One of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore has been the Orioles’ plan to change the left-field dimensions at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to make it tougher for hitters, just as the revered stadium is turning 30 years old.
Team executives have been exploring the idea of enlarging the field since at least last summer, but quietly and without any public input. Most Orioles fans learned about the change when renderings were released earlier in January.
Last week, with construction already underway that will eliminate about 1,000 seats and create a cut-out in left field, the project was approved unanimously by the Maryland Stadium Authority and, in a 2 to 1 vote, by Maryland’s Board of Public Works. It will cost up to $3.5 million, with the Orioles paying upfront then getting reimbursed through lower stadium lease payments. Completion is expected in time for Opening Day, March 31.
The primary objective, the Orioles say, is to cut down on home runs at what has come to be known as a sluggers’ park – by making it harder for batters to send hits over the left-field wall.
The change is also aimed at attracting quality pitchers. Orioles’ management reasons that if Oriole Park is seen as less of a haven for homers, they’ll have a better chance of signing pitchers who may have been put off by the park’s home-run friendly status.
During a news conference earlier this month, Orioles Executive Vice President and General Manager Mike Elias and Assistant General Manager for Analytics Sig Mejdal said the team wants to modify Oriole Park to “play” more evenly for pitchers and hitters. They said the planning involved extensive research by the team’s Baseball Operations and Analytics departments.
At 30 years old, Oriole Park is “an absolute masterpiece,” Elias said. “Not just one of the best parks today but one of the best parks in the history of Major League Baseball. But you’ve got to renovate and reinvest.”
Fan reaction to the Orioles’ plan has been all over the field, with some welcoming the change but others disappointed.
“All I can say is that it’s about time,” George Hammerbacher wrote in a letter to The Sun. “I truly believe that the O’s would never be champions until they abandoned that cutesy bandbox look that did nothing but decimate their pitching staffs and burn out their bullpens for the last 30 years. I read that they were using metrics to track where Orioles’ home runs (and their opponents’) went and now they are finally tailoring their ballpark accordingly.”
Two former Orioles pitchers, Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer and Ross Grimsley, told sports personality Stan “The Fan” Charles in a recent PressBox interview that they support the project.
“This is something I thought should have been done a long time ago,” Grimsley said. “I think it’s really going to help the pitchers. They’ll be more aggressive, and it may entice some free agents to come” to Baltimore.
Palmer, an Orioles broadcaster, called the change “generally….a good thing,” but said he was surprised by the new dimensions. “Twelve feet is a tall wall,” he said. “I thought maybe they’d go nine, so if you had any kind of vertical leap you could still go up and take balls over the fence.”
Others are less enthusiastic about the new dimensions, with a new wall that’s nearly twice as high, and an indentation carved into the seats to create a fielder’s space that will be uneven with the rest of the outfield.
The change “is a mistake,” local public relations specialist Mel Tansill warned in a letter to the Sun. “The possibility of the left fielder leaping above the wall and robbing a home run was a unique, exciting part of the home game. This will be missed.”
Some think the field won’t be as attractive or graceful, with the left-field wall pushed back and the bullpen sticking out.
“I guess from a baseball point of view it makes sense,” said local architectural historian and Orioles fan Fred Shoken. “Hitting a home run to left field is too easy and may discourage the Orioles from signing good pitchers. From an aesthetic point of view, I’d like to see better illustrations of what it is going to look like. It will make the outfield look irregular which is not necessarily bad – but it will take some getting used to for both the fans and the players.”
The irregular dimensions have been compared to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which has a similar design.
Some are dubious that altering the field is the right way to help the Orioles win more games.
I guess the only way to correct the horrible pitching staff and to give them confidence is to move the fence back? Why don’t you invest in good pitching cause that’s how you win championships!
— Chris Loeffler (@cloeff1969) January 14, 2022
Some history-conscious fans note that the height of the left-field wall was a deliberate nod to the seven-foot-high outfield wall at Memorial Stadium, which Camden Yards replaced. Bob Aylward, the Orioles vice president at the time, had to lobby Major League Baseball to get approval when most parks had eight-foot walls.
At least one season ticket holder who is losing her seats isn’t happy about the change.
I’m a season ticket holder in 86, my seats are gone. I specifically chose my seats because of the unique opportunity to watch the O’s bullpen and have so many great moments because of my seats. This change, after my deposit was made, is highly upsetting. There was 0 communication
— Brittany (@beatlefnatic) January 14, 2022
Larry Lucchino, the team’s president when Oriole Park was designed and built, did not respond to a request for comment. Janet Marie Smith, the architect and urban planner who worked closely with Lucchino and has been credited with making many of the recommendations that shaped the final design, declined to comment for this article.
Board of Public Works weighs in
The changes were debated last week by the state’s top elected officials. During last Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck Davis were asked to approve an amendment to the Orioles’ lease authorizing the changes and reimbursing the Orioles up to $3.5 million by giving them credit on the rent they pay the state.
The Orioles’ current lease for Oriole Park runs through the 2023 season, and they’re in talks with the state to renegotiate their lease. The rent credit agreement calls for the Orioles to receive $700,000 per year for the next two years and, if they extend their lease past 2023, another $700,000 a year for the three years after that.
Davis, who was sworn in last month to replace Nancy Kopp, said he didn’t see why the state should give the Orioles a break in rent for changing the outfield.
“Why should we support this?” he asked. “From my reading, there isn’t any type of structural issue or any decay or decline. This is a cosmetic request. I’m a fan of the Orioles, have been since I was a kid. I follow them closely. But essentially what this is is too many home runs are being hit out there so they’re going to just tear down the wall, move it back some and raise the fence. I understand why the organization would want to do that, but we’re being asked to support up to $3.5 million strictly for cosmetic changes…It seems like we can spend up to $3.5 million more productively than simply raising the left-field wall.”
A classic ballpark
Oriole Park was hailed as a groundbreaking departure from generic, symmetrical suburban stadiums built mid-century for both baseball and football. With its brick exterior walls and asymmetrical footprint dictated by the surrounding street grid and the long B&O Warehouse, Oriole Park kicked off a back-to-the-city trend of “retro” ballparks in urban centers.
Fans liked that Oriole Park was both new-fangled and old-fashioned, triggering memories of traditional ballparks while incorporating contemporary fan amenities. They appreciated the attention to detail, from the ornithologically-correct Oriole weather vanes on the scoreboard to the 1890s Baltimore Baseball Club logos at the end of each row of seats. It was called “the ballpark that forever changed baseball.”
“This is a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture fifty years of wretched stadium design, and of restoring the joyous possibility that a ballpark might actually enhance the experience of watching the game of baseball,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger at the time of the stadium’s opening.
Expanding the field
Since Oriole Park opened, the left-field wall has been 7 feet, 4 inches high, with a distance of 333 feet from home plate to the left-field foul pole and 364 feet to left-center. The distance to the foul pole will remain unchanged in the new configuration. The left-field wall will be pushed back almost 27 feet and raised in height from a little over seven feet to 13 feet.
The current construction is the first change to the field since 2001 when the team moved home plate 7 feet back from the outfield, a move that was reversed the following year.
When construction is complete, the distance to true left field will be 384 feet and the distance to left-center will be 400 feet. The distance to the visiting bullpen will remain unchanged at 380 feet. There will be a new corner condition where the pushed-back wall meets the bullpens, which won’t be relocated. Once the removed rows of seats become part of the outfield, the lower bullpen will appear to jut out into the field in a way that it hasn’t in the past.
A step toward neutrality
It’s not surprising that the Orioles are looking for improvements anywhere they can find them. Since 2010, only one team – the Miami Marlins – has a worse record than the Orioles.
According to the Orioles, pitchers have given up 5,911 home runs since Oriole Park opened in 1992, the most of any ballpark over that period.
In 2021, the Orioles pitchers had a league-worst 5.84 ERA and gave up 258 home runs, the most in Major League Baseball. They had a 5.99 ERA at Oriole Park, also the worst in Major League Baseball, and they gave up 155 of those 258 home runs.
Starting this year, some fly balls that were home runs in past seasons will be caught or remain in play.
In their press briefing, Elias and Mejdal said they wanted to take a “significant step toward neutrality” in terms of pitchers and hitters while addressing a situation they felt posed a challenge to the home team.
“It is being done with the goal in mind of bringing the playing conditions in our stadium more towards the league norm,” Elias said. “This has been, since its inception in 1992, an extreme park for home runs…I think for any team, for any park to be toward the very, very extreme in either direction, it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s something that has posed a challenge for this franchise and we think that this will improve the playing conditions and the style of play in this part of the park and be beneficial towards us and the type of competition that occurs here going forward.”
Elias said he and Mejdal were “tasked with taking a fresh look” at all aspects of the organization and determined early on that addressing the ballpark’s propensity for yielding home runs should be a priority. He said the team concluded that moving the left-field wall was “the most sensible and most efficient way of neutralizing the park effects here with regard to home runs per fly ball,” and it could be done in one off-season.
Lowering the park’s 45,971-seat capacity by 1,000 seats shouldn’t be a major concern; average attendance in 2021 was 10,169, fifth worst in baseball.
“We felt it was something we could modify with a relatively manageable adjustment like this,” he said. “That made it an easy decision.”
Elias didn’t deny that part of the goal was to help the club in pursuing free-agent pitchers who may have avoided Baltimore in the past because of Oriole Park’s reputation as a hitter’s park.
“It’s definitely a significant factor in our move to do this,” he said. “We still expect that this will remain somewhat of a hitter’s park and we like that about Camden Yards. But the conditions here have been very extreme, towards the very most extreme in the league. It’s not a secret. It’s been the case for decades. And part of having a winning program is the ability to recruit free-agent pitchers and that has been a historical challenge for this franchise. There’s just no way around that. So I do think it’s going to help going forward.”
“This is an extreme home run park — if not the most, the second-most,” Mejdal said at the press briefing. “And for right-handed batters, it seems clear this is the most extreme home run park. As Mike said, that doesn’t do the team any favors.”