How The Vision For A ‘Nice Little Ballpark For Baltimore’ Still Resonates 30 Years Later

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which hosted its first regular-season game on April 6, 1992. The process of building a new ballpark in Baltimore included a lot of moving parts and important people, and it ended up inspiring a new generation of baseball stadiums.

Memorial Stadium had been the home of the Orioles since 1954. It had housed the Baltimore Colts from 1953-1983 as well, but the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984. Shortly after that, Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams was approached by his law partner Larry Lucchino about a baseball-only facility in Baltimore.

Lucchino became the club president in 1988 and construction on the new park began in 1989. It was going to be tough to gain the support of the fans and make the switch from Memorial Stadium, but to Lucchino, building a new stadium was important for the city. There was a simple goal in mind.

“We just wanted to build a nice little ballpark for Baltimore,” Lucchino said on Glenn Clark Radio April 7.

Lucchino explained that the idea of the new stadium was one that came to him in the ’80s after the Colts moved because he thought it would be great to have a baseball-only facility.

The process of building Camden Yards involved city and state officials as well as design firms and important architects. The most influential architect was Janet Marie Smith, who was hired directly by Lucchino and directed the design of the ballpark

“When we hired Janet, she gave life to so many concepts,” Lucchino said. “The steel frame buildings, the little design touches in places, the 1890s Oriole logo at the end of the row. She gave life to the concept.”

Smith is a hugely influential architect in the baseball world, and her ideas are now seen all over baseball. Camden Yards is described as being a “retro” ballpark, as it has hints of various qualities of older stadiums such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field despite being a more modern venue.

When building the new stadium, Smith had explained that it was very important to create a new ballpark that fans could enjoy while having a great experience at a game. Another important part of building a new stadium was that it had to be good enough to replace Memorial Stadium.

“We were hoping and praying that it would be a valid successor to Memorial Stadium because Memorial Stadium had lots of deficiencies obviously, or we wouldn’t have moved out, but people loved it,” Smith said on Glenn Clark Radio April 11. “Fans had fantastic memories of both the Orioles and the Colts and their championship years at Memorial Stadium. Our goal was to make certain that we didn’t have 48,000 fans walk in on April 6th, 1992, and say, ‘Golly, we miss the old place.'”

1992 Orioles Opening Day, 1st game at Camden Yards
1992 Orioles Opening Day (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

On Opening Day in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Cleveland Indians in their new home. While the game took place on April 6, the Opening Day starter was actually decided before spring training even started.

In December 1991, Orioles manager Johnny Oates invited veteran free-agent pitcher Rick Sutcliffe to Baltimore. Oates brought Sutcliffe out to the mound in the middle of a still-unfinished Camden Yards and allowed Sutcliffe to envision Opening Day.

“He goes, ‘Hey, I want you to look around because you’re going to throw the first pitch ever in this ballpark,'” Sutcliffe said on Glenn Clark Radio April 7. “I really had no intention of signing with Baltimore. I had a lot of options. I didn’t know what I was going to do. He goes, ‘Look at me, it will be a day you never forget.’ And you know what, 30 years later, he could not have been more right.”

On that Opening Day, Sutcliffe delivered an unforgettable pitching performance. Sutcliffe threw a complete game shutout, allowing just five hits and racking up six strikeouts in front of a sellout crowd at the new ballpark.

It was a special stadium compared to all the other ones he had pitched in during his 18-year career, Sutcliffe remembered. He mentioned all the seats being angled toward the pitcher and feeling like the stadium was built to create the best fan experience possible.

While the game was certainly a success for Sutcliffe, the Orioles and the fans, it was also an incredible moment for everyone who worked on building the stadium. Opening Day was a huge sigh of relief for Smith, in particular.

“[I] felt the combination of exhilaration and relief,” Smith said. “… We had all worked so hard to achieve Governor William Donald Schaefer’s vision of this urban ballpark and Orioles president Larry Lucchino’s goal of this old-fashioned venue that had fans close to the action and an asymmetrical playing field, just everything that Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Baltimore had put into saving the warehouse and making this part of the urban renaissance of downtown.”

To this day, Camden Yards is still among the best big league stadiums and provides a great fan experience. However, there were changes made to the dimensions of the ballpark ahead of the park’s 30th season. The left field power alley is now close to 400 feet and the height of the wall has increased to 13 feet.

Lucchino understands why the club made the move, given that teams are so reliant on the home run ball in this era, but he was a bit bothered by the height of the wall changing. Regardless, Lucchino is not surprised that Camden Yards has remained as one of the best parks in the big leagues.

“I think it coincides with the view that people have in their minds of what a ballpark should be,” Lucchino said. “It’s got some personality, some eccentricity, some asymmetry. It’s not just another concrete donut, the way that had been in ballparks and stadiums. … And Baltimore represents baseball, so it’s in a great place.”

For more from Lucchino, listen to the full interview here:

For more from Smith, listen to the full interview here:

For more from Sutcliffe, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles