A Whole New Ballgame
By Wayne Raffesberger
Should San Diegans support a proposal for the city’s most dramatic single redevelopment project ever? Building a downtown ballpark is the $411 million-dollar question facing voters on the November ballot. But can San Diego drop a new “old-time” baseball stadium into the downtown mix and have it work as well as others have elsewhere?
A way to research these questions is to visit one of these new-breed sports palaces. Experience the sights, smells and sounds. Talk to the locals. Try to understand whether it’s all worth it after the initial euphoria wears off.
Take Baltimore, for example. The city’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the first of the new generation of retro ballparks. Another reason to examine this particular stadium: Padres President Larry Lucchino was president of the Baltimore Orioles when Camden Yards was built.
The upper floors in several high-rise hotels near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor offer clear views of the ballpark. The restored brick Baltimore & Ohio railroad warehouse that frames the park is a magnet to the eye. It looks for all the world like a model in a Christmas garden.
Wondering if Baltimoreans still perceive the ballpark as a present left under the tree, we polled locals in nearby Fell’s Point, the Baltimore equivalent of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. But Fell’s Point is much older, dating back to the 1730s as a true working waterfront community. Rows of houses, once home to seamen, merchants and shipbuilders, are now commingled with bars, restaurants and shops. Tourists and locals alike hang out in Fell’s Point, in places like Bertha’s Mussels. The restaurant serves a heaping helping of mussels, so many they fall off the plate onto the floor. The bar is often packed with natives happy to talk about the Orioles and their field of dreams.
Bertha’s hostess Julie Packham says Camden Yards has impacted business. “Every time there’s a game you can tell —we’re crowded before and after. We have to hire extra staff.” Note: Fell’s Point is about 25 minutes from the stadium by water taxi; 10 minutes by car. A water-taxi ride from the Inner Harbor to Fell’s Point costs $3.
Asked if she thinks the ballpark was a good idea, veteran bartender Dee Wilkins echoes the hostess: “Oh, God, yes! It’s more business for us.” Wilkins originally feared the new stadium would hurt Inner Harbor attractions by adding too much congestion, but now she says the light-rail transit system and traffic planning around the park answered her fears.
Kai Hansen, a harbor tugboat captain and a Bertha’s regular, says the ballpark has added to the ongoing redevelopment of Baltimore’s other harborfront attractions. “It was kinda like the missing piece of the puzzle,” he says. He thinks that with so much area activity now, people are no longer afraid to come downtown at night. A Danish immigrant and world traveler, Hansen points out the historical perspective of the relationship between cities and sports facilities. “You go look at the ruins of any great civilization, any of them, and you will always see that a sports stadium was a big part of that city,” he says.
Not as sanguine is his drinking buddy, “Junkman” Sam Fuller, who complains that “50 percent of Baltimore’s families can’t afford to go to Camden.” (The Orioles didn’t raise prices when Camden Yards opened in 1992. Today, under new management, prices are considerably higher.)
After a couple of microbrews, another bar patron, teacher Tony Benicewicz, chimes in. Bitter about “overpaid” ballplayers making scads more money than valuable citizens —such as teachers—he says he’s “given up on all that B.S.” Pressed further, Benicewicz turns out to be an Orioles fan after all, knowledgeable about the team and its play. Of the ballpark, he adds: “I’m happy it’s here.”
Motorcycle mechanic Matt Welsh sounds an ominous warning. A savvy sports fan, he’s heard the rumored possibility of the Padres leaving San Diego if a new ballpark isn’t built. He recalls Baltimore’s agony when its pro football team, the Colts, was whisked out of town after being corralled by Indianapolis. “You just don’t know what it’s like to have a city’s guts ripped out until that happens,” he says.
Thus schooled in local angst, it’s time to see Baltimore’s ballpark.
nter through gates at the Eutaw Street gap between right field and the brick B&O Warehouse, and the ambience is overwhelming. Food stalls, souvenir stands and microbrew sellers line both sides of the street. Music blares, fragrant smoke from Boog Powell’s barbecue stand fills the air, and the crowd —family-oriented and friendly—ebbs and flows as if strolling through a circus midway.
To a baseball fan who’s only been to games at Qualcomm Stadium, it’s hard to describe how much the venue plays into the experience of the visit. Steve Freeman of the Orioles’ front office, leading a stadium tour, ends with this: “Think about something as you watch the game tonight. We’re a team not playing well, nearly in last place [as of July 9]. But tonight we’ll have more than 48,000 people here. On a weeknight. Look around and see how many are still here at the end of the game. We have created a special place where people simply want to be.”
Indeed, most of the crowd of 48,104 was still on hand to see an eighth-inning rally, sparked by Cal Ripken Jr.’s timely hitting, and hung around to witness a 3-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox.
Longtime San Diegans might find an odd feeling of familiarity at Camden Yards. It brings to mind the intimacy of Westgate Park—the minor-league Padres’ old Mission Valley home. But could San Diego really duplicate Baltimore’s success story? The first step will be up to the voters.
Wayne Raffesberger is an attorney and business consultant who frequently writes about downtown and urban planning issues.