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The One Baltimore Didn't Need : BALLPARK: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream, By Peter Richmond (Simon & Schuster: $23; 270 pp.)

June 20, 1993|John Schulian | John Schulian, a television writer and producer, is a former syndicated sports columnist

Even when I love baseball no more, a day that grows nearer with every story I read about Barry Bonds's churlishness and the owners' poor-box robbing greed, I will still cherish the relics in which I have seen the game played. There are the usual suspects, of course--Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago, Tiger Stadium in Detroit. And then there was Connie Mack Stadium, which sat in the hard heart of Philadelphia's vilest ghetto.

For all I know, Connie Mack was a creaking ruin that deserved to be destroyed. But the memory I carried away from my lone visit there, just a couple of weeks before the wrecking crew arrived in 1970, was of a seat in a pressbox that jutted toward the playing field. Not over it, mind you, but out far enough so that if I had spilled my soda, it would have gone down the third-base coach's neck. Talk about cozy.

Unfortunately, coziness didn't compute with the modernists who designed baseball's new playgrounds in the '60s and '70s. Their soulless creations were typified by concrete, artificial turf and a sameness that made it virtually impossible to tell if you were in Veterans Stadium in Philly, Riverfront in Cincinnati or Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Indeed, the Vet stands apart in my mind only because of a pre-game ceremony I witnessed there one blistering July afternoon. As the heat rose in waves off the polyurethene grass, the Boy Scouts parading on it started melting before my eyes. Frightened parents screamed, worried scoutmasters and team officials carried the unconscious kids into the shade--and I chalked it all up to progress.

No wonder the historically savvy Baltimore Orioles headed in another direction aesthetically when they built the tribute to yesteryear that Peter Richmond masterfully dissects in "Ballpark." Its official name is Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but the place itself appears to be as graceful as its moniker is ungainly--a symphony, Richmond writes, of "steel and brick and asymmetry." That's what ballparks were made of in the sweet used-to-be, and the Orioles underscored the nostalgia by preserving an eight-story railroad warehouse that was erected in 1905 on the far side of the right-field pavilion. So it is that baseball's newest showplace is in some ways also its oldest.

Curiosity lured me to Camden Yards a month after it opened for business last year. I instantly succumbed to everything about it, from the evocative green of the seats and railings to the smell of the barbecue peddled in front of the warehouse by Boog Powell, a former Oriole slugger whose current dimensions suggest that nobody enjoys his cuisine more than he does. But my infatuation blinded me to a fact that Richmond sees clearly: This is a ballpark Baltimore didn't need.

And that is precisely the irreverence I should have expected from a stylish, insightful sportswriter whose work has graced GQ, the Miami Herald and the short-lived National. Richmond's refusal to genuflect before Camden Yards grows out of a fondness that both of us shared for Memorial Stadium, the dowager the Orioles left behind. It was the big leagues' next-to-last neighborhood park, tucked among the city's rowhouses and graced by the trees that grew behind the scoreboard. "If you're a baseball fan of any character, it (was) a great stadium," says Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore's future Hall of Fame shortstop.

But neither character nor a ballplayer's opinion counted for much after two unsettling events. In 1979 Edward Bennett Williams, a Washington lawyer who was a confidante of the powerful and a defender of uppercrust scoundrels, bought the Orioles and scared Baltimore with the possibility that he might move the team 45 minutes south to the capital. Five years later, the Baltimore Colts, the football team that once made the city forget about the Orioles, fled in the dead of night for Indianapolis , of all places. Suddenly, Baltimore's inferiority complex, which is simmering in even the best of times, was at full boil.

The only way to get it back under control, as far as Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer was concerned, was to build the Orioles a ballpark that would lock them into the city. No surprise there. Schaefer was a native son who, in his 12 years as Baltimore's mayor, had masterminded its transformation from Dresdenesque disaster area to urban showplace. As such, he was just the tag-team partner Williams was looking for, a true believer who would nod vigorously when the Orioles' owner told the state legislature, "I didn't come here to ask for a subsidy. . . I can make this thing go in the private sector if I get the tools."

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