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How much can Oriole Park at Camden Yards change without losing its classic feel?

The Orioles renovation wish list in the new lease would leave the stadium looking different inside and outside.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Going back to the day that Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened its doors to the public more than 30 years ago, a common sentiment about it has been that the stadium evoked a feeling of having always been there. The classic-feeling stadium with modern amenities is a style that Camden Yards sparked, with the next wave of baseball stadiums often trying to imitate it. In recent years, the team has grandiosely taken to referring to their home as The Ballpark That Forever Changed Baseball™. They do the trademark sign in their press releases and everything.

This week’s final, for-real approval of a new lease agreement that will keep the Orioles at Camden Yards for at least another 15 years and potentially as many as 50 years is a pleasant outcome. Along with the approval of that lease comes the possibility of the Orioles accessing $600 million that was previously authorized by the state legislature upon approval of a new long-term lease for renovations to the stadium.

The text of the lease is available to the public. You can view it for yourself here. Included in it (Exhibit 4, page 115 of the PDF) is the Initial Capital Works List from the team that effectively marks its current wish list for how to start using that money. Those fans who have noticed the deficiencies in the audio/video capabilities at the stadium in recent years will be happy to know that “renovation of A/V systems to include new video boards, sound systems, televisions, etc.” is marked with an asterisk denoting agreement by both the team and Maryland Stadium Authority that it is a priority project.

A number of the items on the wish list would, if brought to fruition, have an impact on the way the seating bowl of the stadium looks and functions. All of these are items or portions of items on the Initial Capital Works List:

  • Batting tunnel relocation (home and visiting), field level restaurant to include seating/suites
  • Improved sightlines for guests with disabilities
  • Relocation of lower press box, home plate restaurant and club with new seating
  • Relocation of main concourse restrooms to allow for creation of bar and social spaces with field views
  • Flag court expansion to include removal of select seats below main scoreboard to create a center field bar/hospitality area
  • Removal of left field upper deck seats to create social spaces, relocated and expanded kids zone, various seating options, bar/outdoor restaurant
  • Removal of select upper deck seats behind home plate to create bar overlooking field

It’s like something of a baseball stadium equivalent to the Ship of Theseus philosophical thought experiment. Greek myth holds that Theseus, the founding king of Athens, slew a minotaur and then rescued the children of Athens before escaping on a ship. Each year, ancient Athenians sailed Theseus’s ship in a pilgrimage to this adventure.

In time the philosophers began to wonder: If each individual part of the ship was removed and replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship? If not, when did it cease being the same ship?

The stadium has already changed from what it was in 1992. Video boards have been updated from the old early digital ones of your childhood memory. The construction of the adjacent Hilton as an attached expansion to the convention center altered the left field sky line. Much more recently, the left field dimensions were significantly changed, removing a lot of what were to me some of the best value seats in the stadium.

Were any one of these enough to make that classic feeling go away? For me, they certainly aren’t, either individually or collectively. Camden Yards has made some attempts to stay more modern and it has done this while mostly still having that “it.”

That said, the above list has certainly got me wondering how much of that can be done and still preserve that classic feeling. One item that particularly concerns me is the one listed first, where field level restaurant with seating/suites is included alongside relocation of the batting tunnels.

It’s not hard to imagine this resulting in a huge change to what it looks like behind home plate for everyone watching on TV as each pitch is thrown. There are stadiums that have field level restaurants/suites as all you can see in the background of that view and it’s so hideous compared to the brick fence with seats behind it.

That item in combination with the relocation of the press box in order to create a restaurant with club seating is also concerning. For me, stadium design doesn’t get much worse than the current iteration of Yankee Stadium, in which its prime seats behind home plate and the dugouts are walled off by what I’ve always thought of as a concrete moat, with access that is limited and tickets checked in the same way the Camden Yards club level currently is.

It’s offensive on a basic aesthetic level, and to me, also on a spiritual level. In my 20s, when the Orioles weren’t very good and games were lightly attended, it was not unusual to take advantage of what I liked to call the self-upgrade seating plan in later innings.

The game of “Where can we sit where the usher won’t care?” is still played. Forget about going down to the empties right behind home plate, in view of the camera. But can you pull off row 12 behind the dugout? This low-key democratization is part of the stadium’s charm. If a concrete moat comes in, that’s dead.

Relocation of main concourse restrooms for bar and social spaces is a pretty big one too. Though the item isn’t describing it that way, this is essentially what would create something of an open concourse feeling for OPACY.

Having visited some other stadiums in recent years, it’s the lack of an open concourse that is the one modern innovation that’s passed Camden Yards by. (Okay, one of two: Not having a gigantic video board is the other.) You might feel differently. I have encountered a number of people with strong feelings about the magic of walking through the tunnel from the concourse to the seating bowl and only then do you get the view of the field.

Whether you think it’s good or bad, the thing that makes this such a huge change is that there are a lot of seats on top of those restrooms on the lower level, so relocating the restrooms to create field views necessarily involves removing a lot of the seats that are under the overhang.

The upper deck left field area being converted into something entirely different stands out as well. Anyone who has gone to a game in the last several seasons has surely noticed that whole area is closed off for just about any game other than Opening Day. They don’t sell the seats and they don’t let anybody wander out to sit there. The space can be better utilized. The days where you need those seats because every game is a sellout for a whole decade are more than 20 years gone. Whatever new thing is done will sure look different.

I’m not filled with confidence that any John Angelos-involved project is going to prioritize the preservation of the classic feel. He doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt about anything after his 2023 public statements, but even beyond all of his tussles with the media after he repeatedly lied to their faces, we’ve already seen that he doesn’t care about keeping the little touches that fans have come to appreciate over the years.

Prior to the 2023 season, the iconic “THE SUN” sign that rested above the scoreboard was removed. Up until this year, that little bit of analog charm was always there, with the “H” or “E” flashing upon an official scorer’s ruling after any questionable play. The days of most or even many people keeping score at games are long gone, but even so, it was fun to have that there.

The paper had not paid for the sign for many years, so in some sense it was giving away free advertising, and it seems this is what bothered John the most. Without that sign there, there was just a conspicuous empty space, with another function of the sign, it turns out, having been to keep your eye from noticing the girders that supported the championship flags and Oriole weather vanes on top of the scoreboard. In removing all The Sun signage, John also caused the analog clock up there to become less appealing to look at and harder to actually read at night.

It’s not like those things were changed for some new company that was paying money to be there. No one paid. Nothing was there. The stadium was just suddenly uglier and less connected to its history in a small but noticeable way, for no immediate reason. It doesn’t fill me with confidence to have any of this new stuff potentially happening under his direction.

As these renovations and other changes play out over the next 5-10 years and beyond, fans across Birdland will have to figure out our own answer to the Ship of Theseus question. How much can Oriole Park at Camden Yards change while still feeling like the Oriole Park at Camden Yards that exists in our fond memories?

It might not even continue to be officially called Oriole Park at Camden Yards, if its naming rights are sold like the team has been reportedly exploring since at least earlier this year. I’m not a “Camden Yards must never change in any way” person. I don’t even think the Hilton’s addition to the skyline was that bad. I’m feeling wary about this list of possible renovations though, because it does seem like these could really alter the character of the stadium and have its claim to “classic” really just resting on the fact that the B&O Warehouse is there with its brick facade there to evoke a past era. It would be a shame if that’s all that remains.