A quarter-century later, Larry Lucchino can be self-deprecating about a vision that ushered in a new era of ballpark construction.
“I tell everyone I’ve had one good, original idea in my 38 years in baseball,” said Lucchino, whose career as an executive has included stints with Baltimore, San Diego and Boston. “It was to build a traditional, old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities, intimacy and irregularity.”
It sounds so simple the way Lucchino describes it, and he insists the Orioles weren’t trying to set any sweeping trends when they opened their new ballpark 25 years ago. That’s exactly what happened, though. Oriole Park at Camden Yards became the model for a period of groundbreaking transformation in the way baseball venues were built.
Over two-thirds of all major-league teams now play in facilities that opened in 1992 or later, part of a ballpark boom that has changed how fans and players experience the game — and has led to some contentious debate over how to pay for it all.
Three years before the Orioles opened their new park, the Toronto Blue Jays began playing at SkyDome, a futuristic stadium with a retractable roof and a hotel overlooking the field. For Baltimore, Lucchino wanted something more understated.
“We didn’t let people use the ‘stadium’ word — the s-word,” said Lucchino, who was president of the Orioles from 1988-1993. “We fined anybody five bucks if he called it a stadium, because to us, it was a ballpark. The word had a different connotation.”
Located downtown and built just for baseball, Camden Yards was a departure from the trend of multipurpose venues that seemed largely indistinguishable from each other. The B&O Warehouse beyond right field made Oriole Park instantly recognizable — like Wrigley Field’s ivy or Fenway Park’s Green Monster — and although the ballpark’s simplicity was part of its appeal, it included some innovations that improved the spectator experience.
“You never knew where a good idea might bubble up,” said Janet Marie Smith, an architect and urban planner who served as vice president of planning and development for the Orioles and oversaw the ballpark’s design and construction. “It was in a fan forum that someone said, ‘Why don’t you elevate the bullpens beyond the outfield fence so every fan can see who’s warming up?'”
The Orioles drew over 3.5 million fans in the first season at Camden Yards, increasing their attendance by 40 percent from the previous year. Baltimore drew at least 3 million in each of its first 10 seasons at the new park, with the exception of strike-shortened 1994.
In that 1994 season, Jacobs Field opened in downtown Cleveland. It was designed by HOK Sport, the same firm that worked on Camden Yards. (HOK is now called Populous, and Jacobs Field is now Progressive Field.)
The Indians enjoyed an attendance bump of their own as they began a mid-1990s renaissance that would result in two American League pennants. The Texas Rangers also opened a new park in ’94, and the Colorado Rockies followed suit the next year.
Across the majors, teams wanted to replicate Baltimore’s success. From 1992-2012, a total of 21 new parks opened. When there were no additions to that list from 2013-16, it was the first time since Camden Yards opened that even two consecutive seasons had passed without a new ballpark.
“The wave of new ballparks has dramatically improved the fan experience in terms of access, sight lines, food options and a variety of other issues,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an email. “These new ballparks have allowed baseball to ride a wave of record attendance that has improved the economics of all 30 clubs.”
When Lucchino moved on to the Padres, he was a driving force behind their new ballpark. Smith, meanwhile, helped turn the main stadium from the Atlanta Olympics into a baseball park, and the Braves began playing there in 1997. Atlanta is moving into a new home in the suburbs this season.
Lucchino and Smith both ended up in Boston, where they oversaw improvements to Fenway Park that included new seats atop the Green Monster. Lucchino, who had looked to Fenway as inspiration for Camden Yards, had come full circle.
“We used Camden Yards as a model for Boston by saying, ‘We want some of the modern amenities that exist at Camden Yards up here,'” said Lucchino, who is now the chairman of Boston’s minor league affiliate in Pawtucket. “The old-fashioned stuff came from Fenway to Baltimore, and the modern amenities and the newness came from Baltimore to Boston.”
THE BALLPARK EXPERIENCE
As much as fans have come to appreciate a traditionalist approach to designing ballparks, there’s still room for more exotic attractions. Putting seats on the Green Monster is one thing, but at Arizona’s Chase Field, there’s a swimming pool beyond the outfield fence. That’s the type of idea that might have fit back at SkyDome, when the Blue Jays seemed eager to test the limit of what could reasonably be added to a baseball stadium.
Now called Rogers Centre, SkyDome made its own mark on the sport. Five other current ballparks also have retractable roofs. The only remaining dome without one is Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays have played since their inaugural season in 1998. The stadium actually opened in 1990.
When it comes to the “modern amenities” Lucchino talks about, fans aren’t the only constituents who can benefit. Players notice when their work environment improves.
“It’s a home away from home. You get a chance to go to (Philadelphia’s) Citizens Bank Park, and you walk in and the clubhouse is huge, and you get the hot tub, the cold tub and the pool where you can swim,” said Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs, who played in the majors from 1992-2011. “You always look forward to going to those new ballparks, with the brand-new locker rooms.”
DEBATE OVER FUNDING
While new parks can benefit players, owners and spectators, they require huge financial commitments — a thorny issue that isn’t going away any time soon. The use of public money in sports has caused a lot of tension over the years. By the time Marlins Park opened in 2012 in Miami, it had been at the center of all sorts of controversy, and the opening was delayed a year because of a lawsuit challenging the ballpark’s financing package. The team prevailed in court.
The Braves, who began playing at Turner Field only two decades ago, already have a new ballpark. The 2017 season will be their first at SunTrust Park in Cobb County. The county contributed about $400 million in public funding.
Last year in Arlington, Texas, voters approved public funding for a new retractable-roof stadium for the Rangers.
“It looks to me that we’re entering an environment where at least owners and the people who can extract the subsidies are saying 15 to 20 years is the useful life of these facilities,” said Brad Humphreys, an economics professor at West Virginia University whose expertise includes sports economics. “If that’s the case then this boom of construction from the ’90s, those stadiums are going to be considered obsolete in 10 years. It is frightening when you look at the size of the subsidies we’re giving out the last 20 years.”
The lesson from Atlanta’s experience is that not every new park is going to be a long-term success story. With so many ballparks being built, some are bound to be more forgettable than others — especially when the style of Camden Yards has been mimicked so extensively.
“I don’t have a crystal ball that’s any better than anyone else’s, but I can tell you that one of the biggest concerns I had when we were working on Camden Yards is: Would it stand the test of time?” said Smith, who now works in the front office for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I can tell you I certainly feel easier about that question, now that 25 years has passed.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.