On a bleak January evening in 2002, two ambitious 18-year olds on winter break from college sprawled a U.S. map across a Cape Cod living room floor, sifted through a stack of ink-splotched MLB team schedules, and plotted a summer road trip for the ages: eleven games in eleven different ballparks in nine cities over ten days.
Over the last twelve summers, I’ve chipped away at my goal of seeing a home game in all 30 MLB cities. At press time, only one remains: Minneapolis. Today we review Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles.
I remember being very excited about the fourth stop on the road trip. Camden Yards was the one that started it all, “it” being a nation-wide ballpark construction boom, many quirky retro creations designed to emulate the new home of the Orioles. I wasn’t disappointed. Camden got it right on the first try: the green seats, the brick exterior and exposed steel, the old B&O Warehouse looming beyond right field; all give baseball in Baltimore a classic charm, regardless of the fate of the team on the field.
Despite being just 22 years old, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is now the 10th oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball. That’s how much of an impact its construction had. While Camden is smaller than its predecessor, Memorial Stadium, Baltimore baseball attendance nearly doubled with the new construction. Other teams, sharing their doughnut-shaped dwellings with football franchises, wanted in.
Peter Angelos, who ascended to owner of the team in 1993, deployed various general managers to execute a myopic strategy of contending for a pennant by importing veteran players. For a few years, the Orioles were really good. But after Jeffrey Maier, Albert Belle, and others contributed to a lengthy circling of the drain, Angelos shut his wallet and the Birds nested in the second division.
During my visit, I watched a Baltimore team, one that featured Melvin Mora hitting leadoff and Tony Batista in the cleanup spot, back Rodrigo Lopez (who would finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year vote in ’02) for his tenth win of the season. The place wasn’t full for a Friday night, but it was a magnificent evening for baseball. At one point I ventured over to Eutaw Street, which runs parallel to right field, to look at the bricks marking where a few dozens players had smashed long home runs over the years. Look out, Boog Powell‘s sausage cart! I also bought a Jay Gibbons jersey tee, which received a few compliments over the years until the redheaded slugger landed on the Mitchell Report.
Lopez, the winner of the game I attended, crashed and burned like many Orioles hopefuls of that era, eventually leading the league in losses, twice.
In recent years, amazingly, former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette has found redemption in Baltimore, building a contender and bringing Birds fans back to the park, with over two million in attendance each of the last two seasons.
Oriole Park at Camden Yards sits squarely in my top five of the stadiums I’ve visited. Another recommendation: if you have the opportunity, visit the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum nearby. Not only is it the home of the Baltimore native known as The Great Bambino, it also pays tribute to the city’s rich sporting history, including Johnny Unitas and the Colts.