified under Smith, who had graduated from the City College of New York only a few years earlier and hadn’t previously worked a project of this scale.
She studied postcards of classic ballparks, such as Forbes Field, Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium and Chicago’s Old Comiskey Park. What she learned shifted the path of HOK Architects, who were in the process of designing a concrete version of Camden Yards.
“Janet kind of threw a wrench in the middle of that when she said, ‘No, we want a steel frame,’” said Robert Rayborn, a contractor for Barton Malow at the time. In his office in Washington, Rayborn and his company’s estimator sat as an engineer produced steel-frame design after steel-frame design.
“My estimator would look at it and say, ‘That’s a million dollars more than the concrete,’” Rayborn recalled. “Finally, when he says, ‘that’s a half-million dollars more than the concrete,’ [Smith] says, ‘The Orioles will pay for that.’ We were in the middle of design development — which is 40% complete documents — when this decision to go to structural steel was made.”
That decision prompted a change: Rather than a single-bid general contractor, the Camden Yards project was broken into multiple packages, setting off a series of collaborations — and the occasional miscue. Because the property was so large, Camden Yards’ construction was split into four quadrants. Along the third base line, for instance, one contractor knew to install five steel light bays. Along the first base line, however, there were six light stanchions.
By the time an electrician arrived to wire the lighting, he was confused. There was an extra steel catwalk for lights in place, but no plan to attach spotlights to it.
“When we realized, it was like, ‘Ah, crap,’” Rayborn said. “They were already up. We talked to the stadium authority, and they said it was cheaper just to leave them there.”
So leave them there they did, a small blemish on a near-perfect stadium that still makes Rayborn laugh 30 years later.
Bob Wyatt, the project manager for Barton Malow, remembers his own secret, sitting in a scissor lift as Lucchino called down instructions over a radio from the owner’s box. Wyatt was adjusting the foul ball netting, and Lucchino didn’t want the cable blocking the sightline from the box.
“He would say, ‘Lower, lower, lower.’ We finally got it to the height Larry wanted, and it was below the lowest foul ball net in the major leagues,” Wyatt said. “I wasn’t going to do that. So I said, ‘Fine.’ And then I took it up a couple inches so we were not the lowest, and I never got called on it.”
In the rush to finish the ballpark before April 1992 — Opening Day — some of the incremental changes flashed by without sinking in, leaving those working on the project to not fully appreciate the success until later. And even now, with the ballpark standing three decades, there’s the apprehension that never leaves those who created it.
“People would say, ‘Gee, how do we know if this new ballpark is going to last longer than Memorial Stadium?’ Well, you don’t. You don’t have a crystal ball,” said Smith, who’s now the executive vice president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I always worried, it was such a profound question asked over and over and over again. I must confess that even as it turns 30, there’s still a little part of me holding my breath wondering, well, how old do you have to be before you can really relax and say, I made it? And maybe you never can.”
Moving downtown: David Wallace had no interest in delving into the politics that would surely come with any decision. The now-retired engineer for RK&K was included in a team charged with studying the transportation options surrounding four potential locations for a new Orioles stadium, part of a push to keep the MLB franchise in Baltimore in the aftermath of the Colts’ 1984 departure.
There was the option to renovate Memorial Stadium. There were two others south of the city, in Lansdowne and near what is now called BWI Marshall Airport. And then there was Camden Yards, a downtown location preferred by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Instead of making a recommendation, though, Wallace just laid out the facts.
“We simply said, here’s what you got to spend in order to make it work,” Wallace recalled. “Then we threw it back to the politicians.”
Placing the new stadium on the edge of downtown had benefits the others didn’t, allowing for easy access to the interstate and public transportation on top of the economic impact — more than $10 billion in the past 30 years, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority.
There were skeptics among the fan base, though, daunted by the change in location and worried about traffic in and out of downtown. David Chapin, a former representative for the Maryland Department of Transportation who oversaw the transportation initiatives around Camden Yards, formed a public relations push.
He took out half- and full-page advertisements in The Sun to raise awareness of the light rail, park-and-ride buses and commuter rail trains. There was a concerted effort to expand sidewalks between Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, promoting fans to visit nearby businesses. He ran a campaign coined: “Route, route, route for the home team.”
And as concern proliferated that traffic for an April 3, 1992, exhibition game would rival the knots that formed at Memorial Stadium, the non-driving options proved a hit. The lead paragraph from The Sun the next morning?
“Traffic?” it read. “What traffic?”
Saving the warehouse: From a practical sense — the one Wyatt, as a contractor, employs above any other — demolishing the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field wall was the correct option. With all the upkeep required to revitalize the old building, renovating it into office space, knocking it down and building a new structure would’ve been cheaper.
But even after a cost-benefit analysis and explaining the limitations of the floor plan, the connection to the structure outweighed Wyatt’s practicality.
“Did I appreciate what we were doing at the time?” Wyatt said. “No, I did not.”
Wyatt wasn’t alone, either. John Steadman, a longtime Baltimore sports writer then with The Evening Sun, also criticized the decision to refurbish the warehouse. In a column, Steadman wrote that the warehouse was a “rat-infested fire hazard, and therefore it should come down.”
“To be fair, when you get criticized from someone of that stature, it erodes your confidence a bit,” Smith said. “We were always a bit anxious about it.”
But looking back, saving the warehouse was an integral piece in creating the intimate, urban setting of Camden Yards.
The mortar was cut out from every brick of the exterior a half-inch deep, with new mortar needed to replace it. The north end of the building leaned out 18 inches, so they added expansion joints to the structure. The floors were replaced, with concrete added to the wood structure.
In addition, the playing field was excavated about 10 feet, Wallace said, allowing for the stadium to rest at a proportional level with the warehouse, creating a sense of unity between the structures.
And as the ballpark came together, Wyatt began to understand why the warehouse had to stay.
“When you’re sitting almost anywhere in the stadium,” Wyatt said, “you get this view of the warehouse in the background, and it’s just magnificent.”
“I personally feel like [razing the warehouse] would’ve destroyed the whole feel of that stadium,” added Rick Dempsey, a catcher in the Orioles Hall of Fame.
It’s the brick and the steel, the downtown skyline and the clock atop the scoreboard. It all mattered.
“It’s Baltimore,” said Rick Vaughn, the public relations manager for the Orioles at the time. “If you were dropped from the sky and you were touched down on second base and you were blindfolded, and you took that blindfold off, you would say, ‘Yep, this is Baltimore.’ It’s as close to perfection as I think you can get, and 30 years later, I think the proof is in the pudding.”
The small details: The presentation was everything. David Ashton created a pocket folder with a green trim, akin to the metalwork seen in Baltimore. He placed an old Orioles logo on the cover, completing an elaborate portfolio for the Camden Yards project.
But after creating the pocket folder, the real issue began.
“What am I going to put in it?” Ashton recalled thinking.
He had never done anything of this scale. Smith turned to the designer because time was winding down on outfitting signage at Camden Yards, and Ashton had created a nice brochure about suites at the stadium months earlier. The largest project he had worked on was a street sign advertising a new subdivision.
And yet, when Smith sought a bit of creativity to complete the small details of Oriole Park, Ashton’s out-of-the-box thinking was just what she wanted. She remembered bringing him on a tour months earlier, watching as Ashton sketched the whole way with a pad and pen what the scoreboard might look like and other features. Still, he’d never completed such a proposal before.
“I didn’t have any clue,” Ashton said. “I stuck it in one pocket. And then I said, ‘I know what to do.’ I took the sketches. I Xeroxed them on my Xerox machine and I hand-colored each one and I stuck it in the other pocket.”
When he arrived at Smith’s office, he was grateful she wasn’t there. He left the portfolio on her desk and bolted. “I was scared to death,” Ashton laughed.
And he won the bid.
It was Ashton’s imagination that helped Camden Yards feel complete. The weather vanes on top of the scoreboard. The sculptures depicting the retired numbers. The ushers’ uniforms. The logos emblazoned on the end of each row.
It extended to his design of the stadium’s name above the home plate entrance. But as he planned out the stainless steel lettering, the bid from a sign manufacturer landed well over budget. And while an alternate option was to make the lettering out of foam, Ashton cringed at the idea. He scrambled for a solution and remembered a blacksmith in rural Pennsylvania who made hardware at Ashton’s farmhouse.
Ashton pitched the idea to Tom Smith, and Rayborn went to investigate how feasible it was for a blacksmith who never had worked with stainless steel before to create 6-foot-tall lettering.
“‘Y’all buy me the piece of stainless steel and give me a couple weeks and let me see if I can make one of those letters,’” the blacksmith told Rayborn.
The process was rigorous, taking four days to complete each letter. But he came in at a third of the price, enough for the general contractors to take a risk. They compared one of the blacksmith’s letters with a foam letter from the sign company.
“There was no comparison,” Ashton said. “They really are like jewelry, these letters. Three hundred years from now, people will collect them.”
A legacy beyond Baltimore: In a spare moment during the Orioles’ series in Milwaukee at the beginning of the 1991 season, Vaughn rented a car and drove south to the White Sox’s new Comiskey Park. He hoped to learn something from the opening of another stadium — that one more of a concrete doughnut, the last before the wave of retro parks.
“I remember leaving there, and the first thing I said to Larry when I got back is, ‘We are going to blow them away,’” Vaughn said.
The goal was never to alter the direction of baseball’s ballparks. Janet Marie Smith emphasized her desire to make a stadium Baltimore could be proud of. But the dominoes that unwittingly began at Camden Yards soon followed, with Coors Field in Denver and PNC Park in Pittsburgh following its lead.
Now, that pioneer stadium is 30 years old. And yet, even after all that time, the mystique remains.
“The true baseball fans,” Dempsey said, “they just never want to go home.”
Reach Steve Heiser at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ydsports.