Orioles' home ushered in new era of ballparks 25 years ago
By Richard Justice
Rick Sutcliffe remembers that Oriole Park at Camden Yards had an old soul, a true baseball soul, months before it was even open. Twenty-five years later, that's the irresistible magic of the place.
"You could feel the history," Sutcliffe said. "The thing I'll always remember is how beautiful it was then and how it remains one of the prettiest parks in the game today.
"It looks exactly like it did 25 years ago. And it's not just the beauty. It was built with the fan in mind. Seats are close to the field. The food is great. It was just different than we'd had in baseball."
Sutcliffe, now an ESPN analyst, spent 18 seasons in the Majors, including the 1992 and '93 seasons with Baltimore. He saw Camden Yards for the first time six months before it opened on April 6, 1992.
Sutcliffe's friend and mentor, the late Johnny Oates, was managing the Orioles at the time and looking for a veteran presence for his starting rotation. He phoned Sutcliffe and asked him to come to Baltimore to hear a sales pitch.
At the time, Sutcliffe had no interest in Baltimore. But he'd never forgotten how Oates, the Cubs' bullpen catcher, had helped prepared him for his starts after being traded to the team during the 1984 season.
"Honestly, I don't know anyone else I would have done it for," Sutcliffe said. "It's just that Johnny was special in my life and had done so much for me. I owed it to him to listen."
Part of that sales pitch was escorting Sutcliffe to the new ballpark's mound and showing the place off. Oates pointed out various bells and whistles, but what he really wanted Sutcliffe to experience was the intimacy of the place.
"You're going to throw the first pitch ever thrown here," Oates told him.
Sutcliffe, smitten, turned to his agent, Barry Axelrod, and said, "This is where I want to be."
Sutcliffe would indeed throw the first official pitch at Camden Yards, and his five-hit shutout led the O's to a 2-0 victory over Charles Nagy and the Indians.
Author George Will has called the opening of Camden Yards one of the five most important moments in baseball history. Far from the concrete donuts in which games had been played for three decades, Camden Yards was a real ballpark, built into a city scape with concrete and steel and asymmetrical lines.
Larry Lucchino, then the Orioles' president, wanted a classic ballpark with modern amenities. He hired a brilliant architectural consultant, Janet Marie Smith. Her scrapbook from that project is rightfully in the Hall of Fame.
They knew they'd succeeded that first day when O's shortstop Cal Ripken said, "It feels like baseball has been played here before."
Yet, they wanted more than that.
"What are the characteristics that make Fenway and Wrigley distinctive?" Smith asked. "What resonated about Ebbets Field and Forbes Field long after they were gone?
"There was a business aspect, too. The Cubs and Red Sox had great attendance even when their teams weren't playing well, because the parks were an attraction.
"But the thing those parks had was sustainability. How do you create that? We just did not know if that would be the case with Camden Yards. But 25 years later, it looks as beautiful as ever and is seen in a different way."
And with Camden Yards, a new era was born. Baseball teams wanted parks, real parks, in urban settings. From Cleveland and Denver to San Francisco and Milwaukee, the model was Wrigley Field and Fenway Park -- and Camden Yards.
"When I return now, I feel two emotions: nostalgia and pride," Lucchino said. "It's a reminder of the importance of collaboration. We worked with everybody. We got so many ideas for different people."
Smith added: "I'm flattered and honored, but the real victory is that other cities embraced it. Cleveland and San Diego and San Francisco and Denver believed a ballpark could make a meaningful contribution to the refinement of their inner city."
For Sutcliffe, the memory is a mix of nostalgia and survivalism. Several Orioles had come down with food poisoning after eating a clubhouse spread at RFK Stadium in Washington that weekend.
"Eight of us were really sick," Sutcliffe said. "I still don't know how Cal Ripken Sr. was able to coach third. But I also think the food poisoning, in a weird way, took some pressure off being part of the moment. We were just trying to get through the day."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.