I spent the 50’s in New York’s iconic and since demolished ballparks. The 60’s were all about Shea. And I started the 70’s drinking beer with my buddies at the “Mistake by the Lake.”
In the 80’s and 90’s, largely due to the nature of my job, I traveled a lot to cities in the U.S. These were cities where my employer had offices and more often than not they were major league cities. I visited stadiums n Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. I went to Atlanta and Pittsburgh and saw baseball in Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston and Denver.
Along the way I added a couple more “favorite teams.” One played in the best ballpark in baseball. The other in arguably the worst.
I went to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore a couple times. For me it was memorable mostly for the bumper-to-bumper parking lots. I was fascinated by the fact that you seemed to be able to get out of the bumper-to-bumper lots in Baltimore faster than the more modern sort of lots where you park between the lines and drive in aisles. Of course if you wanted to leave in say the sixth inning, you were screwed.
If you think of the things that changed baseball in the last few decades what first comes to mind might be money or steroids or TV. But in terms of positive impact on fan experience, nothing was more important than the opening in 1992 of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Think of the state of baseball stadiums at that time. They were mostly giant oval concrete structures. ”All purpose” stadiums, very utilitarian and utterly characterless. Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Riverfront in Cincinnati. The sheer size of these structures (some had seating capacities in excess of 60,000) combined with the oval shape that didn’t correspond to the baseball diamond, assured that there was not a good seat in the house.
Also, following the urban flight and blight of the late 60’s and 70’s, many stadiums began to be built outside the city, in suburbs, maybe even atop landfills. There was nothing around. No strip of sports bars, no outside restaurants. There was the stadium and there was the parking lot. For some of these venues, the closest place to get food outside the stadium was a gas station convenience store.
So you had to eat in the stadium. And that was another story. Matching the institutional design of the all-purpose stadium was the institutional food service which at best served a quality of food that might match a high school cafeteria in a downscale neighborhood. Did people eat hot dogs at baseball games because they loved hot dogs? Or was it because the other options were a box of Crackerjacks or a cold, stale pretzel.
Built to be part of the city of Baltimore, not to run away from it, Oriole Park features an open outfield looking out onto the warehouse that made it look like Baltimore. Located downtown near the Inner Harbor with new light rail train service it brought people into the city. The iron and brick design was intended to be retro but it proved to be futuristic. Camden Yards set the standard for the next 20 years of stadium design with new stadiums in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York (Citi Field) and many others built with similar designs.
And when you walked onto the ground one of the first things you see is Boog’s Barbeque. No longer will baseball fans have to eat ARA Services’ boiled hot dogs. Boog’s is independently owned, has great food and it’s all Baltimore because it has Boog’s name on it. (Boog Powell is a former Oriole great and fan favorite.) There’s a restaurant in the warehouse and concessions run by other local eateries. In the same way that Camden Yards changed the thinking about how to build a ballpark the Orioles changed the way MLB teams went about feeding their fans.
The stadium is more than 20 years old now but it is still a thrill to go there and as the Orioles head into the post season I look forward to seeing the atmosphere at Oriole Park, even if only on TV.
While I became an Orioles fan because of their stadium, I became a Twins fan in spite of it. I’ve attended several Twins games in Minneapolis and most of them were at the Metrodome. I’ve always felt the idea of indoor baseball was a little strange but even among indoor stadiums, the Metrodome had to be the worst. It was truly like playing in a giant inflatable plastic bag.
But what made the fan experience in Minneapolis were the fans themselves. Where were the 30-something blowhards standing, beer in hand, and bellowing out crude wisecracks that only their drunken buddies thought were funny? Why wasn’t anyone heckling the other team? Why wasn’t anyone booing every mistake or shortcoming by the home side? No one seemed to be moving their family to other seats because of the obscene language of their neighbors.
I wasn’t in New York anymore. Nor Philly or Boston for that matter. It was the proverbial family atmosphere that was supposed to be part of the lure of baseball. I know friends have told me they’ve found the same thing in Cincinnati and in Kansas City and in other cities but it was in Minneapolis that I experienced it. The fans were friendly and polite, but also knew all the players, were completely attentive to the game and were unfailingly supportive of their Twins.
I remember one game in particular that I attended in the Metrodome as possibly the best baseball game I’ve ever seen. Johan Santana of the Twins and Curt Schilling of the Red Sox hooked up in the pitchers dual in which each went the full nine giving up only a single solo home run. The Sox ended up taking the lead in the 10th, but a Jason Kubel grand slam in the bottom of that inning won it for the Twins.
The Twins and the Orioles have had their moments in the sun but neither has won a World Series for a long time and neither routinely sports a roster with marquee names. But that isn’t what I’m interested in. It’s more the atmosphere at the ballpark, the facility itself and the fans, that would keep me coming to the games.
In next week’s post I’ll consider the influence of money on the game and how I became disillusioned with the major leagues.