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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Take Me Out to Camden Yards

Welcome to a special weekend edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.

BALLPARK: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
HOME TEAM: Baltimore Orioles
VISITS: 7, plus a tour
FIRST VISITED: April 26, 1994
CHRONOLOGY: 10th of 34
RANKING: 2nd of 34

Best ballgame you can go to? All things being equal, the one you sneak away to. Say a Tuesday afternoon. That’s daytime. That’s midweek. That’s when nobody’s supposed to be at a ballgame, yet somehow you show up and everybody’s there. Or not that many are there. But at least you’re there, if you’ve done your sneaking correctly.

If you do your sneaking to the right ballpark, it stays with you forever.

***

My right ballpark, when considered in every context possible, is not an unvarnished success story. Its unveiling foreshadowed or perhaps confirmed for us as sports fans some unfortunate facts of life. It plowed under and paved over aspects of the fan experience that used to be instantly accessible to us. In its wake, imitation would become the sincerest form of flattery — and if you imitate anything enough, the sensation attached to the original tends to flatten out around the facsimiles’ edges.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, entering its twentieth season, can be seen as having left a few pockmarks within the greater ballpark psyche. But when viewed through the prism of a shockingly hot Tuesday afternoon in its third season, it was too good to be true.

Yet it was true.

***

First person I knew of to experience Camden Yards filed a glowing report:

Here’s the park at last — a low red brick façade, broken by archways. It faces on Camden Street for a distance, then bends away, paralleling the third-base line, toward home. Steel vertical beams, set back above the street wall, rise to a narrow green sunroof along the upper deck. Above that are light towers and flags (the flags stirring a bit), yet my eye, I notice, does not climb upward as this stadium draws closer but follows it horizontally, arch to arch. No dome here, no beetling concrete cyclotron over our heads. This is a pavilion — a park, right here in the city.

Goodness, how my special correspondent whetted my appetite to follow in his footsteps through downtown Baltimore. Never mind that this fellow wrote of a game that hadn’t taken place in a ballpark that was still being built. And make what you will of the identity of my guru in this matter: Roger Angell, writing in the New Yorker in the spring of 1990. Angell may have invented the circumstances, but he knew what was coming two years hence. The Orioles were building a ballpark like no other.

Or like every ballpark mythically used to be built. Either way, it promised to be different and I had never been so enticed by something that had yet to exist. It would take two years for Oriole Park at Camden Yards to open, and two years beyond that for my first of several pilgrimages. That’s four years of waiting and wanting.

The anticipation was worth every salivating second.

***

You don’t need to be Roger Angell to know the game changed once Camden Yards broke the seal on its wrought iron gates.

What game? Every game.

Look around your ballpark, Mets fans. Look around each and every ballpark that’s opened or been renovated since 1992. There is an element of Oriole Park at Camden Yards evident everywhere, from Cleveland and Arlington (1994) all the way through Minneapolis (2010). If there’s not a direct architectural aping, it’s a sense of striving for what OP@CY accomplished so brilliantly. When you see a ballpark trying to incorporate some or all of the innate qualities we instinctively associate with the ideal baseball stadium — urban; intimate; old-timey — you’re looking at the coast-to-coast legacy of Camden Yards.

No ballpark, with the possible exception of steel & concrete pioneer Shibe Park, has had as pervasive and positive an impact on the baseball landscape as Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It hasn’t been twenty years since its first game, but we can probably add enduring to that list, too. Everything is going to resemble or imply the influence of Camden Yards for at least the next couple of generations (though I can’t wait to hear from the first post-Camden occupant who insists, “We can’t realistically compete in an outmoded 1990s/2000s facility.”)

The r-word eventually has to be broached in this discussion, because it has become something of an insult. When Camden Yards introduced it to our vocabulary, however, “retro” was not at all a bad thing, not when one considered what was being reached back to…and what was being reached over.

Camden Yards sounded the death knell for the multipurpose stadium. It absolutely killed circularity. No more round and pound. No more plopping down spaceships and laying in carpet. No more enormity. A lot less distance. An intangible feel for the game.

Some of Camden’s descendants have probably outdone Camden for nailing the retro ethic. That’s reasonable — somebody starts something, others pick up on it and hopefully improve it. Some of those who have come along in Camden’s wake, however, have missed the target. They’ve made retro come off as a little stale and a little same. The Veterans Stadium/Three Rivers/Riverfront crowd was labeled cookie-cutter. You get to enough of the newer ballparks, and there seems to be a bit of Pillsbury to their essence, too.

The prevailing wind may not be ideal, but it’s almost never awful. The game changed for the better, thanks to Camden Yards. Twenty-nine imitators would dull the overall effect, but it beats the pre-Camden world in which most of us grew up.

There was everything before Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and there is everything after. We didn’t need retrospect or hindsight to figure it out, either. One look at Camden Yards, and we had to know that everything we understood about going to a baseball game was up for grabs.

The old ballpark was dead. Long live the new ballpark.

And long live its endless warehouse as well.

***

By the spring of 1994, I could wait no longer. I had read Angell. I had watched highlights of its first actual game on April 6, 1992 from the Delta Shuttle departure lounge at National Airport in Washington. It was a local story for them. Lucky stiffs — Baltimore was so close. Standing around outside Shea on a Sunday morning in June 1993 (the day Anthony Young would make the wrong kind of history for the Mets) and waiting for Gate C to open, I purchased that year’s All-Star Game program. They didn’t usually sell it and I never would have bought it except the All-Star Game was going to be at Camden Yards, meaning the program was all about Camden Yards. My appetite was whetted more. Diagrams! They have diagrams from their planning! And pictures!

Same summer, I bought a book called Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream, by Peter Richmond. It wasn’t hagiographic, but with its detailed reporting on how OP@CY came to be, it did nothing to cool my smoldering Oriole desire. Stephanie and I took our vacation in Toronto in ’93, but as our heads craned and our eyes squinted at SkyDome, my heart remained set on Camden.

It was all hearts and flowers for Camden Yards those first couple of years, with sellouts the rule. The only Orioles fan I actually knew was presumably in the crowd plenty. His name was Bob, someone I’d gotten to know professionally in D.C. I was so excited when that New Yorker article came out, I faxed it to him immediately. He appreciated the idea of the new park, he said, but Memorial Stadium is such a great place to watch a ballgame — had I ever been there? I had not.

Well, he said, you’ve got to go. It’s really special.

I never got to Memorial Stadium. Never gave it much thought. Memorial Stadium was a staple of postseasons when I was a kid — it was where the Mets played 40% of their first World Series — but it never did anything for me on TV. I wouldn’t have minded seeing it, but it was never a priority.

Camden was. A void the size of its warehouse was growing in my soul the longer I had to wait.

***

Washington would be my salvation. Something was always going on in Washington that I could cover, particularly in spring. Part of my beverage magazine beat was trade associations, most of which were headquartered in our nation’s capital (near the people who made the laws, so they could be convinced to make fewer of them). I checked the calendar and sure enough, the group that looked out for beer wholesalers’ interests was getting together in late April. I was covering their meeting in 1992, the day Camden commenced to being.

And would ya look at who else was getting together at the same time? The Orioles and the Athletics, just a little up the road in Baltimore. As impossible as it was billed to score a pair of tickets to an O’s game, maybe just one ticket wouldn’t be that difficult…

It wasn’t. I called Ticketmaster and, yup, a single could be had for Tuesday afternoon, the 26th. Pick it up at Will Call.

A Tuesday afternoon. Daytime. Midweek. Camden Yards. Me. There.

Sentences failed me, but the words were coalescing. I could do this! I could really go to Camden Yards!

I bought the ticket and then quickly reminded my editor that those beer wholesalers are having their legislative conference on the 25th, a Monday, and I better get down to Washington…yeah, the 25th and the, uh, 26th. Yup, I have to be out of the office on the 26th, no doubt about it. Big doings.

Very big doings.

***

Maybe it was because our magazine was based relatively close to LaGuardia, but the Delta Shuttle was my regular mode of transportation when I was D.C.-bound. Amtrak would become a part of my thinking in later years. For now, my challenge was weaving together a magnificent tapestry of logistics that involved air travel (and, you know, covering that meeting).

This is how it went down:

• Monday afternoon, fly to D.C.
• Monday evening, check in at hotel, cover reception.
• Tuesday morning, cab it to meeting, cab it back to hotel.
• Later Tuesday morning, check out of hotel, take the famed Washington Metro to Union Station.
• Check bag into coin-operated locker (which I don’t think they have anymore, but these were more innocent times).
• Purchase round-trip ticket for the MARC — Maryland Area Regional Commuter — train on the…get this…Camden Line.
• Contain excitement while boarding train.

There was a train that promised to roll you from Washington to not just Baltimore, but to Camden Yards itself. Made sense — the site for the ballpark had been a hub of activity for the B&O Railroad in the 19th century. President Lincoln’s body made a stop there as part of his long, sad procession home to Illinois in 1865. The warehouse that so dominated every image of Camden Yards was the B&O Warehouse. Longest building on the East Coast, it was described (impressive, if not exactly one of those distinctions you’d ever thought about before).

I took the LIRR to Shea regularly back in New York, so it wasn’t a terribly mysterious process, the train to the game thing, yet I was wandering into completely foreign territory as a commuter…it was like I was infiltrating somebody else’s routine. I rather relished that.

And a train, the old-time conveyance connected to baseball’s past, connecting me to the ballpark that promised to evoke sepia-toned nostalgia in living red-brick color. Wow. Washington was reasonably close to Baltimore, but the ride was scheduled to take an hour — not exactly Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” down the spine of middle America, but definitely putting me in mind of it.

The sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpets
Made of steel


Yes, a magic carpet this MARC train. This, I knew, is how you make your maiden voyage to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

***

The conductor sings his song again — or blares out his apparently time-tested shtick in which he warns all daytripping Washingtonians that when it comes to drinking, the passengers will please refrain. Ain’t NO alcohol allowed as we glide into Maryland. That includes everything distributed by my long-ditched beer-wholesaling buddies (spending their glorious Tuesday lobbying legislators back on Capitol Hill) and anything stronger than cough syrup. To punctuate his reading of the riot act, the conductor’s got a closer that could give Lee Smith a run for his money:

“NO MAI-TAIS! NO YOUR-TAIS!”

Maybe the issue of imbibing came up on previous MARC runs, but not ours. We weren’t brimming with booze, or all that many people, even. A Tuesday afternoon. Daytime. Midweek. Not everybody was ditching his Inside-the-Beltway responsibilities. I wasn’t ditching mine, either. I was simply detouring before returning to them. And I was totally enjoying the ride.

“No Mai-Tais. No your-tais.” I’ll bet the conductor was really proud of that.

***

When your MARC train pulls into the last stop on the Camden Line — Camden Station — you are deposited behind the B&O Warehouse. Up top, it has a message painted in white and orange letters:

WELCOME TO
ORIOLE PARK
at
CAMDEN YARDS

Y’know what, though? Until I did a search to confirm what it said, I swear I remembered it saying this:

WELCOME HOME

It may as well have. I stepped off the train at Camden Yards, and I felt as home as I’ve ever felt in a place I’d never been before.

I was at the ballpark. The only ballpark I could imagine.

***

“They got it right,” I heard myself tell myself. “They got it right.” The previous several years in which I read ballpark books and stared at ballpark illustrations and collected the postcards issued by an art house that specialized in ballpark prints…it was all leading to this journey, to this moment, to this ballpark.

“They got it right.” I don’t know how many times I whispered it. I don’t believe I ever stopped thinking it the entire day.

I began thinking it the second I got off the train. I kept thinking it as I soaked in the warehouse (the one the architects originally wanted to tear down; dopes) and the gorgeous, gorgeous brick façade of the park itself. Bricks have become a cliché when we talk about the retro style, but it was new to me in 1994 and new as a defining characteristic to all of baseball in the modern era.

They got it right!

The Will Call window required more I.D. than I was used to. I’m surprised I didn’t have to produce a birth certificate. Gentleman who requested my consumer credentials explained, “Tickets are so hard to come by, we have to make sure.” I didn’t have a problem with that. I didn’t have a problem standing in a relatively long line to have my ticket torn. I wasn’t thrilled when, because I didn’t know my way around, I was barked at by an usherette who told me I was in the wrong line (the short one) for the escalator (to the fancier seats), and that I needed to get in the right line (the long one) for the Terrace level (the less fancy seats), but I more or less let it go (except that I remember it more than sixteen years later).

Did I mention they got Oriole Park at Camden Yards right? That even with the slightly overdone name — does anybody who isn’t paid to actually call it Oriole Park? — and the implied (or not so subtly explicit) sense of class separation, that it was just the right place to be on that Tuesday afternoon? That the Baltimore skyline, accented by the Bromo Seltzer tower, complemented the Baltimore ballpark as if somebody took everything into account? That there was milling and teeming on the street between the park and the warehouse that was somehow part of the ballpark but was also a city street? Eutaw Street…they incorporated it into the footprint. Co-oped it during game hours, but it was open the rest of the time to pedestrians, just like the team store in the warehouse.

There was a team store in the warehouse! Of course there was, why wouldn’t there be, but again, this seemed revolutionary for my pre-Camden mentality. All the interesting food stands and beer stands and Boog’s Barbecue — why had not this been thought of before? Or if it had been thought of, why was it not executed anywhere else?

And how about that field? The angles of the outfield wall! And the ads for Coca-Cola and Budweiser that could have been from the first part of the century! And people….people, everywhere. People happy to have snuck away from wherever they were supposed to be on the sunniest Tuesday afternoon in the history of sunny Tuesday afternoons.

My seat, in short right, was not bad. Not bad at all, especially in light of demand. Camden Yards was where everybody wanted to be, yet I could be in not the worst seat in the house. Did this house have a worst seat? I looked all over the place: the sea of green seats; the thousand and one perfect touches (the end of each row, for example, incorporated the 1890s Baltimore Orioles logo into its grillwork); and the green grass (not a detail to be taken for granted while the Vet, et al, still stood); and the way you could see the bullpens (they weren’t hidden like I was used to); and this marriage of urban setting and National Pastime…

Christ, it’s like they thought of everything.

***

The home team won that Tuesday. Would’ve been wrong for them not to. Arthur Rhodes (not yet ageless) threw a complete game victory. Brady Anderson launched two home runs. I got up for long stretches — nice folks from West Virginia agreed to watch my shoulder bag for me so I wouldn’t have to schlep it everywhere — to explore and take pictures. It was the most photogenic ballpark ever built, I was sure. I went midgame to that team store. Dropped quite a few bucks in there. Had to try a crab cake sandwich. A few more bucks. Had to try views from Boog’s patio. The O’s-A’s result wasn’t of paramount concern to me, but I was able to follow it in the men’s room, where they piped in Jon Miller’s WBAL play-by-play.

They did think of everything!

The Orioles drew 47,565 that day. It was announced we had teamed to set a new Camden Yards weekday afternoon attendance record. Good for us! Good for us being smart enough, clever enough, highly prioritized enough to be the 47,565 who composed this crowd. You had to hand it to us — we had great taste in ballparks.

***

The southbound MARC would be out behind the warehouse after the game. It wouldn’t glide toward Union Station until a half-hour after the last pitch, the timetable said, but my commuter instinct kicked in and I exited the park in the eighth just to be sure. I still had an hourlong trip to Washington, the fetching of my luggage in that locker and then the jumping on a Metro to National Airport. My car was sitting in the Delta Shuttle lot at LaGuardia, so flying was back on my agenda.

I wasn’t damning the roundabout logistics, however. I got a good eight innings in. And I was warm all over. It was a blissful summer’s day in late April. I couldn’t have asked for more, except for the trains and planes to do their thing, and that they did.

It was all good as Baltimore disappeared behind my MARC. I was so sated from Camden Yards. It was so worth the wait and so worth the planning. I had no tangible complaints and not a regret in the world, not after spending that Tuesday afternoon at a place I’d all but dreamed of for four years.

***

The spell broke after I landed at LaGuardia, after I got my car, after I began driving home on the Grand Central. Heading east, en route to the Whitestone Expressway, I saw a real downer.

I saw Shea Stadium. It was where my team would be playing the San Diego Padres that night, and it wasn’t Camden Yards.

Everything changed after Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore. I had now seen what a ballpark could be, and it had made me way less appreciative of the charms of Shea. I had thought about turning off the Grand Central on the way home for the novelty of two games in two parks in one day, but I’m glad I didn’t. I probably would have resented Shea’s very existence. As it was, I was back out there the following Sunday, and all I could notice was how low and cramped and dark everything seemed inside. Camden was so bright and airy and hopeful. Shea was just relentlessly Shea.

In the wake of April 26, 1994, that wasn’t a compliment.

***

Once you’ve been to Camden Yards, the only ballpark you want to see next is Camden Yards. Circumstances conspired nicely on my behalf for the next five years and allowed me at least one visit per year through the end of the decade.

The first time, in May of ’95, was on the heels of another Washington beer wholesalers conference. The Orioles weren’t home, but they gave tours, so that — and the presence of yet another in a serious of conveniently located craft brewers (I seemed to have one in every Major League city) — was a good enough excuse for an excursion. Stephanie was with me on this outing, which thrilled me because she’d been listening to me rave about Camden Yards for a solid year, starting with the night I returned from LaGuardia, trying to put the sight of Shea out of my mind. Now she’d get to see for herself why I was making such a fuss.

Stephanie was sold. I was re-sold. Even if the official tour guide version of Camden Yards was a little off (ours didn’t seem to know local boy Babe Ruth began his professional career pitching for the minor league Baltimore Orioles in 1914) and even if they seemed a little too anxious to show us one of their pricey suites we’d never be leasing, it was fantastic. We got to go on the field and in the dugout…of Camden Bleeping Yards! I learned the area beyond the outfield where ivy was sprouting overlooked a sod farm. When they needed to replace some grass, they would have it right where they needed it.

The sod farm at Camden Yards, I decided, was where I wanted at least half my ashes scattered. I think I still do.

We stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn one couldn’t help but pick out in the backdrop of all the ballpark pictures; it was the round building that seemed a little out of place, built (probably) in the ’60s when modernity was doing its number on stadium construction. But it was within walking distance of OP@CY (an AOLism, FYI) and it gave a great return view. Throughout the night, I’d get out of bed and open the curtain just to stare at Camden Yards. Just to make sure it didn’t disappear.

***

The following summer produced yet another urgent visit to the same craft brewer, one that would mesh with an Orioles home game. By then, my old Long Beach friend Fred was established as a researcher for Johns Hopkins and, not insignificantly, could regularly lay his hands on the lab’s season tickets. He suggested Stephanie and I come down for a Friday night game, and before the invitation was out of his mouth, we were in town.

Our first night game at Camden Yards. Still great. Don’t get me wrong, it was Camden Yards. Anytime was a good time. But, I dunno, it was a little less special. The Orioles were having a playoff season, and they were playing the Indians, who were in juggernaut mode. Good game on paper, but it took place mostly in the stratosphere. Home runs were being whacked left and right. Seven dingers, 23 runs total, 33 hits (offense in 1996; go figure). Camden Yards had been transformed into the frenzied confines, with 46,751 — to use a Fredism — going nuts.

It was exciting, to a point. And then it was numbing. And then it was too loud. Every Oriole home run was greeted by the Quad City DJ’s smash hit from that summer:

Come on ride the train!
(Woo-woo!)
Hey ride it…

This train was noisier than my MARC train from 1994. Everything about Camden Yards was noisier than from 1994. It was practically ear-splitting.

It didn’t need to be.

***

Fred was the right Baltimorean in the right place again in 1997 when the Mets were suddenly on the Orioles’ schedule. I couldn’t miss their first appearance in the vicinity since 1969, and Fred grabbed these Friday tickets for us. John Franco gave up the decisive hit to Cal Ripken in the twelfth; I discovered the best ballpark going wasn’t so great when your team loses there. I returned the next day solo and sat in a non-Hopkins seat for big Mets win, which was swell as all get-out, though I determined that seats up in the left field nosebleeds at Camden Yards aren’t all that intimate. The Mets swung through Charm City again in ’98, so I joined Fred again. It was all good until a torrential rain brought the tarp down on the field. This time I found out Camden Yards isn’t the best at handling tens of thousands of wet fans seeking dryness at the same time.

***

The Orioles’ brief run as an American League East contender halted in 1998 and has yet to reignite. Two trips to OP@CY since the Birds flew competitively south lessened the frenzy in their midst. Both of these drop-bys — 1999 versus the Twins; 2006 against the Athletics — restored a little dignity to Camden Yards in my judgment, though I imagine diehard Orioles fans would trade peace and quiet for another ride on the winning train. By now I wasn’t capable of being surprised by Camden, I didn’t think, but as it mellowed into adolescence, its grace was still extraordinary. You came at it or through it at just the right spot, and your breath was still taken away. They built it right and they built it in the right place.

I was also surprised that by 2006 it felt ever so slightly out-of-date. Not retro — aged. By then I’d been to the Camden 2.0’s, if you will: Pac Bell and PNC in particular. They were newer, they were more compact and efficient and they may have been prettier.

But they weren’t first. Camden owns that into eternity.

***

There’s a less wonderful legacy Camden Yards has given us, though I’m reluctant to bring it up considering how much beauty it enveloped me in that Tuesday in 1994. With Camden in operation, there was a clear message that the ballpark was not really designed any longer for spur-of-the-moment, cheap dates. The Orioles didn’t invent sports as business  but their ballpark showed the industry that even the most sparkling setting for the grand old game could double as a cash register.

Everything at Camden Yards cost more than it seemed to cost at Shea. You weren’t dutybound to buy it, but who wants to not try that crab cake or take home that Camden Green sweatshirt? I’ve always been grateful for the warehouse gift shop employee who advised Stephanie and me on our 1995 tour to buy the batteries we needed for our camera at a nearby CVS where it would be significantly less expensive. It was a very standup thing to do that I couldn’t and can’t imagine a Mets “sales associate” doing if there were a CVS on 126th Street…but why did a package of batteries have to carry such an insane markup in the first place? Why did everything have to make you gulp before you bought it? On a larger scale, why was everybody so crazy about suites? They were the excuse every team owner threw around to bully some fiscally wary municipality into making with the helping hand — ’cause if ya don’t, we might find another city that will.

Camden Yards nailed the feel of a mythic ballpark in such exquisite fashion, that it seemed cruelly ironic that it also made baseball a less and less essential part of going to a baseball game. I was delighted to prowl the premises in 1994, and it was nice to have somewhere to take a walk with Stephanie when she got a bit restless by the fifth or sixth inning in 1996. Yet the more time I spent away from my seat was the less time I spent watching Cal Ripken or Chris Hoiles or any Oriole. Not that I cared about the Orioles, but I noticed I wasn’t alone in wandering the concourses and all. Orioles fans weren’t watching the Orioles 100% intently.

If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere. And it did as more Camdens, with more distractions and more amenities replaced the spartan stadia we were now rejecting en masse.

***

In 1979, when nobody was expecting it, the Orioles raced out to a big lead in their division and held it all year. Memorial Stadium quaked, and nobody set it to rocking more than Wild Bill Hagy, a Baltimore cab driver who gained national fame that autumn leading the postseason crowds through his widely memorable gesticulations. Hagy was, Jonathan Yardley wrote in Sports Illustrated a year later, “the high priest of the Summer of ’79”:

He wore rather scruffy clothes, a very large cowboy hat, a full beard and a most prepossessing beer belly. After the crowd of 40,000 greeted him enthusiastically, he did something that completely baffled me: he contorted his ample body into a semaphore and physically spelled out O-R-I-O-L-E-S while the crowd obediently shouted out each letter.

Given Wild Bill’s esteemed place in Oriole lore, I was saddened when I read a quote from him during the O’s first couple of years at Camden, before I got there. You’d figure the ballpark that got it right would be ideal for the man who literally spelled out what it meant to be a fan of the team that played there. But it was not so. Hagy’s opinion of Camden Yards was, “At Memorial Stadium, it was ‘ain’t the beer cold?’ [Oriole announcer Chuck Thompson’s catchphrase]. At Camden Yards, it’s ‘isn’t the Chablis chilled?’”

It wasn’t my fight, but I couldn’t imagine, based on my poring over pictures and periodicals, that there was anything an Orioles fan wouldn’t love about Camden Yards. Hagy must be a loon, I decided. But in the midst of my OP@CY reverie on that first Tuesday afternoon, I now and then peeked up toward left field, the corresponding spot to where Hagy held court at Memorial Stadium, and I kind of got it. I got that maybe something innocent is lost within the just-so nature of a place that’s too good to be true.

I still get it.

***

In the spring of 1991, a year after all anybody had to go on were architects’ sketches and Roger Angell’s imagination, Camden Yards was literally coming together. The local reaction was not one universal set of oohs and aahs. As preserved in Peter Richmond’s Ballpark, John Steadman of the Baltimore Sun, the town’s iconic columnist, dismissed the whole retro concept as it was taking shape for real:

As incredulous as it seems, Baltimore is the only city in America that is actually trying to create an old stadium. If it’s being built to look old and rundown, we already have one of those…

Unfair as Steadman’s advance assessment reads, building a “retro” ballpark to replace an allegedly outdated ballpark was a pretty counterintuitive equation. It worked — it worked great — but you can’t blame the Hagys and his less famous acolytes if they felt a little left out and bewildered by a process that abandoned a sentimental favorite that had served the Orioles for 38 seasons (most of them splendid).

So why the hell did the Memorial Stadiums of the world have to be vacated? And by invoking Memorial Stadium, what I’m really getting at…what I suppose I’m always getting at…is why the hell did Shea Stadium have to go?

Whatever unkind thoughts I kindled of Shea on that drive home in 1994 wore off once it became apparent we would be, at last, getting our version of Camden Yards. Except it was clear to me it wouldn’t be Camden Yards, or Pac Bell Park, or PNC Park. We’d be getting one of the late-period knockoffs that was making retro look tired. We’d be picking up on a revolutionary 1992 concept just in time for Opening Day 2009.

On the other hand, I was fine with authentically old and rundown. We already had one of those.

The situations in Baltimore and Queens were not exactly analogous when it came to swapping out used for new. Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards resided in different parts of town. Memorial was a true neighborhood park; houses were just up the block. Camden rose downtown — an urbanologist’s ideal, perhaps, but maybe away from the Birds’ hardcore fan base. Still, there were genuine fears in Baltimore that the Orioles might move to Washington if they weren’t provided a new publicly funded nest. It was framed as urgent that Memorial Stadium be traded in for Camden Yards. That the aesthetic result was smashing generally went unchallenged.

The Mets in their last decade at Shea never threatened to leave New York and nobody seriously suggested they would. They didn’t leave Flushing, for that matter. But they did leave not just 45 seasons of memories for Acuras and Range Rovers to park upon but also a facility with loads of affordable seats. Shea wasn’t intimate, but you could get in there many nights for five bucks as late as the late 2000s. It could get costly, too, but costly wasn’t your only option, whereas Shea’s successor dares you to not spend money. (In a recession, as it happens.)

I went to baseball games in an unamenable, multipurpose horseshoe for 36 years, and there was no doubt we were all there for the baseball. I’ve been going to baseball games amid quirky outfield fences and kitschy bridges and sponsored porches for two years and I sometimes forget to watch the game.

The food’s unquestionably better at Citi Field. I’m still waiting for everything else that matters to me to catch up.

***

Not being an Orioles fan, I wouldn’t try to speak to their deep-seated yearnings or residual resentments, so I did the next best thing. I sought out my Orioles fan acquaintance from twenty years ago, Bob, the guy I knew from beverage circles. I told him I’ve been doing this countdown of ballparks throughout 2010, and that Camden Yards is way up high on my list, yet his 1990 endorsement of Memorial Stadium had stuck with me for two decades. Considering how much I still missed Shea, it had gained resonance.

What I wanted to know from Bob was, was Memorial Stadium still a factor in his thoughts? Could Camden ever erase the hold Memorial had on him? And (though I didn’t put it to him this way), would I ever get over Shea and really and truly take to Citi?

After Bob expressed his astonishment that I’d remember a stray conversation from twenty years earlier (and threw in a good-natured “boo on you” for the Mets sticking it to the O’s in 1969), he was kind enough to update his Baltimore ballpark thoughts for me.

Yes, he loved Memorial Stadium. Yes, it was the greatest day of his life when he was seven years old and entered it for the first time: “walking through that tunnel, people milling by, vendors hawking their wares, the green field” — it was its own kind of miracle on 33rd Street. And then the Orioles got good, followed by great. He idolized Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer. Why wouldn’t an Orioles fan of Bob’s vintage cherish Memorial Stadium?

“It was a magical place,” Bob attested, “because of the people who played there and the experiences you had there. The Wild Bill Hagys of the world, up in Section 34 spelling out ‘Orioles’ in a half-drunken stupor — and obviously the Colt games. It was a great place.”

The story didn’t end shielded in sainted recollection, however:

“Camden Yards gets built, and a few years pass and Memorial Stadium is still sitting there,” weeds popping up where opposing hitters once did, but now, as Bob put it, Baltimore “steals” the Cleveland Browns. They become the Ravens and will eventually get a new stadium of their own, practically next to Camden Yards. But until then, for a couple of years, “everybody gets to go back to Memorial Stadium.”

And?

“It was a dump.”

Bob didn’t love the Memorial Stadium of his youth any less, but there was no going back, no matter who was playing there temporarily. “It fell into disrepair,” he said of the Ravens’ 1996-97 stay. “We had gotten used to Camden Yards: spacious concourses, toilets working, sightlines. When we went back to Memorial Stadium, we had to sit on a metal bench.”

He and his Colt-deprived ilk coped uncomplainingly with the inconveniences. “After thirteen years [without football], we didn’t care,” Bob insisted. “We were happy there was a new team in town. But Memorial Stadium seemed a lot smaller, a lot colder. Not what you remember as a child and even as an adult.

That was Memorial Stadium.”

This lifetime loyal Orioles fan loves Camden Yards for all the reasons one would suspect: the “real sense of history”; the “certain ambiance woven in”; the attention to detail, including the creation of a color now officially known as Camden Green. Yet Bob acknowledged without much lobbying on my part that something was lost in the “transition” from Memorial Stadium.

“It became a cause célèbre,” Bob recalled of Camden’s novelty phase. “A lot of Washington influence: George Will, James Carville — much more button-down. It wasn’t as raucous, not as many ‘true baseball fans.’”

Memorial Stadium in its Hagyan heyday, he said, was where you could “walk in and plunk down five bucks and go sit in the upper deck and swill your own beer.” There were no suites there. At Camden Yards, especially when it was a scene (and when the Orioles were winning), it felt more like one big “corporate party,” where beer was darn expensive and for “cab drivers in cowboy hats, it was a brave new world.”

A box seat at Memorial Stadium, Bob said, was $3.25. These days, a game for two parents and two kids, “even if you don’t get the greatest seats,” is going to approach “a couple hundred bucks.” It’s a different atmosphere, with a different focus thanks to all the distractions, but Bob affirms — thirteen consecutive losing seasons notwithstanding — “it’s still a lot of fun.”

***

Thanks Bob for the insights only an Orioles fan of your texture could share.

Thanks O’s, for getting it right — you did more good than harm with your marvelous ballpark, no matter the brave new world of commerce and caste you may not have intended to unleash on the rest of us.

Thanks beer wholesalers. You have great products and fantastic timing.

Thanks MARC. No train ever took me to a better place or a brighter Tuesday.

And thanks, as ever, Roger Angell, for leading me to Baltimore via your Camden Yards of the mind:

The warning track makes four angled bends within the foul poles — a tough proposition for the outfielders. I gauge the different distances and then glance back at the right-field pole, just to my left. This is a hitters’ park, especially if you bat left. “Let’s grab another beer,” one of my companions says, but I linger a moment, savoring the sunshine and the look of the triple-decked, old-green stands all around, just now beginning to fill up, and the bunting hanging from the front of the mezzanine. This is a fans’ park, I think. They’ve done it at last.

6 comments to Take Me Out to Camden Yards

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by You Gotta Believe!, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: Camden Yards 1994: Welcome home, baseball. #Mets #Orioles #Ballparks http://wp.me/pKvXu-1XY [...]

  • And thanks, Greg, for the most thorough report on Camden since Steadman’s book, which I admittedly read after going to Camden Yards in its inaugural year (we crossed over state lines, following the vehicles of others, and finally ended up in the living room of someone I did not know to pay through the nose for distant seats in the outfield and didn’t know whether to kiss anyone’s hand or get ready for the FBI to bust in any minute). Having gone to school with tons of people from Balmur–and arriving at college the fall the O’s last won it all–I’ve always heard a lot of crowing about the ballclub. But it wasn’t like the obnoxious Redskins fans; there was something almost Mets-like among O’s fans. And they were just as delusional and obsessive. My one trip to Memorial Stadium it rained and the hot dogs were worse than Shea’s yet the ballpark was a little more interesting (kind of like County Stadium, another older cousin of Shea’s). I found reasons to visit friends for several years after Camden was built and a friend twice got us business seats in the first row behind the screen. You didn’t sit, you genuflected the entire game. I was thinking I owe my pals and Camden another visit. Your tale has me ready to start the trip today.

  • Dak442

    Greg, did 60 Minutes contact you to sit next to Marilu Henner for last night’s program?

  • [...] to Old Comiskey Park by Greg Prince on 24 December 2010 12:57 pm Welcome to the final edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been [...]